By David Fong
COLUMBUS — Running away to join the circus was never a childhood dream for Matt Finkes.
And truthfully, that’s about what joining the XFL seemed like to him at the time.
“There was no way I ever thought I’d be a part of that,” the former Piqua High School and Ohio State All-American defensive lineman said. “I think in part because of my background as a freestyle and amateur wrestler, I wanted nothing to do with it. We heard all of these crazy stories about what they were going to do.”
Earlier this week, Vince McMahon — best known as the World Wrestling Entertainment impresario — announced he was planning a 2020 reboot of the XFL, the short-lived football league he started in 2001 as an alternative to the NFL. Sixteen years ago, McMahon promised to mix the zany showmanship of professional wrestling with hard-hitting football as he took on one of the most powerful leagues in all of sports.
That combination of showmanship and sports managed to split the difference between wrestling and football fans — die-hard football fans were turned off by the idea of adding storylines to the sport, while wrestling fanatics didn’t think there was nearly enough of the promised entertainment aspect mixed in with the football — and ended up pleasing no one. After a hot start opening weekend, ratings steadily declined and the league folded after just one year.
Finkes — despite his initial reservations — played for the Chicago Enforcers for that one season.
“One of my coaches from NFL Europe ended up being a head coach in the XFL, actually reached out to me and told me it was something I should look into,” Finkes said. “When he called, he told me it wasn’t going to be like pro wrestling. Sure, they were going to have some of that, but once you got past all of that, they were also going to have real football and real football players.
“It wasn’t like Joey Bag O’Donuts was going to be coming off the street to play football. There were going to be good, quality football players. These were guys who played big-time college football. There were a lot of guys with NFL experience in the league. On our team, I think every single guy had at least been on an NFL practice squad.”
Following an All-Ohio career at Piqua, he went on to earn All-American and All-Big Ten honors playing defensive end for the Buckeyes. He was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in 1997. After being cut by the Panthers late in training camp, he caught on with the New York Jets and played an entire season with the team. Following that season, he spent time in training camp with both the Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars and played two seasons in NFL Europe with the Scottish Claymores — he led the team in tackles in 2000 — before the XFL came calling.
In his one season with the Enforcers, Finkes recorded 28 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
“It really was quality football,” Finkes said. “I think the proof is in the pudding — before the league folded, five or six guys saw their careers go forward in the NFL. Honestly the last 10 guys on an NFL roster are pretty much interchangeable with the last 10 guys who get cut from an NFL roster. I think the NFL needs a developmental league like the XFL.”
Which is one of several reasons why, Finkes said, he thinks the XFL has a chance to succeed the second time around. McMahon said in his press conference announcing the reboot that he plans on focusing more on football and less on the entertainment aspect in the new incarnation. He also said he would like it to be an alternative to the NFL and promised a number of differences in his league, including making it mandatory for players to stand during the national anthem and relaxed rules on targeting, two of the most controversial issues in the NFL this season.
“I think (McMahon) is going to make a good run at this,” Finkes said. “He knows the mistakes he made the first time, and I don’t think he’s going to make them again. Vince McMahon is a great businessman, and I think he saw there was a need there. I don’t think he’s looking to compete with the NFL, but he wants to give fans an alternative to the NFL. I think he’s going to play to the fanbase. I think there were a lot of fans who were dissatisfied with some of the things that happened in the NFL this year, whether it was players kneeling during the anthem or the fans not being in love with the rules on hitting. Look, I get player safety, but I think there are fans who want to see the hard hits.
“I think the NFL needs a developmental league. If you look at the quarterback position — which most anybody would tell you is the most important position in the league — how many of those guys are ready to play in the NFL coming out of college? I know I improved a lot playing in NFL Europe and the XFL. I think there are a lot of guys would benefit from having an opportunity like that.”
Finkes said he thinks McMahon be well-served to go after regional markets — particularly ones with fervent college football fanbases — as opposed to cities that already have NFL teams. At his press conference, McMahon did not announce any potential locations for new teams.
“I don’t know that they would want to go to the markets like New York or Los Angeles, but I’d love to see them come to some place like Columbus or Birmingham (Ala.) and consider regional drafts,” he said. “I have no doubts they could sell out Crew Stadium if they got guys who played at Ohio State or Ohio University or Ohio guys who went on to play at places like Michigan State, Wisconsin or Oklahoma.
“The other thing you have to consider is how limited the channels were in 2001. The dynamics of how media is disseminated now has changed so much since then. I do work for Spectrum Sports, which has a number of regional channels. There are a lot of more regional networks now. There’s live streaming. There’s so many different ways now of making your product available to fans.”
Following the 2001 season, Finkes — who got the opportunity to meet McMahon, former wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and got to tackle the league’s breakout star, Rod “He Hate Me” Smart — said he had every intention of playing again in 2002. That never happened, however, as the league folded, essentially ending Finkes’ football career.
“When we left at the end of the season, the staff was excited about the next season and asked me if I would come back,” he said. “They were paying good money for working 10 weeks out of the year, so why not? I think we all got blindsided at how the deal went south.”
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong