Players left stranded in Fort Wayne after National Gridiron League cancels season

Local News

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — The National Gridiron League season is apparently over before it even began.

Seven players and a coach confirmed to WANE 15’s Briana Brownlee on Monday that the upcoming season had been called off after a tumultuous few days that included a protest at Glenbrook Square Mall. Numerous calls to league founder Joe McClendon have gone unreturned.

McClendon had claimed the City of Fort Wayne left the league on the hook for housing as players from its 12 teams began arriving in the city for a training camp. The NGL’s season was reportedly set to kick off May 1 in a bubble in Fort Wayne.

Despite the lack of help from McClendon, players stressed that coaches have been trying to help them get lodging in Fort Wayne or help pay for flights and bus tickets back home. However, according to the players, the coaches are also struggling because they have yet to be paid by the NGL.

“It’s putting a lot of us in a bad position, a lot of us spent our last to get out here, I heard some people say ‘spent my last $300 to book my flight’. So now they don’t have any money for another flight because they thought they were getting checks to help them alleviate that,” said Atavious Matthews, linebacker for the Virginia Iron Horses. “You can’t be comfortable when you are somewhere new and struggling, but the mayor didn’t make promises to us, Joe McClendon did.”

A rollercoaster of emotion is how some of the players described their time in Fort Wayne, but they decided to endure the ride all for the love of the game, which is football.

Matthews is a father and has a girlfriend in his hometown, and left his job after signing his contract with the NGL.

“It’s been all of our dreams to play at the next level. I know for me it’s my son, I just wanted to do more for him,” Matthews explained. “As for my job situation, I felt like I was in a rut. I made good money but I wanted to do better and do something that would better all of our lives.”

Jamal Bailey and David Drakeford are Matthews’ teammates for the Virginia Iron Horses. Bailey said he was in his hotel room on Saturday playing his game when the hotel manager knocked on his door to let him know the room was not paid for.

“When that happened, I thought that it was a fraud situation, because the league is based in Atlanta, and it could have been a situation where the bank was holding money,” said Drakeford, Quarterback for the Virginia Iron horses. “But as it started to play out, [we were wondering] what’s really going on? Was it a scam? I’m going to have to start from ground zero, I’ll still have my apartment but I’m going to have to reapply for everything.”

“He said ‘the card declined or something like that and we got to leave in about an hour or two. I was like ‘What? That’s not what Joe said’,” Bailey said. “I drove up here 12 hours from Louisiana my truck right now, she is cranking, but she won’t start. So, if this doesn’t workout, I am stuck. I literally came up here with nothing. My mama had to give me money so I could try and live my dream.”

In a tearful, emotional state, Bailey shared his story of how he fell in love with the game of football. He explained that he was the quiet and shy child who was bullied a lot growing up. He didn’t think he could do life anymore, but he found his passion in the game.

Players have said that they were aware of the struggles of the NGL, but still had faith. They blamed the fact that the league was new as the reason there were still a lot of kinks in addition to the hardships brought on by the pandemic.

Every player that spoke to WANE 15 said they were not the ones protesting in the mall.

Drakeford said the mission is to play, get filmed and make it to the next level. He added that he pushed McClendon for answers with inconsistencies in his story.

“I said ‘it’s funny how you said Houston was the number one spot and you had that on locked. So why come somewhere else? It’s indecisive at that point. As players we are up here with no means,” Drakeford said. “But we also just wanted to show love to Fort Wayne, ever since I have been out here, I got nothing but love and support.”

The city denied McClendon’s claim and said it never had an agreement with the league.

McClendon continues to ignore WANE 15’s phone calls.

Saturday, McClendon said he planned to meet with city officials on Monday to discuss the arrangement, but the meeting was never confirmed by the city and ultimately never happened.

City spokesman John Perlich released this statement to WANE 15 on Monday:

The City will not be moving forward with any type of partnership with the NGL. We don’t have any involvement in regards to a cancellation of the season the league was looking to have.

In December 2019 it was announced the Indiana Blue Bombers had joined the National Gridiron League and would play eight regular season home games at the Memorial Coliseum. The inaugural 2019 season never happened, though, and the 2020 season was called off due to COVID.

Now, the 2021 season has collapsed, as well.

The team has started a gofundme page.

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