WORCESTER, Mass. — From the lower bowl of the DCU Center, Betsy Sierra leaned forward in her seat at halftime of her first indoor pro football game Saturday night. She had made a 45-minute drive to see her son, Niko, a linebacker for the Maine Mammoths.
“It’s fun,” she shouted. “High energy. A lot faster than I thought.”
Sierra needed to shout to be heard over the din inside the arena, where a rapper, Kid Ink, was performing during halftime of the first game in Mammoths history, a 51-24 loss to the Massachusetts Pirates.
Both teams are expansion franchises of the six-team National Arena League. The Mammoths play their first game in Portland at 7 p.m. Saturday at Cross Insurance Arena against the Carolina Cobras.
Niko Sierra played college football at Sacred Heart, then three years of indoor pro football before joining the Mammoths.
“Tonight was great,” he said after the game. “It’s always fun when there’s a lot of people. Nice and loud. They get into it.”
Player introductions for the home team came with flashing lights and smoke-belching cannons. The oblong field measured 50 yards between goal lines with end zones that curved along the lines of the hockey rink that’s home to the ECHL Worcester Railers.
With Plexiglas removed from above the hockey boards – padded and covered in advertisements – fans have a much more intimate feel for the action. Players are free to interact over the boards and frequently trade high-fives. Trenier Orr, a defensive back for the Mammoths, found himself trading barbs with a leather-lunged patron who seemed never to be without an oversized beer can.
“Oh, man, I don’t know what he was saying,” said Orr, who last played organized football for Sam Houston State in 2016. “He was probably getting on my butt, just trying to make me go a little harder. But it’s all love, man. We need people who are going to talk a little junk. It’s all fun and games.”
Orr had one of the two interceptions for the Mammoths but his biggest contribution came on the opening kickoff, which caromed off the left goal post and back onto the field. Orr raced down and grabbed it before getting knocked over the boards for a 45-yard onside kick recovery.
Maine quarterback Jonathan Bane’s first pass was a 5-yard touchdown to Devin Wilson and the Mammoths led 6-0 before a minute elapsed.
Bane threw two more touchdown passes, one to Wilson and another to Maurice Dupree. But the Pirates also intercepted Bane three times, recovered a fumbled snap, sacked him four times and forced him into 20 incompletions.
Only once did the Mammoths use a designed running play. The Pirates rushed at least 10 times, scoring three of their eight touchdowns on the ground. The game included three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, two on Maine and one on Massachusetts. The Mammoths also had consecutive delay-of-game penalties to thwart one drive.
“We’ve only got about four guys who have been in this situation before so I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Mammoths Coach James Fuller, in his 20th season of indoor football. “I thought we started off OK, traded some scores. But offensively we just didn’t produce. It’s not what we wanted to do but it’s something to learn from with a young team.”
As with any venture in its early stages – the second-year league added the Pirates in November and the Mammoths in December – not everything ran smoothly. Programs failed to include jersey numbers for the Pirates. Referees often appeared confused about rules, resulting in several lengthy delays. In lieu of press-box spaces for media, there was a turntable and a disc jockey spinning vinyl.
An hour after the game, as Mammoth players milled around neither a bus nor promised postgame pizza appeared. Eventually the driver was located and a call was made to a nearby Domino’s. The team made it back to Portland at 1:30 a.m. Sunday.
“There’s always going to be some hiccups from a behind-the-scenes perspective,” said NAL Commissioner Chris Siegfried, who came up from Florida for the game. “But from a fan’s perspective, I thought it was a really good show. … You know, I can’t root for either team, but it’s always good for the home team to win the home opener, from a business standpoint.”
No one from the host team or the DUC Center – which has a capacity of 14,800 – could provide an attendance figure. One local veteran observer pegged the crowd at approximately 5,500. By the end of the nearly three-hour proceedings, about half of those folks had left.
Still, there was palpable excitement outside the arena before the game and a fevered curiosity within.
“Man, it was electrifying,” said Orr, reflecting on the difference between arena football and his collegiate experience. “The biggest difference I would say is the atmosphere and the energy that the arena brings to the players. You could feel everything. You could hear everything.”
Wilson, who caught two touchdown passes for the Mammoths, played for the NAL’s Jacksonville Sharks last summer. He also spent a year in the Canadian Football League. After his second score, he offered the ball to a group of boisterous Pirates fans, only to pull it back when one of them reached for it.
“They were kind of heckling us the whole game,” Wilson said with a laugh. “So it was kind of cool. Just having fun with the fans. That’s what it’s all about in this game.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or