The menus at Montana Mike’s Steakhouse and Gianni’s Dining Retreat almost entice Mike Garrity to stick around Des Moines, Iowa, for longer than he hopes to.
When last he visited the Hawkeye State, Garrity was on a football recruiting visit to Iowa City from Batavia. He remembers remarking about the perceived lack of activity and being in no hurry to return.
Five years later, Garrity is starting at right guard for the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers. He has recovered from a spate of recent injuries and aims to secure another shot at an NFL tryout, beginning with tonight’s season opener against the Rush at Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
“Since there’s not a big expansion program or anything like a developmental league for the NFL, a lot of guys look to the AFL for that next shot to perfect their game, get enough tape to get a portfolio and get noticed again.” Garrity said. “It’s big for me, because that’s exactly what I plan on doing.”
Garrity spent part of this week coordinating what could be a sizable cheering section at Allstate. Both the Iowa and Rush rosters feature their share of former Chicagoland prep athletes, and former Bears quarterback Mike Hohensee – a replacement player during the 1987 strike – coaches the Barnstormers.
Garrity initially joined the Barnstormers near the end of last season on the heels of a short stint with the Bears. He was granted a workout with the Bears in April 2012, then earned an invitation to a rookie minicamp the next month.
Although the club did not retain him, Garrity remembers an encouraging speech from offensive line coach Tim Holt to the group of minicamp cuts, including the assertion they were “very close” to being pro-caliber.
Those words helped fuel Garrity when he sprained the ball of his right foot while dropping into pass protection in a May 25 home game against Spokane (Wash.)
He recovered from that injury and resumed a regular regimen at Batavia-based ProForce Sports Performance Training before signing a one-year deal with the Barnstormers in November. The 6-foot-6, 315-pounder enters the season feeling stronger about both his body and his frame of mind.
“It’s not about how big and strong you are anymore. It’s about how well you know the game and how fundamentally strong you are,” Garrity said. “Everybody is that big and everybody is that strong and we’re all there for a reason.”
The arena game provided the most famous former Barnstormer with an accelerated view of offensive football.
There’s a flag at the team facility commemorating the career of Kurt Warner, who starred in Iowa before becoming an NFL and Super Bowl MVP quarterback with the St. Louis Rams.
While Garrity sees an unconventional incarnation of his sport in principle – AFL games are played 8-on-8, and there are four players on the line of scrimmage – his objective doesn’t change.
“You’ve got one job to do,” he said, “and that’s protect the quarterback at all costs.”
Initially an Illinois recruit, Garrity redshirted in his first collegiate season of 2007, but did not appear in a game in 2008-09. In May 2009, then- Illini coach Ron Zook temporarily suspended Garrity after Garrity was linked to a bar fight in which a man was hospitalized.
Garrity transferred to Eastern Illinois the following season, but played in just seven games from 2010-11 because of injuries.
Also a former Batavia track thrower, he remained close to Bulldogs coaches and often visited campus on visits home.
“Whenever he’s been around, he’s been a real good friend to our school and our kids, and every time you see him he just seems to be doing better and better,” Batavia football and boys track coach Dennis Piron said.
Garrity estimated he attended only a few indoor football games growing up, watching the Rush or the Hoffman Estates-based Slaughter only if his parents or neighbors scored tickets on a whim.
While he hopes today is the start of his first and only full season in the AFL, he appreciates the full-circle significance of this homecoming either way.
“It’s crazy to think now that I went to those games as a kid and that’s me now,” Garrity said. “And now some other kid might be up there, see me and one day think the same thing.”