- Jun 3, 2012
Several former Miami Hurricanes who once thought their clocks as professional athletes had long expired are helping revive and rebrand the sport in a city where it once was celebrated.
won't copy and paste the whole thing since it is premium content, but here are some highlights:
In January 2018, Magic City Casino tasked Arrasate with coaching a new jai alai roster, but the job came with a twist: Rather than hire those from Spain and other countries who grew up playing jai alai, the standard approach for Miami casinos, Magic City sought players who could connect with a U.S. audience. So the casino recruited former athletes from the University of Miami and other Florida colleges with zero experience, but a desire to learn and play professionally.
Miami emailed hundreds of its athletes from the past 20 years. About 10 agreed to try out for Magic City.
The former University of Miami athletes might have been short on experience and long in the tooth, but they packed plenty of personality and some name recognition.
The group included former Miami quarterback Kenny Kelly, who went on to appear in 26 Major League Baseball games for three clubs; Darryll Roque, an ex-Hurricanes pitcher who won a College World Series championship in 1999; and Tanard Davis, a defensive back who played for Miami from 2002 to 2005, and won a Super Bowl ring with the Indianapolis Colts as a practice-squad member.
Most of the recruits knew little to nothing about jai alai. Some struggled to pronounce it (it's high-lie). But in an unfamiliar sport, they saw renewed hope for their athletic dreams.
"Having this opportunity to be a competitor, to go against another opponent, to show all the work I put in to dominate you, there's nothing more thrilling," Davis said. "I'm thankful, I can't stress it enough."
Earlier this month, the casino launched its fourth season of jai alai, featuring several former Hurricanes who once thought their clocks as professional athletes had long expired. They're helping revive and rebrand the sport in a city where it once was celebrated.
"It's just amazing," Roque said, "to have another opportunity to have a jersey on my back."
The first weeks were difficult for a group used to excelling in just about any sport.
"No one could catch the ball, no one could throw, we didn't know crap," Kelly said. "You're dealing with former athletes here, and everybody's competitive. So when things aren't going right, I saw guys show up at midnight to work on their game."
Added Savin: "We had to get them to a certain level where they weren't going to kill somebody, basically."
Few skills from football translate in jai alai, other than the agility needed to move laterally. The former baseball players tend to do better, especially infielders comfortable with catching a fast-moving ball. But the throwing motion, with a locked elbow instead of a bent one, takes some adjusting.
Roque threw 93 mph at Miami and 95 in the minor leagues, but he couldn't bring the heat as often in jai alai.
"Starting off, I had to think that I was throwing a hanging curveball every single time, the opposite of what I want to do," he said. "I still have a little problem. I'm still bending my arm. With a straight arm, the ball can carry a lot further."
Former Miami defensive back Dennis Dalton estimates he was 30 to 40 pounds overweight when jai alai practices started, but "snapped right back in shape." His toughest adjustment, like others, was anticipating where the pelota would go based on an opponent's throwing motion.
"The football players, their biggest issue was the hand-eye coordination," Arrasate said. "They were strong and they were fast and they could hit hard, but in jai alai, the ball travels 140 miles an hour. They didn't have that quickness."
Season 1 went about as expected. Filmmaker Billy Corben ("Cocaine Cowboys," "Screwball," "Broke," "The U") documented the year in 2019's "Magic City Hustle," which had a worldwide release last week. The roster had plenty of fun characters with enough athleticism left in their tanks, but not much proficiency to win over the jai alai community.
"We were not accepted and we were ridiculed," Savin said.
Some players put stickers of Miami's iconic "U" on their helmets. Roque, who plays under the name "Tennessee" for his home state, wears a helmet with the NFL's Titans logo. Players compete under names such Cool Fitness, Juice and El Barba ("The Beard" in Spanish) -- a nod to Dalton's prodigious dreadlocked red beard, which he hasn't cut for six or seven years.
"I'm probably the fan favorite, to be honest with you," Dalton said. "My first year, I had a group of old Cubans, they went and bought some fake beards, and one night seven or eight of them were here. And these old Cuban ladies, they love El Barba, they're speaking to me in Spanish, thinking I can speak Spanish, but I can't speak Spanish. I just nod and wave."
Davis, who plays as Jeden, his son's name, calls jai alai "the best-kept secret."
"I'm from Coconut Grove, the hood. We didn't play that kind of sport. We played basketball, we played football, we ran track and that's it," he said. "Being able to come out here and play this sport, and using all the mechanics of a professional athlete -- jump, run, fast, power, strength -- it's really one of those sports that if the right viewership gets it, it can blow up."
AT 44, ROQUE is the "grandpa" of Magic City jai alai, three months older than Dalton. But when Roque plays, he feels like he's still 19.
"I want the guys to throw the ball harder to me," he said.
Roque has transitioned from being a full-time high school teacher to a substitute, which allows him to retain his credentials. He views jai alai as a "full-time profession." Dalton still drives for Uber, especially during breaks in the schedule, but will sacrifice drive time for practice time in the fronton.
Davis splits his time between Miami and Georgia, where he has worked as a police officer in Gwinnett County. Although he occasionally works security at grocery and convenience stores, jai alai is his primary source of income.
"The past two years, we're getting more assurance that this isn't a temporary job," Davis said. "This is something with longevity."
Last year, Magic City jai alai players earned between $42,000 and $105,000, with an average of $60,000, Savin said. There's also the prize pool, which this year increased to $500,000. Players are on one-year contracts with benefits. When they underperform, the casino will ask if they want to continue, or offer shorter-term deals. But Savin said the intent is not to cut any current player who wants to continue and believes they're physically capable.
About half the players carry second jobs, but their dedication to the sport is strong.
"It's Second Chance U," Savin said. "This is what they wanted to be: professional athletes. Some of them tasted it. Some of them never got above minor league level. Some of them never did anything after college. But it's what they want to do, and their drive and determination is second to none, which is why I always thought this would work."
Magic City's roster changes every year, and includes some who grew up with jai alai, such as Goitlandia and Ronald Madrigal, a native of the Philippines. Kelly isn't playing this season as he recovers from unrelated wrist surgery, but he has been officiating games and doesn't rule out a return to the fronton.
"It means a lot, just giving us an opportunity to compete again and to be in a locker room again," he said. "You miss the game and some of the things that go on, the traveling, but we really miss the camaraderie of the teammates. We're playing cards, dominos, we're hanging out, just as a family, as a group, even though we're competing against each other."
Most jai alai players retire by their mid-40s, but Roque hopes to play until 50. Dalton, who has an adult daughter, joked that some of the other Magic City players could be his children.
But El Barba, 43, isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
"It's been everything to be able to play professionally competitive at this age," he said. "I've been really blessed, as opposed to having to go down to the YMCA and play pickup games with old, fat guys.
"I want to keep on doing this as long as I can."