A new era in professional football starts on February 9 as the San Antonio Commanders begin their very first season in the debut Alliance of American Football spring league.
As excited as fans are to see football back in Alamo City, San Antonio’s history with pro and semi-pro football over the past few decades has been, well, complicated.
The Toros, Gunslingers, Wings, Texans, Riders, Talons, and Force, have all come and gone, but there seems to be a different attitude when it comes to the Commanders and the AAF, in part because of how the team has engrained itself in the community. Plus, several NFL veterans — players, coaches, and executives — are supporting the brand-new AAF, with many even taking high-profile positions in the league.
Alliance teams themselves are filled with NFL veterans, both players who aspire to make the big show and those who want a second chance to return. The Commanders themselves even tapped former Dallas Cowboys star Daryl Johnston as its general manager, a decision that immediately proved popular among local Cowboys fans.
“There are very talented young men that play this game and will be in our league, I think you’ll be impressed,” Johnston said in a news conference before the start of training camp.
Johnston said at a press conference that he's seen many football veterans, such as former NCAA head coach (and former Gunslinger) Rick Neuheisel and NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott visit the Commanders and other AAF teams during training camp. It demonstrates, he said, the amount of confidence and backing that current and former pros throughout football have in the fledgling league.
“Any company, any charitable cause, anything that’s successful in the business world or team world is based on the people. That’s first and foremost, and the people that are involved in this league are top-notch,” Johnston said.
Among those top-notch people is Commanders head coach Mike Riley. Riley led the Riders, a World League of American Football club, in the early 1990s before taking on head coaching or coordinator positions with various NCAA and NFL programs. (Fun fact: One of Riley’s standout Riders players was Jason Garrett. Yes, that Jason Garrett.)
Now, Riley’s back in San Antonio, eager to take on a new challenge. “I found the attitude of these players similar to that of the Riders,” Riley said in an Alliance league article. “These are guys that are hungry, want to keep playing football, want to enhance their future opportunities. These are very good guys to work with. I enjoyed that Rider team but I know there is a real deal here with the Commanders.”
Just like with the other AAF teams, the Commanders launched quickly with a progressive campaign to introduce themselves to the community, hopeful that they and the league will not be seen as another football fad in San Antonio.
In keeping with the San Antonio ties, the Commanders finalized its 52-man roster on January 30 — a roster that includes notable locals. Wide receiver Josh Stewart from the UTSA; punter Joseph Zema, an Incarnate Word alumni; running back Aaron Green, a native San Antonian from TCU; and quarterback Dustin Vaughan, a Corpus Christi native from West Texas A&M.
The Commanders have also signed partnerships with local businesses, including Alamo Beer Co. The East Side brewery has created tap two beers, a light and an amber, to salute the new franchise. Plus, Alamo has arranged for a free shuttle to ferry fans from the brewery to the Alamodome during home games.
The new team also invited fans to a January open house at the 'dome, where community members got to meet players and coaches, check out the locker room, and see training camp action firsthand.
The club is getting acquainted with San Antonio in many other ways, too. The team recent presented a jersey to Brig. Gen. Laura Lenderman, commander of 502nd Air Force Wing and Joint Base San Antonio, and team representatives also sat in on a Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce board meeting. And some players volunteered with Operation Homefront to sort through toys for distribution to military families throughout the region.
As for the game itself, the Commanders host the San Diego Fleet on February 9 at 7 pm at the Alamodome. This marks the league's very first game of a 10-week season that runs through mid-April before leading up to a two-playoff-game weekend. The championship game is scheduled for April 27 in Las Vegas.