The inspiring story of Kurt Warner, who rose from supermarket stock boy to Super Bowl Champion and MVP over the course of five years, is one of the great legacies of the original Arena Football League (1987-2008). Warner, undrafted out of college and later released in training camp by the Green Bay Packers in 1994, famously signed on with the Arena League’s Iowa Barnstormers in 1995. He led the Barnstormers to the Arena Bowl title games in 1996 and 1997, before finally earning his shot at the NFL with the St. Louis Rams. By 1999, he was the NFL’s MVP and quarterback of a Super Bowl championship team in his first season as a starter. Warner’s fame briefly made the Iowa Barnstormers an object of cult fascination, if not quite a household brand name.
So what became of the Barnstormers?
The Barnstormers started out as an Arena Football expansion franchise in the spring of 1995. Jim Foster, founder of the Arena Football League in 1987, owned the club, which played in the 11,400-seat Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, dubbed “The Barn”. Head Coach John Gregory was a long-time Canadian Football League coach. Gregory brought in CFL vet Willis Jacox to play the role of Iowa’s Offensive Specialist – most AFL players played “Ironman” football in this era, meaning they played both offense and defense. The offensive specialist was akin to the DH in baseball, playing offense only and returning kicks. Gregory also plucked Warner out of the Hy-Vee grocery store aisle prior to the Barnstormers’ first season in 1995.
The team was competitive in 1995, advancing as far as the playoff semi-finals. Gregory earned AFL Coach-of-the-Year honors (he would repeat in 1996) and the team drew terrific cowbell-clanging crowds to The Barn. In a 2012 celebration of Arena Football’s 25th Anniversary, the league ranked the 1990′s atmosphere at The Barn as the 2nd best in the sport’s history.
The Barnstormers glory years came in 1996 and 1997, when Warner and Jacox led the Barnstormers to back-to-back Arena Bowls. In 1996, the Barnstomers hosted Arena Bowl X before a national cable TV audience but lost to the Tampa Bay Storm 42-38. The following year, the Barnstormers fell to the Arizona Rattlers 55-33 in Arena Bowl XI in Phoenix, in what would prove to be Warner’s last AFL game.
Warner headed the Rams and Jacox retired after the 1997 season. But Gregory and the Barnstormers uncovered more great players in WR-DB Carlos James, offensive specialist Mike Horacek and, especially, quarterback Aaron Garcia. Garcia would go on the set every major career passing record in Arena Football over the course of the next decade plus.
On November 1st, 2000, after the conclusion of the Barnstormers’ sixth season in Des Moines and nine months after Warner’s historic Super Bowl performance, Jim Foster sold the team to New York Islanders owners Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar. The franchise relocated to Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum as the New York Dragons for the 2001 Arena Football League season.
The move to New York was in keeping with Arena Football’s growing ambition to become a “5th Major League”, as the league began favoring major markets over cities like Des Moines and Grand Rapids, Michigan. In the course of a decade, Arena Football franchise valuations ballooned from $125,000 in 1990 to $7 million – the price paid by Wang & Kumar for the Barnstormers, and for another AFL franchise, the New England Sea Wolves, which also changed hands in the autumn of 2000.
Several top Barnstormers made the move from Iowa to New York, including Head Coach John Gregory and All-AFL quarterback Aaron Garcia. In New York, the franchise also produced another future NFL star, as it had with Kurt Warner in Iowa. In 2002, the Dragons signed WR-DB Mike Furrey, a refugee of World Wrestling Entertainment chief Vince McMahon’s defunct XFL. Furrey became the favorite target of Garcia in 2002 and 2003. Furrey left the Dragons partway through the 2003 season – he was leading the AFL in receptions at the time – to sign with the St. Louis Rams. Furrey went on to play both wide receiver and defensive back in the NFL, leading the NFC in receptions in 1996 with 98 catches for 1,086 years as a member of the Detroit Lions. In a bizarre coincidence, Furrey played college football at Northern Iowa University, just like Warner.
Back in Des Moines, a new Iowa Barnstormers expansion team was issued to play in AF2, a small market minor league spinoff of the AFL. The new minor league Barnstormers were not able to re-capture the interest of area fans and this version of the Barnstormers folded after a single season in 2001.
The Dragons were never one of Arena Football’s top draws and the Nassau Coliseum was typically regarded as one of the league’s worst venues, much as it was in the National Hockey League. Announced attendance averages peaked in 2005 at 11,922 per game. By 2008, announced attendance dipped to 9,072, the second lowest figure in the 17-team league.
In July 2008, Wang sold the Dragons to Steve and Shanna Silva for an estimated $12 million. This would prove to be the last time a franchise changed hands in the original Arena Football League. By this time, the league was struggling under $14 million in accumulated debt. A postseason attempt to sell a $100 million controlling stake in the league to leveraged buyout firm Platinum Equity and re-organize the league as a single-entity structure fell through in late 2008. The league suspended the 2009 season in December 2008 and ultimately filed for bankruptcy in August 2009 after owners failed to come together on a way forward.
The Silvas were left with nothing for their unfortunately timed investment. Another Arena Football investor who bought into the league late at the peak of the bubble – Dr. Robert Nucci who bought the Tampa Bay Storm for approximately $18 million in 2007 – later filed a lawsuit claiming that the late-era Arena Football League was little more than a debt-laden ponzi scheme that relied on constantly rising expansion fees to finance its existence. The Silvas, for their part, got as far as announcing a new logo and color scheme for the Dragons in September 2008. The new green-and-black color scheme would have been used for the 2009, but the league collapsed first:
A group of former Arena Football League owners and officials called Arena Football One purchased the assets of the original Arena Football League out of bankruptcy for $6.1 million in December 2009. It was a long way down from the proposed Platinum Equity purchase of the AFL just a year earlier, which valued the league at approximately $250 million.
A much more budget-conscious (and non-union) reinvention of the Arena Football League debuted in 2010, with many franchises returning under their old names and, in some cases, their old investors. The New York Dragons and the Silvas were not among them. But the Iowa Barnstormers were. A third incarnation of the Iowa Barnstormers joined AF2 for the 2008 season as an expansion team playing in the new $99 million Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. The team retained the old logo of the original Kurt Warner-era Barnstormers and still practices in The Barn – venerable Veterans Memorial Auditorium. When the Arena Football League went dark in 2009, AF2 kept playing. In 2010, the new Barnstormers took a leap up to rejoin the new Arena Football League.
Kurt Warner retired from the NFL in January 2010. He led two different franchises to Super Bowl appearances, starting in three and winning one. As of 2011, he holds one of the top ten passer ratings in NFL history.
Mike Furrey played seven seasons in the NFL, ending in 2009. He is now one of the growing number of former NFL players filing suit against the league over concussion-related health problems.