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second-tier football

Ryan Hoag: Hero, Icon, Virgin.

Tonight, there's a big game going down: The New York Sentinels of the United Football League make their home debut in the Meadowlands against the California Redwoods. The UFL is a new four-team professional football league hell-bent on satiating the American need for, uh, more professional football.

The league's decision to open in New York opposite a Yankees home World Series game is an instant classic in the sports genre of the madcap, upstart sports league. Not that early fiasco equals certain failure. The Jets started as the Titans in the American Football League. In their first year, coaches would duck out of practice early to cash their paychecks before the players could so their checks wouldn't bounce. Nine years later, Broadway Joe made them world champions. In the same decade, the New Jersey Nets began in the ABA as the New York Americans. They had to forfeit a game in their inaugural season when an opponent pointed out that there were bolts coming up through their home floor and the two baskets didn't seem to be at the same height. Now the Nets are about to be bought by a Russian billionaire. These are not coincidences.

It seems new sports leagues exist mostly so that quirky documentaries can be made about their failures a generation later. (A multi-part AFL documentary is currently screening on Showtime, and a United States Football League documentary debuted on ESPN last week.) Part of the inevitable UFL documentary will center on the league's vaguely socialist decision not to have their teams live in the cities where they play. Instead, the Sentinels live in a Florida training/internment camp they share with the Florida Tuskers. It does, in fact, save money, but kind of makes it difficult for the hometown media to cover the team! Perhaps not coincidentally, attendance has been spotty, averaging out around 11,000.

Initially, the Sentinels' three home games were going to be split between Giants Stadium, Citi Field, and Rentschler Stadium outside of Hartford. Because of poor ticket sales, the second game has been rescheduled for Hofstra's Shuart Stadium. This was probably a good move. Factoring in the Yankees, free tickets given to police and fire departments, and football obsessives who listen to a loop of Chris Berman's favorite nicknames for their gym playlist, The Sports Section pegs tonight's attendance at 6,789. If you send us a self-addressed stamped envelope, we will disclose our methodology.

No matter. It is the rogues, prodigies, and lovable losers that we remember when we remember sports leagues gone wild. Few recall that Wayne Gretzky played his first pro games in the World Hockey Association for the Indianapolis Racers. (Gretzky lasted eight games before the soon-to-be-bankrupt Racers sold him to the Edmonton Oilers after, legend has it, Racers owner Nelson Skalbania lost a high-stakes backgammon game to Oilers owner Peter Pocklington.) The ABA is best known for Dr. J. and inspiring Will Ferrell's second-worst movie, but there was also Marvin "Bad News" Barnes, who refused to get on a westbound flight that would arrive at an earlier time because of a change of time zones by explaining "I'm not getting on no time machine." And who can forget Rod Smart of the Xtreme Football League, who chose to have "He Hate Me" written on the back of his jersey rather than his last name?

Now it's the UFL's shortbus moment. After hours — okay — minutes, spent combing through the Sentinels roster, we found the next great American sports hero. His name is Ryan Hoag. Ten Things You Need to Know About Hoag:

1. He started playing college football after being cut from the Wake Forest soccer team for sleeping through a practice.
2. He was the last player taken by the Raiders in the 2003 NFL Draft, earning him the nickname Mr. Irrelevant. He was cut because of a wide-receiver logjam involving someone named Jerry Rice.
3. He was signed to the Giants practice squad in 2003. On May 10, 2004, he spoke to a New Jersey high school and announced he was a virgin. (It's a Christianity thing.) He was cut ten days later. Cause and effect?
4. From 2004 to 2008, the Jaguars, Vikings, and Redskins of the NFL, and Eskimos of the Canadian Football League, cut Ryan.
5. In 2008, Deanna of The Bachelorette cut Ryan. She cited Ryan's professional-athlete lifestyle as a deal-breaker. The man who eventually won her heart? A professional snowboarder.
6. Ryan has expressed a desire to teach kindergarten.
7. Ryan is a part-time model.
8. The Sentinels signed him in August.
9. In September, he was battling Preston Brown for a wide-receiver slot. Ryan triumphed. Brown may have been distracted by his day job: at-large councilman for the City of Camden, New Jersey.
10. Ryan turns 30 next month, still hoping to catch his first professional pass in a meaningful game. Tonight may be the night!

At press time, Hoag's life rights were still available.

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Photo: Getty Images