Erick McIntosh, left, signs autographs as Tampa Bay Storm teammate Markihe Anderson plays with his son, Markihe Anderson Jr. after an Arena Football League game against the Orlando Predators at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa last week. / JOHN DAVID EMMETT/news-press.com
Tampa Bay Storm teammates Erick McIntosh, center, celebrates with teammates Jarriett Buie (16) and Markihe Anderson (9) after returning an interception for a touchdown against the Orlando Predators at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa on Friday, June 17. / JOHN DAVID EMMETT/news-press.com
TAMPA — Before grasping his NFL dream, Erick McIntosh must imagine it first.
Six hours before the Tampa Bay Storm's Arena Football League game against the Orlando Predators on June 17, McIntosh was still in bed. The 24-year-old former Lehigh Senior High School defensive back visualized that evening's action - running step-for-step with receivers, knocking away passes, undercutting routes.
"It gives me confidence, puts gas in my gas tank," said McIntosh, who played collegiately at Florida Atlantic.
Next door, Markihe Anderson, a Dunbar High graduate and McIntosh's Storm teammate, has his own routine. The 23-year-old gets up early and watches game tape with breakfast. After lunch, he alternates time in the Jacuzzi and pool.
He too visualizes the upcoming game.
"I imagine putting myself in the worst possible situation and coming out of it by making a play," said Anderson, a starting defensive back alongside McIntosh.
While some Storm players have day jobs, these two don't. Getting to the NFL is a shared goal, even if it takes years.
Theirs is not the path most eventual NFL players take. McIntosh and Anderson have been through NFL mini-camps and gotten looks in the Canadian and United football leagues. They've also each been cut by other AFL teams.
"We basically know what each other is capable of," Anderson said. "There's no need to drop your head because we encourage each other. There's a great feeling when I look out and I see him out there next to me. We're both from Fort Myers. Now, together, we can beat up on the opponent instead of beating up on each other."
When the AFL began 24 years ago, officials didn't start it so top players would move onto the NFL.
"It was a place for guys to get another opportunity to play, and a ton of guys wanted to play," AFL commissioner Jerry Kurz said.
That's why Kurt Warner's ascension from Iowa Barnstormer to a Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the St. Louis Rams was so unlikely. The retired passer is one of 20 former AFL players who made the jump to the NFL in the past 24 years.
Pursuing the NFL dream while playing in the AFL means sacrificing, skimping and surviving.
McIntosh and Anderson each make $400 per game, the norm for most AFL players (the Storm play 18 regular-season games this year). Each team does have three "franchise" players, who are paid $1,000 per game.
In addition, players' rent and utilities are paid for by the team and they receive meal stipends that help lower food expenses.
To make the Storm this season, Anderson won a roster battle with Wondy Pierre-Louis, a Lely High graduate and his former teammate at the University of Florida.
"There's no hard feelings, no bittnerness," Anderson said. "We were both here for the same reason - to help our team win games, get on the field and get to the next level."
Is it still realistic for AFL players to make it to the NFL?
"Realistic is not a word I'd use," said Charles Davis, an analyst for the NFL Network. "The number is so small. But is the dream still alive? It's alive."
The positions McIntosh and Anderson play - safety and backside corner - are the most humbling in the pass-friendly AFL.
Teams regularly score as many as 70 points in a game with top receivers catching five or six touchdowns and quarterbacks throwing eight or nine.
So while a defensive back has to have the physical skills to cover one-on-one, he also has to have the mental chops to deal with surrendering touchdowns.
"You can play well and get scored on four times," McIntosh said. "You just keep it moving, next play, whether it's one more quarter or three more quarters."
Defensive backs also have their moments. In the Storm's 46-44 win over Orlando on June 17, McIntosh returned an interception for a touchdown when he corraled a carom off the wall and weaved his way into the end zone.
"That's one play I didn't visualize," he said. "That's more a case of running to the play, running to the ball. An old teammate once told me, 'Game play can be measured, but determination can't.' What we do on our own can make the difference in making a play and not making a play."
How long can a player chase the NFL dream?
Sometimes, the decision is made by injury or a team's decision to go in the dreaded different direction.
But as long as McIntosh and Anderson are wanted, both will keep playing.
A big part of Anderson's motivation is his 1-year-old son, Markihe Jr. He said he has a wonderful support system that allows him to free his mind and concentrate on his job.
"I've got a great lady behind, my child's mother," Anderson said. "I've got God on my side, along with my parents and other people who want to see me do well. Everyone is willing to help. That's why there's not a clock on me. I can keep going forward, with a free mind because there's no clock."
McIntosh, in his second year with the Storm, is a mentor for Anderson. One of the things he tells him is to enjoy the process, enjoy the journey.
"You may want to really get to the NFL and you try to rush it and get there and it creates bad timing," McIntosh said. "If you're not properly ready mentally or physically and you rush the process, you won't make it. So, whether it's four months or two years, go slow, keep your mind right, stay busy and enjoy the process."