By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
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By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
The first week of January is supposed to be slow on the Santa Ana College campus: no students, no classes, just maintenance workers, administrators and the stray professor. That meant it was the perfect time for the LA KISS, the newest franchise of the Arena Football League (AFL), to unveil its quixotic campaign toward pigskin relevancy—or at least a great payday for everyone involved.
Around 9 a.m. on a clear, chilly morning, hulking figures methodically make their way onto a soccer pitch transformed into a 200-foot-by-85-foot, arena-football-regulation field—about half the size of a standard gridiron. As players wearing team-issued orange shirts and black shorts head onto the field, multiple camera operators stand by the entrance, capturing their every move. They graciously smile and acknowledge the non-team personnel while stretching and preparing for morning practice.
What they don't know is that on this day, the men who sign their checks—and will draw more attention to them than the average AFL player can ever hope to experience—plan to address them.
Suddenly, the players' attention shifts to a gentleman sauntering onto the field. He has long, flowing black hair and is wearing a leather jacket and jeans. After exchanging handshakes with several execs, he looks at his watch.
"Where's Gene?" KISS founding guitarist/singer Paul Stanley asks his manager/co-owner Doc McGhee.
"Soon," McGhee responds.
"That's right—he drives like an old lady," Stanley adds before the two share a laugh.
Finally, Gene Simmons, the legendary KISS bassist/singer, arrives. He parks his black Lincoln Navigator at the adjacent lot and hustles—clad entirely in black—onto the field so that practice and filming can finally commence. There's chatter, but some of the players don't recognize the rock icon without his trademark Kabuki makeup and rock-god stage attire.
After Simmons is mic'd, he joins Stanley, McGhee, co-owner Brett Bouchy and team president Schuyler Hoversten as they casually stroll toward the team huddle, where head coach Bob McMillen is outlining his plans for practice. The morning's action is being captured as part of an upcoming reality show that will chronicle the team's first season; it's scheduled to air on AMC in July.
Since their emergence in the early 1970s, KISS have been known as much for their genius commercialization and branding as for their music and devoted fan base. Over the years, the 2014 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees have licensed the band's name to a wide range of products, including mini-golf courses, Hello Kitty dolls and even caskets for fans who want to represent the KISS army in the afterlife. But their latest venture might be the most ambitious of all: bringing a football franchise to Orange County, an area that produces some of the best high school talent in the country. It is a far different beast than opening up another Rock & Brews restaurant.
The stakes are high for Simmons and Stanley. If the LA KISS can succeed, both by winning on the field and providing an exciting entertainment experience, their pockets and that of the AFL will benefit. Having recently signed a national television contract, the league could become a fixture on the spring sports calendar and achieve the lofty goals that seemed far-fetched when it re-formed in 2010.
And if they fail?
"Once we commit to doing something, it becomes 'How do we make this succeed?'" Stanley says, unapologetically. "We've always gone against the grain and played by our own rules. If winning is the worst we've ever done, well, that's what we've always aspired to."
* * *
After the initial made-for-TV speeches the owners give to the squad, the players shake hands with their bosses.
"Winning comes from teamwork," Stanley tells the team off-camera. "Nobody wins on their own, and if we can instill a sense of band of brothers, which is what it took with KISS, with them, they will be successful."
When talking with Bouchy and McGhee, the players shake hands with stoic expressions. Meeting and greeting Simmons and Stanley is different. The players gravitate toward them wearing smiles; some of them shake like teenagers backstage at a mid-1970s KISS concert. They continue talking to their rock-icon bosses even after the cameras stop rolling, but then McMillen's loud whistle signals them that it's time to get to business.
The LA KISS split into offensive and defensive practices, while the owners, with camera crew in tow, head for a set of bleachers 30 feet away.
Early on, practice is crisp and fluid, appearing as if the team has taken Stanley's message to heart. McMillen claps loudly and barks at the players to keep up the strong showing. As a Hall of Fame AFL player, the coach knows how to get his message across to players, who respond to his upbeat personality. Grueling agility drills are completed multiple times without complaint. After each player finishes a set, the coach shouts encouraging words. Early in the practice, he's focused on the defense. On the other side of the field, passes are mostly on target, with few dropped balls.
At this point, Simmons and Stanley can be excused for checking out early, managing their empire from afar and leaving the dirty work to underlings. Instead, Simmons' eyes are locked on several massive defensive linemen seamlessly weaving around the small orange cones during footwork drills.