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A small world for big men

You knew it was different when the Tampa Bay Storm attempted a field goal from its own 8-yard line. Missed, wide left.

They play Arena Football on a field 50 yards long, which seems perfectly proportioned for an 8-on-8 game among midgets.

But no, the men of the mini-grid are of traditional wide-butt girth _ hulks jammed onto a downsized stage, like uniformed Orlando and Tampa Bay bumpers in a human pinball game.

Did I say uniforms?

Your first look at Storm uniforms should be accompanied by dark glasses and a quadruple Alka Seltzer. They are the color of a bad dream _ patches of Navy blue surrounded by a tiger-stripe design obviously stolen from Cher's closet of kaleidoscopic underwear.

When you're the mini-kid on the sports block, you try almost anything. Ugly uniforms. Pretty cheerleaders. Strange rules. Sideboards where sidelines are supposed to be. Creative giveaways. Anything to entice paying rumps into arena seats.

Saturday night, it mini-worked.

At the advertised kickoff hour, walkup patrons at the Florida Suncoast Dome were lined 50 deep at ticket windows. When everybody finally got in and was counted, the number was an impressive 10,354.

They were excited for a while but began leaving early. Same reason as at Tampa Stadium: losing. Orlando's Predators quelled the Storm 51-38. Like its National Football League counterpart, Tampa Bay's team of Bucs, the Storm bears the weight of a losing record.

Okay, so it's only 0-1.

Arenaball's shakedown cruise was not without faux pas. But when a microphone was dead during the national anthem, Storm management got lucky. It would evolve into something nice.

Angelique Jessie, wearing her Air Force uniform, sang the Star-Spangled Banner. A strong, warm, unamplified voice began to enchant the crowd, and Storm customers joined in, softly singing along.

After her "home of the brave" finish, Jessie got a standing ovation. The moment worked, even when the Dome's microphone didn't, when the USAF singer became nervous and failed to throw a switch.

Speaking of working, I don't know whether the Tampa Bay Storm will. Franchise operators are doing some good things: planning promotions in the flashy fashion of the old USFL Tampa Bay Bandits, keeping ticket prices moderate, and trying to make it a fun experience.

Arenaball is not the civic ego trip, not the national attention-getter of Major League Baseball or the National Football League, but on a hot, humid first Saturday in June, the 10,354 screamed a lot, booed a little, perspired hardly at all, and generally had the sound of a fun bunch.

Even if their team lost.

Slowly, the Storm audience picked up Arenaball differences. With 12 minutes left in the game and Orlando up 45-30, a grandstand chorus chanted: "We want Chip!" In this league, as all others, quarterbacks take the heat. Jay Gruden was down by 15, so fans suggested former Florida State passing whiz Chip Ferguson _ even if he did have a bum knee.

By then, people were getting on referees and anticipating "rebounds" off the end-zone nets. By Monday, everybody will be an expert, and offering advice to Storm coach Fran Curci.

Me? I'm waiting for a dropkick. No kidding. In Arenaball, a point-after-touchdown dropkick is good for two points, instead of the traditional one. Dropkicked field goals are worth four instead of three.

"Dropkicks?" you ask. Kids less than 50 years old probably have no idea what I'm talking about. Dropkicks were football artistry in Red Grange's time, and Arenaball has licensed a comeback. But it's such a long-lost art. Nobody from the Storm knows how to dropkick. Maybe Curci should audition somebody from, say, the Kids and Kubs.

Arena football is different, and purists may frown. But it's not an inside joke. Saturday night, big guys were blocking, tackling, passing, running and kicking. Sunday morning, they'll be bruised. Even if what they did was a non-Disney version of a Small World.

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