One year later: The demise of the AAF through a player’s eyes

After the Alliance of American Football shut down operations, Dylan Wynn (right), who played for the Arizona Hotshots returned to the Canadian Football League and joined the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Rick Neuheisel (center) was the coach of the Phoenix franchise of the American Alliance of Football until it shut down operations a year ago. Here he is featured with NFL All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen (left) and AAF co-founder Charlie Ebersol. (Photo by Nathanael Gabler/Cronkite News)

With the sports world on hold, Cronkite News will take a daily look at this day in sports history and reflect on some of the biggest moments in Arizona sports.

TEMPE – Tuesday, April 2, 2019, was an ordinary day for defensive lineman Dylan Wynn and his Arizona Hotshots teammates – until it wasn’t.

It turned out to be doomsday for the Alliance of American Football and the Hotshots.

Logo for Arizona Sports Rewind, with images of sports players from major sports overlaying the sunset in the shape of the state.

The Hotshots, one of eight teams in the newly formed AAF, played their games at Sun Devil Stadium and coaches and players were housed at a vacant dormitory in the Valley.

Early on a day off for the team following a 23-6 victory in San Antonio two days earlier, the Hotshots and their coaches began hearing rumors that the league was shutting down operations just eight games into its first season. Arizona was on a three-game winning streak at the time with two regular-season games to play.

“It happened really quick,” said Wynn, who played at Oregon State and then in the Canadian Football League. “We’re walking around the dorm rooms like, ‘What’s going on?'”

Instead of worrying, Wynn and other Hotshots players did what football players do best when off the field. They relaxed.

“We had just come off a win, and a lot of guys are just chilling,” Wynn said. “We start hearing rumors, and people are like, ‘Oh?'”

The noise grew louder as the day went on. Reports began circulating on major sports networks, escalating the uncertainty.

An imminent shutdown meant more than 50 players would be out of jobs and in search of work in a ridiculously competitive industry.

Still, fun – and some gallows humor – relieved the stress on an otherwise chaotic day.

“We had a good time,” Wynn said. “We hung out by the pool, drank some beers. We’re all young dudes, so there was a lot of joking around, people yelling, playing “Titanic” music.”

That day, the Hotshots had a team meeting scheduled around 4 p.m. By that time, the league’s fate had been known for hours.

“I remember I had my flight booked before that meeting,” Wynn said. “It was nuts because we were all in the same area.”

As the Hotshots and other AAF teams dispersed, they were forced to find new endeavors.

A few players made it to the NFL, such as Hotshots receiver Rashad Ross, who played for the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad. Some weren’t as lucky and haven’t yet found another opportunity to play football. Others migrated to the CFL or XFL.

After his brief stint with the Hotshots, Wynn returned to the CFL, joining the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. In 2019, he was named a CFL All-Star, logging 44 tackles and 11 sacks in 18 games, the best statistical season of Wynn’s career as Hamilton finished with the best record in the league before losing to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup.

Wynn credits his time in the Valley for his stellar season in Canada.

“I think the AAF helped with that a lot, especially helping me stay sharp going into a season with more or less half a season under your belt,” Wynn said. “It’s hard on the body, but I was able to get reps before almost anybody else, so I think it helped.

“I didn’t have enough film to make it back to the NFL, so at that point, I was just thinking I’d throw it back in there. It worked out really well out there this year.”

When the league shut down, the Hotshots were tied for first in the Western Conference with a 5-3 record. Though the league never had the chance to crown a champion, Wynn argued that Arizona had the most talented squad.

“I like to think we were the best team,” Wynn said. “I thought we were one of the better organizations.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix