Five months after shutting down due to COVID-19, the XFL is back! (Kind of.)
Today, news broke that the league was purchased for about $15 million by a group of investors that include actor and athlete Dwayne Johnson. He bought the XFL with two partners: Gerry Cardinale (CEO of Redbird Capital) and business partner Dany Garcia — his ex-wife.
Garcia and Johnson were married for over a decade before splitting in 2007. (They have an 18-year-old daughter, Simone.) The two founded Seven Bucks Productions, a multi-platform production company, in 2012. The company produced the TV shows “Ballers” and NBC’s “The Titan Games”. It also helped bring some of Johnson’s biggest box-office hits to the screen. Between 2017 and 2019, Garcia served as executive producer for “Baywatch”, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Hobbs and Shaw” — all starring Johnson. Now, Dany Garcia has become the first female owner of a major sports league in America.
Garcia reacted to the historic news via Twitter: “Honored to be making history by following my dreams,” she tweeted. In the tweet, Garcia also thanked Johnson and Cardinale. Gerry Cardinale is the founder and managing partner of Redbird Capital, a private investment firm. Redbird has many sports connections: it co-founded OneTeam, which helps athletes “maximize the value of their name, image and likeness rights”. The organization works with the players’ associations of the MLB and NFL, among others.
According to Sportico, which broke the story, two major hurdles remain. The sale must be approved at bankruptcy court on Friday, Aug. 7. If all goes well, the sale should become official by Aug. 21. Significantly, Johnson, Garcia and Cardinale purchased the XFL from the now-bankrupt Alpha Entertainment, founded by WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon. Johnson was a superstar in the WWE universe before becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable talents. Now, he’s buying the company of his onetime WWE boss. (Incidentally, Johnson & Garcia’s daughter — 18-year-old Simone Johnson — signed a contract with WWE in February.)
Alpha Entertainment filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 13, after the XFL shut down due to coronavirus. There were more than 30 bids for the football league in court. But according to ESPN, the bid by Johnson & company was the only qualified one. Now, the league may resurge by next year. Garcia told ESPN that the XFL may return in 2021. “We’re planning for it,” she said.
“We’re doing all the steps that need to happen for the execution of that. But we’re also being mindful to what has actually been successful,” Garcia said. “It has been really interesting to see that [in sports], when you create a bubble, your players are safe. When you don’t, it’s chaos. We are a league, because of the number of teams we have, that actually can create a bubble environment. Those discussions are active.”
Johnson reacted to the sale with gratitude. “The acquisition of the XFL with my talented partners, Dany Garcia and Gerry Cardinale, is an investment for me that’s rooted deeply in two things — my passion for the game and my desire to always take care of the fans,” said Johnson. “With pride and gratitude for all that I’ve built with my own two hands, I plan to apply these callouses to the XFL and look forward to creating something special for the players, fans and everyone involved for the love of football.” He shared a similar sentiment on Twitter, adding the hashtag “full circle”. (Johnson played football at the University of Miami from 1990 to 1994. He also played briefly in the CFL. He had only $7 — just seven bucks — when he got cut from the Calgary Stampeders.)
“For Dwayne, Gerry and myself, this property represents an incredible opportunity,” Garcia added in a statement today. “Sports and entertainment are the foundations of the businesses I have built.” Indeed, many of the films she produced with Johnson (“Fighting with My Family”, “Skyscraper”, “Ballers”, “The Titan Games”) have an athletic bent — or just athletic feats by Johnson and his superhero physique.
“It is a privilege to partner with Dany and Dwayne on the acquisition of the XFL,” said Gerry Cardinale, Founder and Managing Partner of RedBird Capital Partners. XFL President and Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Pollack was more effusive: “I could not imagine a better outcome for the XFL. Dany, Dwayne, and Gerry are the best possible ownership group for exciting journey ahead,” he stated. “I think our [XFL] players, fans, and coaches are in for something special.”
How former and current XFL players will react to this news is still unclear. But rapper Wale clearly has plans. Wale tweeted today that he will be playing in the league next year:
UPDATE: The sale was approved on Friday, Aug. 7, in a Delaware bankruptcy court. U.S. District Judge Laurie Silverstein allowed the sale to proceed after the XFL resolved a dispute over the $15 million sale price with the court’s unsecured creditors’ committee. Johnson, along with Dany Garcia and RedBird Capital Partners, will officially assume control of the XFL from former owner Vince McMahon later this month.
UPDATE: Johnson confirmed the takeover today via Twitter:
Alpha Entertainment, the company that owns the XFL, filed for Chapter 11 today after reporting that it owes more than $10 million in liabilities. The move comes just three days after the XFL suspended its operations and laid off nearly all of its employees (on Good Friday, no less). According to the New York Times, “Alpha Entertainment said that it had liabilities of between $10 million and $50 million, and that it had 1,000 to 5,000 creditors. It also listed assets of between $10 million and $50 million.” (Why is this range so broad? And how much do the assets outweigh liabilities?)
ESPN reported today that seven of the eight XFL coaches are among the creditors. One of them is Dallas Renegades coach Bob Stoops, who is owed over $1 million. Houston Roughnecks coach June Jones is owed over $583,000. Another of those creditors is the University of Houston, which was supposed to host the XFL championship game this month. The XFL owes the stadium some $294,000 in venue costs. Sports reporter Dallas Rovell provided screenshots of the financial details on Twitter:
Significantly, these documents raise questions about the dealings of XFL founder Vince McMahon, who also is in charge of the WWE. Per ESPN, McMahon sold $100 million in WWE stock so he could funnel that money into Alpha Entertainment. At a press conference in 2018, McMahon said he was the sole source of funding for the league, adding that “there will be absolutely no crossover whatsoever” between the WWE and XFL. But as indicated above, the WWE owns roughly 23.5% of the XFL’s Class B stock.
The league released a statement to the Hollywood Reporter:
“The XFL quickly captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of people who love football. Unfortunately, as a new enterprise, we were not insulated from the harsh economic impacts and uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 crisis. Accordingly, we have filed a voluntary petition for relief under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. This is a heartbreaking time for many, including our passionate fans, players and staff, and we are thankful to them, our television partners, and the many Americans who rallied to the XFL for the love of football.”
Today, Twitter user @ArkenBrandSport posted the full video of the XFL’s Instagram Live with Houston Roughnecks wide receiver Nick Holley. The 44-minute clip can be viewed in full below:
Nick Holley’s brother Nate joined him during yesterday’s Instagram Live. The twin brothers discussed their competitive nature, supportive relationship, and the paths that led each of them to pro football success. Nick overcame five season-ending injuries to become a wide receiver for the Houston Roughnecks this year, catching back-to-back touchdowns in Week 4 and 5. Nate is a professional linebacker for the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League (CFL). He was named Rookie of the Year in November, after a season with 100 tackles and a sack. But the brothers don’t allow each other to get big-headed.
“After he won Rookie of the Year, I called him and said, ‘You still ain’t s–t.’ Click. Hung up,” Nick recalled on IG Live. He added that Nate had done the same to him after one of Nick’s touchdowns. But underneath the jibes and jousting, the two brothers support each other.
“He’s very deserving of everything he’s gotten,” Nate said when interviewed on Live. “I think he can perform at the highest level, week in and week out, just as I believe that about myself.”
The conversation was reminiscent of their joint interview with the Garage Apartment (posted above). On March 7, I joined H’Dari Jones (from Garage Apartment Media) to interview Nick and Nate Holley on their careers and sibling rivalry. A lightly edited Q&A follows below.
Was football a part of your early life?
Nick answered first: “Yeah. Competing is always a part of our life, no matter what it is. So we started playing at a young age, one-on-one, and going at each other. He was more of a defensive and I was more of an offensive guy, and obviously I won more games,” Nick laughed. “But we were going at it all the time.”
“Let’s just put this straight,” Nate deadpans. “That’s the first time I ever let him go first. I always go first, but since this is his show and he’s padded up, I’mma let him go that time. That’s why I let him answer. But yes, always competitive. Started in the backyard. I think we had some Michigan football helmets on — plastic. Plastic helmets, and we had the jersey. We’d throw the ball way up in the air; the other guy would catch it. We had one-on-one football in our own backyard. We kind of had constraints and our own rules, but that’s kind of where it all started.”
Were you guys athletic in high school and middle school?
Nick: “Well, yeah. We went to high school together, went to college together. Did really well in high school, did pretty well in college — he [Nate] actually finished three years in a row, leading the nation in solo tackles, so he was kind of an animal. And then we ended up going to the Rams together. So we played all the way up through it, together.”
“Every level,” Nate says. “We’ve been blessed enough to play at every level.” (They were both part of the Rams squad in 2018.)
How did it feel when you had to split off and go in different directions?
“It’s different and it’s weird,” Nick says, “because we’re used to always being on the same team and cheering the other one on. But the love and support never went [away]. I’ve watched every last one of his games when he was out at Calgary in the CFL, and he’s watched every one of mine,” Nick said. “So it’s almost like we’re there in spirit.”
Nate says: “I was just going to say it’s different. Like he said, it’s awesome to be on the same team to where we can come off the sideline, kind of tell each other what we saw and what we were thinking on a certain given play. You know, we’d kind of collaborate after each drive, and [when] each of us kind of needed a little pick-me-up, we always had that there. Now, it’s just learning to be a little different in our warm up routine; we don’t have nobody to play catch with like we do in our warmup routines,” he said. “But we enjoy ourselves. We enjoy this game.”
“We have fun,” Nick said.
“Like he said, I haven’t missed a game this year,” Nate said. “Last weekend I was on a Summerville trip, and I watched it in the middle of nowhere at a bar, up on the screen. And I just had the whole bar rooting for him.”
What do you do better than him and vice versa?
“He don’t have any moves,” Nick smiled. “I got a couple moves. He can tackle.” Nate dissolved into laughter. Speaking of moves, one example was the “Crazy Legs” dance Nick did after the Week 5 touchdown.
“That’s my sister’s move,” Nick admitted, sparking more laughs. “That’s why I did it. But now, I think we are [both] all around pretty good.”
Nate answers: “If you broke it down, though, I think the only thing he’s got me on, though, is like, financials. Like, numbers — he’s a good numbers guy. You can have that one,” he told Nick. “But I respect him too much as an athlete, you know, as we’ve grown up… I can’t take that from him you know people ask us, ‘Who’s better? Who’s better at the game?’ For me, I have too much respect for him and how he plays the game to be able to say me. But also, you know, obviously I have enough respect for myself to say him. So that, for me, is the best answer.”
What was your reaction when you saw his touchdown in Week 4, Nate?
“Last game, I watched at home by myself with a fire lit. So it was just me. I went crazy. I actually had — it was kind of funny — I had like, a little twin intuition. I’ve got a video of it and everything: I stood up and I said he’s going to score on this play right now. and soon enough, as the ball was snapped and I hit record, he scored. I don’t know what it was — twin intuition, you can call it…”
They say one twin can kind of sense what’s going on with the other…
“You know, there is some truth to that,” Nate began. Nick added: “We spend so much time together, we know what each other’s thinking. And we kind of have that chemistry to where, if he’s behind me and my eyes are shut, I can throw him a ball, ‘cause I know where he’s at.”
Nick played different positions throughout his career; did Nate do the same?
“Yeah. I mean, I was a basically — safety/linebacker role. Played safety in college, played linebacker the rest of my life. Played linebacker in the CFL, so I’ve had to change positions in that aspect. IN high school, I did play offense and defense, so I’ve changed, kinda there. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve kind of been that hybrid role of safety and linebacker. so for me that’s been the biggest change just having to make that bump, either: ‘OK, now I’m out an open space,’ or ‘OK, now I’m down with the big boys and I got to play a little earlier, right? So for me that was the biggest change or difference.”
Nick, describe to me what you saw on that touchdown catch.
“Uh, defenders?” he joked. “Basically, we have a play call that it involves me reading the coverage, reading the defense, and PJ reading the coverage and reading the defense as well. He had a flat concept as well. Two guys from the alley just kind of miscommunicated and broke the coverage and came down. I actually thought that PJ had already thrown the flat. I turned around and looked, and he still had the ball in his hands. He saw me; I went out one-on-one, there was a lot of grass…”
Did you know what your move was going to be?
“No, I didn’t. You can’t think about it. You just react and you keep moving. I knew if I got tackled one-on-one I would have never heard the end of it, so I had to make sure that I got in the end zone.”
The Minnesota Vikings have signed Houston Roughnecks linebacker DeMarquis Gates. The move was confirmed yesterday by FOX-26 sports reporter Mark Berman:
Gates recorded a sack, an interception, and 32 tackles in his time with the Roughnecks. Perhaps his most memorable play came during Week 5, when he forced a fumble and made a fumble recovery. Gates somehow knocked the ball out of Dragons quarterback B.J. Daniels’ hand, then managed to pick the ball up. He then became one of many players in a pile-up on the turf.
Gates allegedly threw a punch while in the pileup, which caused the referee to disqualify him from the game. After the ejection, Gates went into the tunnel. To the surprise of many onlookers, he began signing autographs for fans. He even consented to an interview with an ESPN reporter:
“Why were you ejected from the game?” an ESPN reporter asked.
“I don’t know,” Gates replied. “I just had to make a play. The quarterback fumbled.”
Roughnecks wide receiver Nick Holley was seen discussing something with the referee just after the disqualification. But when asked about the nature of the discussion, Holley politely declined comment: “I can’t share that,” he smiled.
Former Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker defended Gates when asked about the dust-up: “Gates did a great job forcing the fumble recovery,” Walker said. “Gotta fight for the ball. He did a great job recovering it.”
Gates also did a great job recovering an incomplete pass during the Roughnecks’ match against the Dallas Renegades. As the Dallas quarterback’s pass bounced off the hands of receiver Flynn Nagel, Gates reached out with one hand (!!!) and scooped up the ball before he slid to the ground. Watch the incredible, game-sealing play in the video below.
Former Houston Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker is signing with the Carolina Panthers, according to ESPN. He is the first XFL player to join an NFL team.
The move comes just three days after the XFL announced that it’s officially canceling its entire season due to the coronavirus outbreak. (XFL players are now free to sign with NFL teams, pending physicals.) The move also reunites Walker with Panthers coach Matt Rhule, who coached him at Temple University. According to the Houston Chronicle, Walker shined with the Temple Owls: “The 5-11, 214-pound New Jersey native played for Rhule at Temple, setting records for wins, passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions, attempts, total yards and total touchdowns as the Owls went to consecutive bowl games.” At Temple, Walker passed for 74 touchdowns and rushed for nine.
He was even more successful with the Roughnecks, leading them to an undefeated 5-0 season. Walker led the league with 15 touchdowns and 1,338 passing yards. In his most recent game, he helped the Roughnecks overcome their largest-ever deficit (14 points) and rally to beat the Seattle Dragons on March 7. His star-making performance led some to say that he should be the league’s MVP. When asked about that at the postgame press conference, Walker modestly demurred: “I’mma vote for Cam [Phillips],” he said, praising the Roughnecks wide receiver seated next to him. “I ain’t gonna vote for myself. I’m gonna vote for Cam.”
Watch the moment below.
BREAKING: The Carolina Panthers have traded QB Kyle Allen to the Washington Redskins. The team recently gave quarterback Cam Newton permission to seek a trade. This latest move indicates that Walker may be competing for the starting job with another recent signee: former New Orleans Saints QB Teddy Bridgewater. Stay tuned for further updates.
UPDATE: Tonight, P.J. Walker made his debut at quarterback for the Carolina Panthers during tonight’s game versus the Falcons. Starting QB Teddy Bridgewater was hit in the head by Falcons pass-rusher Charles Harris. The refs threw a flag. Harris was ejected for unnecessary roughness; Bridgewater exited the game. Walker, who has become the No. 2 backup quarterback, entered the game amid pouring rain. He took a shot right away, launching the ball across the field for a touchdown attempt. It didn’t take, but the drive resulted in a field goal.
Teddy Bridgewater just re-entered the game. Apparently he cleared concussion protocol. Stay tuned.
Update (Nov. 22, 2020): After Bridgewater suffered yet another knee injury, he was ruled inactive for today’s game versus the Detroit Lions. The Carolina Panthers named P.J. Walker the starter for today’s game. He delivered. Walker got his first NFL touchdown when he connected with Panthers receiver Curtis Samuel.
Despite two interceptions, Walker went 24-of 34 for 258 yards and a touchdown. The Panthers overwhelmed the Lions in a shutout, winning 20-0. This gives Walker a win for his first NFL career start. He is now undefeated as a pro football starter (5-0 in the XFL; 1-0 in the NFL).
“I didn’t actually envision this start; my mom did,” Walker said in a press conference. He said his mother called him a year and a half ago to tell him she’d dreamed he was on the Panthers. Walker didn’t understand at the time, as he was then with the Indianapolis Colts. Now, Walker’s on the Carolina Panthers, and he’s won his first game as an NFL quarterback. It’s the culmination of a lifelong dream: “This is something I’ve been dreaming about my whole life,” Walker said.
The XFL announced late Thursday that it will suspend the remainder of its season, presumably due to coronavirus concerns. In so doing, the league is following the lead of the NBA, MLB, MLR and MLS. The league commissioner, Oliver Luck, said that all players will be paid base pay and benefits. All ticket holders will receive refunds.
According to NFL.com, “the XFL is advising players that they can sign immediately with teams in the NFL or any other league once their exit physicals are complete on Friday”, which means that by 2021, many current XFL players will be gone. Already, some NFL scouts have shown interest in Houston Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker.
Of all the blows to the sports world this season, this one is the most heartbreaking. The NBA season was practically over anyway (and the loss of Kobe Bryant would’ve overshadowed any NBA Finals action, IMHO). The MLB season hasn’t even started, and did we really need another 18,000 stories about the Astros’ cheating scandal? Major League Soccer and Major League Rugby, with all due, are still secondary in the world of Houston sports (according to me). The XFL was just getting started, and now there are doubts about how (or even if) it will continue.
I want to thank the XFL for issuing me a press credential and for providing me my first experience inside a pro football locker room. I want to thank every player who spoke to me and answered my questions: P.J. Walker, James Butler, Nick Holley, and Andre Williams. (Special shout-out to Tejan Koroma for directing me to the Week 3 press conference.) I should also thank Nick Holley for agreeing to a follow-up interview on Saturday AND gamely participating in a joint interview with his twin brother Nate. (I’ll upload that later this weekend.) And thanks to newly signed linebacker Brian Peters, who amiably conversed with me while I waited for other players to enter the locker room. I somehow held a 10-15 minute conversation with this man without realizing that A) he played for the Texans for four years and B) I follow him on Instagram!
This has been an incredible ride. I’ll never forget it.
Despite three turnovers and a wildly controversial fourth quarter, the Houston Roughnecks survived Game 5 on Saturday afternoon to remain undefeated. The Roughnecks beat the Seattle Dragons 32-23 at TDECU Stadium yesterday. They remain the only unbeaten team in the XFL.
After a near-scoreless first quarter, the Seattle Dragons’ offense took off. After a fumble by the Roughnecks, Dragons quarterback B.J. Daniels led a 7-play, 18-yard, three-minute scoring drive. On 4th and goal at the one-yard line, Daniels ran in and scored the touchdown. The two-point conversion, however, was unsuccessful: a gaggle of Houston defenders prevented the Dragons from scoring.
Following an 18-yard kickoff return by cornerback Charles James II, the Roughnecks began their drive. The first quarter ended just as Houston running back Andre Williams achieved 1st down with a nine-yard carry. After the second quarter began, the drive stalled. A field goal by kicker Sergio Castillo was no good. After a near-fumble on first and 10, the Dragons recovered. Dragons running back Trey Williams scored the touchdown with a 17-yard scamper. This time, the two-point conversion was good: Daniels threw a successful pass to wide receiver Austin Proehl.
That made the score 14-0 — the largest deficit the Houston Roughnecks have ever faced. But they quickly cut the lead down. On 3rd and 1, Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker connected with wide receiver Nick Holley for a stunning 50-yard touchdown.
The Roughnecks decided to go for a three-point conversion but couldn’t make the play, so the score remained 14-6. After the Dragons went three and out, receiver Sam Mobley had a 16-yard return, which was negated by a holding penalty. But Mobley rebounded with a 42-yard catch.
Following the two-minute warning, a 14-yard play by wide receiver Blake Jackson took the Roughnecks to the one-yard line. A false start penalty moved them five yards back. Running back James Butler scored a one-yard TD run, jumping into the stands to celebrate. But the celebration was short-lived: the on-field ruling of a touchdown was reversed when referees said Butler was short of the goal line. Worse yet, Seattle Dragons player Godwin Igwebuike was injured on the play. He laid on the ground for several minutes but eventually was able to walk off the field.
On the very next play, Butler scored again:
This time, the touchdown was upheld. Walker connected with Holley for the successful two-point conversion. The Houston Roughnecks’ eight-play, 90-yard drive evened the score. The game was tied 14-14 at halftime.
The Dragons got the ball back to start the second half. On 3rd and 5, B.J. Daniels fell to the ground for a four-yard loss. Roughnecks linebacker Edmond Robinson was credited with the sack. Seattle settled for a field goal, which kicker Ernesto Lacayo nailed to make it 17-14.
They would add to that lead after a costly mistake by the Roughnecks. On 1st down, Walker was intercepted by Dragons cornerback Marko Myers, who returned the pick 52 yards. It was Walker who tripped Myers up to keep him from scoring. But Myers landed inside the one-yard line, which set up B.J. Daniels’ touchdown run. The two-point conversion attempt failed, but Seattle still held a commanding 23-14 lead.
Walker rallied the Roughnecks with a four-play, 64-yard drive, highlighted by a dramatic 48-yard pass to Cam Phillips. That set up 1st and goal at the 10-yard line. Butler ran through Seattle defenders for his second touchdown of the day. The Roughnecks went for a three-point conversion in hopes of tying the game, but Walker’s pass was too high for Holley. Still, the Roughnecks had narrowed Seattle’s lead. They trailed 23-20.
The Dragons took over. Just when it seemed like they were headed for a three-and-out, a defensive pass interference call (on Houston) gave them an automatic first down. But they still failed to convert, as #97 Gabe Wright stuffed Daniels for a seven-yard loss. Seattle was forced to punt on 4th and 16. Then, a promising Roughnecks drive ended with another turnover. As Walker launched a pass to receiver Sam Mobley, Dragons safety Jordan Martin jumped up and grabbed the ball. He appeared to land out of bounds, but referees reversed their initial ruling to say that Martin had intercepted the ball.
Seattle was unable to convert the pick into any points. The end of that fruitless drive also marked the end of the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Walker helmed another scoring drive that culminated in a 6-yard TD by Cam Phillips. The two-point conversion attempt was no good. But with nine minutes left, the Roughnecks had taken their first lead of the day, 26-23. The Dragons were unable to score any points on their next drive and punted on 4th down. With 3:33 remaining, Walker fired the ball to Cam Phillips for an 11-yard TD. Roughnecks went for 1 extra point, but running back Andre Williams was stopped in the backfield. However, the Roughnecks had scored 18 unanswered points and taken a 32-23 lead.
The game would end with two major controversies. On the Dragons’ drive, Daniels was running when he tumbled to the ground and disappeared inside a mass of red and white jerseys. A pileup ensued, with players stacked on top of each other for several minutes. During that time, referees threw two flags in the air. But the reason for the penalties remained unclear.
After what seemed like an eternity, referee Tra Blake provided an answer: “The ruling on the field is a fumble recovered by the defense. It’s Houston’s ball,” he said. “After the play, personal foul: #47 on the return team for Houston — for throwing a punch. He’s disqualified.”
What had happened? Linebacker DeMarquis Gates had stripped the ball from Daniels and then recovered the fumble. But then he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and ejected from the game for throwing a punch. Remarkably, Gates was signing autographs for fans mere moments after being disqualified. He was also interviewed. “What did you get ejected for?” the reporter asked. “To be honest, I don’t know,” Gates responded. “I just had to make a play.”
Once all of the dust settled, it was 1st and 10 for the Roughnecks with 1:58 left. A 12-yard pickup by Andre Williams was enough for a Roughnecks first down. On fourth down, P.J. Walker took a knee with two seconds remaining, and the clock ran out. After the game, the XFL issued a statement saying that the ball should’ve gone to the Dragons:
“Today’s Seattle Dragons-Houston Roughnecks game should not have ended as it did. Replays showed clearly that the knee of Houston quarterback P.J. Walker touched the field, rendering him ‘down’ and the fourth-down play officially completed, with approximately two seconds remaining on the clock – effectively turning the ball over to Seattle on downs. With a nine-point differential in the score, Seattle was denied an opportunity to tie the game. The XFL sincerely regrets this error.”
Walker, however, appears to have no regrets. Asked about the game’s three turnovers (including two picks), Walker took responsibility, but didn’t beat himself up: “In the beginning, with the three turnovers, it was just… it happens. It’s part of the game, you know? So things happen. You just got to bounce back from ‘em. Great players bounce back. Winners gonna always bounce back as well. And it is what it is,” Walker said in a postgame press conference.
During the press conference, Walker was joined by wide receivers Sam Mobley and Cam Phillips. They all emphasized a team-first mentality. “We stay consistent every day. We work really hard, I would say — for the most part — as a team. So we know what we’ve got in our locker room. We just go out there and do what we do,” Walker said during the conference.
Phillips also focused on the team. In response to a question about the game’s second half: “I just think we did a great job of sort of calming down, understanding that we just had to do our jobs better, just pay a little more attention to detail,” said Phillips. He added that “it resulted in, you know, a 32-9 run to finish the game after that point. So not just the offense, the defense picked it up as well, and props — shout out to the whole team.”
“It’s a team thing,” added Sam Mobley. “I think we all have faith in each other as a team, and we have each other’s backs, whether we’re up or down. And just us having each other’s back helped us get to the finish and come back.”
The press conference video is presented below:
During the press conference, Phillips was asked about defensive coverage. His answer gave props to his teammates: “Sam had a great game. Nick Holley, you know, had another great game — made a few big catches. Like I said, we just trust in each other, man. We talk all the time, laugh all the time, so we understand that that camaraderie and sort of brotherhood is key — especially on offense.”
Brotherhood was also on the mind on running back James Butler, whom I interviewed in the locker room. “We really came alive in that second half,” Butler said. “We know how good we can be. We’re still putting pieces together, still trying to play a complete game. But yeah, it’s a brotherhood in this locker room.”
Speaking of brotherhood, wide receiver Nick Holley was outside signing autographs for fans during the press conference. (His twin brother Nate Holley, who played in the CFL before joining the Miami Dolphins this offseason, was also in attendance.) I was fortunate enough to interview Nick Holley after the game.
What was the key to his terrific performance? “First and foremostly, I give glory to God — it’s the big man upstairs. And after that, it’s just preparation,” he said. Like Butler, Holley also felt that despite the 5-0 start, the team could still improve — “we haven’t scratched our surface yet. We still haven’t put a complete game together and played up to our potential.” Butler had also mentioned the idea of a “complete game”. What does that mean for Holley? “No mistakes on offense, no mistakes on defense, and superior special teams.” The interview is embedded below.
The family theme continued when a surprise guest. Running back Andre Williams had a breakout game, with 10 carries for 54 yards. I asked him what was the key to his performance; before answering, he reached over and grabbed a small infant. It was his one-year-old son, Ka’el, whom Williams held his son as he talked. It was an all-too-rare glimpse of who these players are off the field. For all the (valid) talk about brotherhood, many professional football players have also experienced fatherhood.
“Football is family,” says a 2016 advertising campaign for the NFL. But on the field, these men — fathers, sons, and brothers — are hidden behind shoulder pads and bulky helmets. We sometimes see them with their families on the field after the game. But when was the last time you saw a man (especially a black man) caring for his child during a locker-room interview? The moment with Williams and his baby son lent an added dimension to my coverage.
Williams answered: “I just try to stay level-headed — don’t get too high, don’t get too low, stay in the game. You know, it was a great team win. On both sides of the ball. All three phases, we played well enough to win.” Our interview was crashed by receiver Jalen Saunders, who spent the XFL season on injured reserve. (He was signed by the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks in April, but opted out after the pandemic began.)
I also asked Williams why the Roughnecks don’t have a tight end.
As we conclude Black History Month, I wanted to make note of a historic feat that may have gone overlooked. Four weeks ago, Patrick Mahomes became only the third black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. (Doug Williams was the first, in 1987; Russell Wilson was the second, in 2014.) Mahomes — the son of a black father and white mother — caught fire late in Super Bowl 54 to lead the Chiefs to victory. Mahomes’ stunning fourth-quarter performance helped power the Chiefs to score 21 unanswered points in the final minutes of the game.
With his surprise win, Mahomes makes history as one of only three black quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl. But he was just one of several mobile, talented black quarterbacks in professional football this year.
Lamar Jackson earned the MVP Award this year with good passing and even better rushing. In 2019, Jackson broke Michael Vick’s record for most rushing yards by a quarterback. He led the league with 36 touchdown passes and powered the Baltimore Ravens to playoff contention. Deshaun Watson likewise animated the Houston Texans’ offense with his mobility and passing, pushing them to a playoff win against the Bills. And in the XFL, the Houston Roughnecks’ P.J. Walker has scored more touchdowns than some XFL teams combined. (He eventually finished the abbreviated season with 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions.)
Could we be in the middle of a renaissance for black quarterbacks?
The Houston Roughnecks survived a spirited effort by the Tampa Bay Vipers to remain undefeated on Saturday. In their first away game ever, the Roughnecks held on to beat the Vipers 34-27.
The game was held in Tampa, Florida, and the home team got out to an early lead with a field goal that made the score 3-0. But Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker threw to wide receiver Cam Phillips, who took off for an 84-yard touchdown run. After that, Houston made its first successful three-point conversion, with Walker hitting receiver Sam Mobley for a 9-3 lead.
But Tampa Bay answered in convincing fashion. Head coach Marc Trestman replaced quarterback Taylor Cornelius with Quinton Flowers, a former USF standout. Flowers fired a pass to #17 for a huge gain. That yardage was enhanced by an unsportsmanlike conduct call on the Houston defense. That set up their touchdown, followed by a successful one-point play. The Vipers took the lead, 10-9. It was their first offensive touchdown all season, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
On their drive, the Roughnecks struck back. Walker dropped a snap, picked the ball up, and ran into the end zone for the touchdown. This time, the three-point conversion was unsuccessful. But Houston regained the lead, 15-10.
After Tampa Bay went three and out on the next series, Flowers was replaced by Cornelius, and didn’t play another down. After Tampa Bay failed to score any points, the Roughnecks got the ball back. Kicker Sergio Castillo made a 28-yard field goal to make it 18-10.
Once again, however, defensive struggles opened the door for the opponent’s offense. Cornelius launched a pass to running back De’veon Smith, whom Roughnecks defenders struggled to tackle. Another Tampa Bay player ran up and pushed all three players toward the 1-yard line. That set up 1st and goal. Cornelius ran in for the touchdown, and the Vipers added a two-point conversion just as the clock ran out. Both teams were tied 18-18 at halftime.
In the second half, Walker made a deep pass to wide receiver Sammie Coates, which was incomplete. But Coates’ defender was flagged for defensive pass interference. That penalty moved the chains dramatically. It also led to a 24-yard touchdown courtesy of Cam Phillips. And the two-point play was good: running back James Butler dashed into the end zone to make it 26-18. After a fruitless drive, Tampa Bay kicker Jake Schum punted the ball to the Roughnecks. But their drive ended with a 49-yard field goal attempt — which Castillo missed!
The Roughnecks would pay dearly for that mistake. On 4th down, Tampa Bay escaped the Houston defense to go 24 yards. Then the quarterback fired a pass to #81 Dan Williams for the touchdown. The two-point conversion attempt was no good. As the third quarter drew to a close, the Roughnecks maintained a slim lead, 26-24.
The fourth quarter began, and the Vipers embarked on another drive. Early in the quarter, the Tampa Bay kicker Andrew Franks nailed a 43-yard field goal to add three more points and take the lead. The Vipers led Houston 27-26.
Down by one with 12:51 remaining, the Roughnecks needed to score. P.J. Walker and Cam Phillips worked their usual magic, combining for a 17-yard TD. (For the second game in a row, Cam Phillips finished with three touchdowns.) Then Walker threw a dart to running back Nick Holley for the two-point conversion. It was 34-27, with Houston back on top.
That lead was in danger as the fourth quarter wound down. The Vipers powered their way to the two-yard line on 1st and goal, all but assuring that they would win. But then the unthinkable happened. With the game practically theirs, Tampa Bay had four opportunities to score — but they didn’t. On 4th and goal, the Vipers failed to convert. They would eventually get the ball back after a short drive by Houston, but Cornelius’ pass was intercepted by Roughnecks linebacker De’Marquis Gates with 1:22 left.
Fans booed Cornelius (and his team) as Walker raised his hands in victory. “It’s over. It’s over!” he proclaimed. He was right. Despite a surging Viper offense and crowd noise from 18,000 fans in Raymond James Stadium, the Houston Roughnecks won, 34-27. Walker now has the distinction of leading the XFL with 11 touchdowns — more than any other team in the league.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. The Houston Roughnecks defeated the St. Louis Battlehawks in a 28-24 win Sunday night at TDECU Stadium. The Roughnecks managed to win 28-24, despite missed tackles on defense and consistent conversion problems on offense.
The fireworks started almost immediately with a 40-yard return from Roughnecks cornerback Ajene Harris, and running back Nick Holley followed that with a first-down catch and run. The drive ended with a successful 44-yard field goal from kicker Sergio Castillo.
The Battlehawks took over and launched a scoring drive of their own, with running back Matt Jones plowing down the field to score a touchdown. Their two-point conversion attempt was no good. That gave Houston the ball back, and they added to their lead with another scoring drive. Quarterback P.J. Walker threw a 13-yard reception to Holley and a highlight-reel catch to receiver Kahlil Lewis before firing a bullet to wide receiver Cam Phillips for the touchdown. But once again, the conversion was no good. On the run, Walker dived and flipped into the end zone. But he landed with his lower body in the end zone and the ball on the other side of the goal line.
The score was 9-6 as the second quarter began. The Battlehawks prepared to answer with a score of their own. But Battlehawks QB Jordan Ta’amu was intercepted by Roughnecks cornerback Cody Brown. His 50-yard return went all the way to the one-yard line, setting up 1st and goal for the Roughnecks. On the very next play, running back James Butler ran in for the touchdown, making it 15-6. was followed by yet another failed two-point conversion. Walker fired a pass to wide receiver Kahlil Lewis, who dived across the goal line and slammed the ball down in the end zone. But the ball came out just as it hit the ground. Initially, the conversion was ruled successful, but it was overturned upon review.
After a 17-yard return, the Battlehawks’ drive stalled. On 4th and 2, St. Louis’ one-yard loss led to a turnover on downs. The Roughnecks took over and went 68 yards in just seven plays. Walker threw a 12-yard completion to Butler, and Holley continued to dazzle with a 20-yard pickup. The drive culminated in a 9-yard touchdown catch by Cam Phillips. That play helped Walker achieve an impressive statistic. In just two games, P.J. Walker has scored seven touchdowns — more than three XFL teams!
But the aftermath of that touchdown was anything but impressive. Phillips got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after taking his helmet off in celebration, and the Roughnecks’ 1-point conversion attempt was no good. St. Louis’ offense stalled on its resulting drive, and so did Houston’s. Neither team was able to score in the last few minutes, so the score remained 21-6 at halftime.
The second half opened with a 20-yard return courtesy of Battlehawks wide receiver Keith Mumphery. The ‘Hawks put together a 13-play, 72-yard scoring drive, highlighted by wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El. He brought the ‘Hawks to 1st and goal with a 23-yard catch-and-run, plowing his way to the one-yard line amid several missed tackles by the Roughnecks’ defense. Then he overcame two Houston defenders to tumble into the end zone. His TD brought the score to 21-12. The two-point conversion was no good — and neither was the Roughnecks’ next drive, which ended with Walker being sacked. (The ruling of a sack was later reversed to an incomplete pass.)
The ‘Hawks took over and scored again when Ta’amu ran in for a 4-yard touchdown. Houston got the ball back as the third quarter came to a close, but a promising drive fell apart. On 3rd down, Walker was tackled, flipped over on his back, got up and lobbed a far-flung pass to Phillips. It would’ve been spectacular if it had counted, but referees ruled that Walker was down.
The fourth quarter began with a 55-yard punt from kicker Austin Rehkow, who pinned the ball within the ‘Hawks’ 2-yard line.
After two false starts, it looked like the ‘Hawks would go three-and-out, giving Houston the ball back. That was exactly what the Roughnecks needed: with the score 21-18, they couldn’t afford to give up an already narrow lead. But after the penalties, the momentum shifted. The Battlehawks rallied, achieving three consecutive first downs (13 yards, 11 yards, and 14 yards, respectively.) In no time, they’d moved halfway down the field. It looked like they were going to score.
But out of nowhere, Ta’amu was intercepted by Roughnecks cornerback Jeremiah Johnson. He ran 64 yards to set up 1st and goal at the 1-yard line. Then P.J. Walker threw yet another TD pass to Cam Phillips, who scored his third touchdown of the game. Walker ran into the end zone for a one-point conversion, making the score 28-18.
The Roughnecks enjoyed a ten-point lead until after the two-minute warning. On 4th and 12 (!!!), the ‘Hawks somehow managed to score, with wide receiver L’Damian Washington running in for a TD. Their conversion attempt was no good, though, and the Roughnecks held on to win the game.
Johnson’s pivotal interception was cited as a game-changing play, but Johnson humbly downplayed his late-game heroics in a postgame press conference. “I really want to give credit to the D-line,” he said. “That was a big play, and I can only thank God for the opportunity to keep ballin’.”
Being a baller comes with some fringe benefits. Bud Light Seltzer is an official sponsor of the XFL. Many of the league’s players enjoyed the sponsored drinks after Sunday’s games: both the DC Defenders and the Dallas Renegades were shown shotgunning cans of seltzer in the locker room. During the postgame press conference, one reporter asked Johnson, “Were there any seltzers opened up in y’all’s locker room?”
“I haven’t seen any,” Johnson replied, smiling.
Meanwhile, in the XFL locker room:
After the game, I was preparing to leave the press box and walk down to the field when a tall, built blond walked in. It was Greg Olsen, the legendary tight end who made history in 2016 as the first TE with three consecutive seasons of 1,000 receiving yards. Olsen recently walked away from the Carolina Panthers after nearly nine years. Olsen is currently negotiating with the Bills, Redskins, and Seahawks, according to CBS Sports. Which made me wonder: why was he in Houston? It turns out that Olsen was doing color commentary for the XFL game on FOX. Despite battling an infection (the cause of his raspy voice), Olsen got rave reviews for his performance:
I rode the elevator downstairs with Olsen and a gaggle of others. I didn’t say anything to Olsen directly; I wanted to appear a serious journalist, not some starstruck fan. But as the elevator descended and the doors opened, I thought of all the Sunday afternoons I’ve spent watching the NFL on FOX (including numerous Panthers games). Was I really going to miss an opportunity to meet my first big-name NFL player?
I decided to break protocol. As we walked towards the exits, I approached and shook his hand. “This is unprofessional, but I’ve loved watching you for years,” I said. “You’re one of my favorite Panthers, and I wish you all the best going forward.”
“That’s very nice of you. Thank you,” he replied, before walking out of TDECU Stadium. Will he walk away from professional football, too? Olsen is reportedly mulling whether to continue playing or pursue a career in broadcasting.
I spent the rest of the evening walking on air — which is probably how the Roughnecks feel after going 2-0. They will play the Seattle Dragons at 1 pm on Saturday, March 7.