- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The NFL hasn't held a game of any kind in Los Angeles since 1994, but the NFL Players Association will bring the next best thing to the city in January.
The union will stage the first-ever AstroTurf NFLPA Collegiate Bowl at the Home Depot Center on Jan. 21. The game will be open to all draft-eligible players and serve as the culmination of a week of practices and events in Los Angeles when current and former NFL players will work with top NFL draft prospects on what will be expected of them on and off the field in the league.
The game is expected to draw 100 of the country's top NFL draft prospects, who will be split into two teams coached by Dick Vermeil and Tom Flores. It will be the first time Vermeil and Flores have faced each other in a game since Super Bowl XV, when Flores' Oakland Raiders beat Vermeil's Philadelphia Eagles 27-10.
"It's a perfect setting for college players to transition into the pros," NFLPA assistant executive director Clark Gaines told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "This will be our first game and it will be historic. We think there will be a lot of players who will want to play in this game."
The players for the game will arrive in Los Angeles on Jan. 16 for a week of practices before the game, much like the Senior Bowl is run in Mobile, Ala. The biggest difference is the NFLPA's event also will be open to underclassmen who have entered their name into the draft.
"We thought about it long and hard and we decided if a player is draft eligible, he will be eligible to play in our game," Gaines said. "Who are we to deny him his livelihood? If juniors are giving up their eligibility and are past the point of return, they are draft eligible and we will invite them to play in the game."
The NFLPA had been loosely involved in a college game the past five years in San Antonio called the "Texas vs. The Nation Game". The game pitted college seniors who played college or high school football in Texas against a team of seniors from the rest of the country. The NFLPA, however, only licensed its name to the game and was not involved in the operations. After the NFL lockout, the NFLPA wanted to stage its own game which would be open to all draft-eligible players and also serve as the players' first introduction to the NFLPA and its members.
"We wanted to do this game because we wanted to get access to future members and educate them on the business of football and part of the business of football is not denying players their right to earn a living if they so choose," Gaines said. "No other game gives these juniors an opportunity to showcase their talents. Why would you tell them they can't play? These guys are future members of this organization. Some of these players will become officers in this union and they will make policies and I'm sure they will remember this game forever."
Since the game will be open to underclassmen applying for the draft, players such as USC quarterback Matt Barkley and offensive lineman Matt Kalil, who are projected to be taken in the top 10 of next year's NFL draft as juniors, would have the ability to play one last game at home and experience playing in a "bowl game" after USC was banned from the postseason the past two seasons.
The location of the game is noteworthy to anyone following the ongoing saga of the NFL's possible return to Los Angeles. Home Depot Center is owned and operated by AEG, which wants to build Farmers Field, a 68,000-seat football stadium in downtown Los Angeles. The NFLPA also will hold some of its week-long events at L.A. Live, including an event at the Nokia Theatre, which also is owned and operated by AEG, and is across the street from the proposed Farmers Field site.
"L.A. has not had a professional football presence for many years and we thought it would be a perfect opportunity now that they are trying to bring football back to L.A.," Gaines said. "This might be a boost in that effort. Having a team in L.A. is very important and if we can help in any way we will."
The Home Depot Center seats 27,000 fans and is the home of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA of Major League Soccer and will host the MLS Cup on Nov. 20. Gaines said the venue is perfect for the game with over 90,000-seat stadiums like the Rose Bowl and Coliseum being too large. Tickets for the game will go on sale this week and start at $15.
Both of the coaches in the game have strong ties to Los Angeles, with Flores coaching the Los Angeles Raiders to their only Super Bowl title in L.A. and Vermeil serving as a coach with the Los Angeles Rams and UCLA Bruins from 1969-1975. He also coached the Rams, then in St. Louis, to their only Super Bowl title in 1999. Flores will coach the "American" team while Vermeil will coach the "National" team, similar to the format of the Pro Bowl, with the players being assigned teams when they arrive in Los Angeles.
"The NFL Players Association wants this to be more than just a game, they want it to be a NFL educational experience," Vermeil told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "This will be these players' first introduction to the National Football League without the pressure of making a team in training camp. By the time they are drafted and go to training camp they will have an understanding of what's expected of them, having worked with NFL coaches and players for a week. There won't be anything like this."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
The NFLPA will hold a pre-draft camp and game in Los Angeles.