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Eight hours before Nick Rose scored the first three points in San Antonio Commanders history, flag-flying pickup trucks and SUVs lined up on Cherry Street on the east side of the Alamodome filled with hearty football fans ready to cheer for their new team.
Occasional drizzle and temperatures in the low 40s Saturday made it feel like football season as tailgaters listened to music, played cornhole and kids threw footballs as smoke from barbecues wafted over the parking lots.
San Antonians have hungered for a professional football team for years, and thousands showed up to finally have their appetites satisfied with the debut of the first game in the inaugural season of the Alliance of American Football.
They yelled, they booed, they high-fived and groaned at missed opportunities like they had been wearing red and silver and supporting the team for years. Even former San Antonio Spurs legend David Robinson came to see history unfold.
The crowd of 27,857 filled most of the lower bowl of the stadium for the 7:30 p.m. start and saw the Commanders defeat the San Diego Fleet 15-6.
Roger Adan, 41, of San Antonio stood in the cold before the game drinking a Commanders beer from Alamo Beer Co. explaining what attracted him to become a season ticket holder without knowing how good the product would be on the field.
“I think this league is going to be successful,” he said. “The NFL is backing it. Plus we’re always complaining that we don’t have a football team in San Antonio. We have to support the team we have.”
Rene Aguilar, a 46-year-old who lives on the South Side, came with nearly 20 friends and family members. They cooked ribs and chicken and drank beer beneath a tent with the American flag flying. They started what they hope becomes a familiar chant with just about anyone who walked by.
“Swords up,” they yelled, referencing the Commanders logo, which features a military sword. “Hell, yeah.”
“You have to believe in it,” Aguilar said of supporting the fledgling team. “If you don’t believe in it, it will fail.”
When film producer Charlie Ebersol and NFL Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian first unveiled the idea for this new spring football league a year ago, they committed to quality football first and foremost, knowing a faulty product would doom the endeavor.
For the most part, they delivered on that promise in this first outing, which was televised nationally on CBS and on the league’s app and website. With each player wearing sensors to track movement, the data areas of the app and website resembled the old video game Tecmo Bowl.
“We’re a startup football league,” Ebersol said. “Before (Saturday), no one had ever seen the San Antonio Commanders play a football game and we’re asking people to part with their money to do that. It might be $10 or it might be $150, but ultimately this is not a decision where somebody is going to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got to go see the Pittsburgh Steelers.’ We have to earn that audience.”
The league also vowed to put player safety first, which is why there are no kickoffs; possessions that start games and halves or follow scores begin at the 25-yard line.
However, that commitment seemed half-hearted early in the game when San Antonio linebacker Shaan Washington drilled San Diego quarterback Mike Bercovici, separating him from his helmet. It was a highlight sure to make future Commanders hype videos, but Bercovici’s head hit the turf and he was not required to leave the game for even one play.
The AAF paid tribute to San Antonio’s military community when it named the team and designed its logo. That continued Saturday with members of the Air Force unfurling a field-length American flag for the national anthem performed by Master Sgt. Robert Scott.
Fans saw the genesis of new traditions, including a horse named Clovis, ridden by Andy Andersen, leading the Commanders on to the field before the game.
A group of men stood in the back of the end zone holding long rifles and dressed like Alamo soldiers. Bob O’Campo, Charles Lara, Mike Scully, and Martin Vasquez make regular appearances for the Battle for Texas The Experience and will be regulars at Commanders home games.
All five will fire their weapons for a Commanders touchdown, two will fire for a 2-point conversion (there are no extra points in the AAF) and three fire for a field goal.
What remains to be seen is whether the league has staying power. The feeling on Saturday was that it showed promise in its debut, and football-starved San Antonians couldn’t be happier.