Three Most Well Known Former Indoor or Arena Football Players with NFL Ties, Not Named Kurt Warner

There are more football leagues than ever before, whether you are talking Indoor or Outdoor, it seems every year we gain a new league. With the Indoor Football League finishing their fifteenth season, they have grown to become the top dog but with the Arena Football League returning in 2024, as well as the Champions Indoor Football League, I wanted to take a look at some of the biggest names that have ever played indoor football. Arena/Indoor football often flies under the radar it still has produced players that have gone on to have success at the next level outdoors whether that was the NFL, CFL, USFL, or XFL. In this article I wanted to highlight three players who have signed Indoor or Arena Football contracts that have played in the NFL at some point in their careers.

Everyone knows the story of Kurt Warner, a man who once worked in a grocery store while trying to achieve his dream of playing in the NFL by taking several opportunities that he once thought were beneath him. Highlighted in the movie American Underdog, Warner played for the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League in a time when the AFL played in television and could offer significantly more money than most of these leagues can afford at this point. Warner went on to eventually win a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams, as one part of the Greatest Show on Turf.

With that in mind let’s take a look at three of the biggest names to every play indoor/arena football.

From Terrell Owens, to Fred Jackson And Everything In Between

Terrell Owens

With several former or future NFL names having graced the league, no player to play in the IFL is a bigger name than Terrell Owens. Long before the 48 year old stepped back on the field with the FCF in Season 2.0, he played indoor football with the IFL for the first time back in 2012. The Allen Wranglers signed Terrell Owens, to help coax him to the league they even gave him a piece of the ownership.

Being offered six figures to play in the IFL, which at the time was much like the Wild West in terms of their rule structure to salary cap restrictions. Terrell Owens, also known as T.O. signed the contract and came to play also entering ownership. He would go on to play in 8 games, catching 35 passes for 420 yards and 10 touchdowns. Just six months later T.O. was released on May 29th 2012 for showing a lack of effort on and off the field.

Despite the lack of effort this actually helped lead him back to the NFL in the following season. Seattle brought him in on a one year contract, but his stint lasted just 20 days. Owens talked about an NFL comeback relentlessly every season essentially daring NFL teams to throw the 40 year old receiver back on the field. NFL teams never bit, but the Fan Controlled Football League did bite, bringing in the big wideout. T.O. made waves in the FCF, playing well at 48 years old, and showing up in peak physical shape. Since then the FCF has gone dormant, but T.O. certainly showed he can still play. He likely will not see another professional football contract, unless he wants to follow another former Philadelphia Eagle to the A7FL.

Fred Jackson, Running Back

Fred Jackson

Fred Jackson was a long time running back for the Buffalo Bills. An undrafted free agent in 2004, he would end up signing with the Sioux City Bandits where he would play for two seasons, in two different leagues, both of which are now defunct. In 2005 he would be named UIF Co-MVP. In 18 games he put up 1,770 yards and 53 touchdowns ultimately watching his number be retired in 2008 during his third season in the NFL.

After two seasons with the Bandits, he would go on to play or the Rhein Fire in the 2006 season, which turned into a long term opportunity with the Buffalo Bills. From 2006 to 2015 Fred Jackson continued to play in the NFL. He ultimately played ten seasons of professional football split between indoor and outdoor football leagues.

In the NFL he was able to put up an impressive 1,305 carries for 5,746 yards, 30 rushing touchdowns, 354 receptions 2,897 yards and 9 touchdowns. He may not be a hall of fame candidate in the NFL, but if you look at the entire scope of his career, which the Professional Football Hall of Fame should be doing, he might have a case to make the Hall. Regardless that’s a discussion for another day.

Jackson ran his own show in Buffalo for three years from 2012 to 2015, and it ultimately served as a precursor for his future in media. Jackson now works with Spectrum News One on their Post Game Show, Buffalo Endzone. Jackson also at one point ran a restaurant with former teammates Terrance McGee, and Brian Moorman that unfortunately was forced to close during the Corona Virus.

Dexter McCluster, Wide Receiver

I consider myself very knowledgeable about indoor and arena football, and I try to keep up on the vast majority of former NFL players that find their way indoors. I however was not aware Dexter McCluster played in the National Arena League in 2019. Shout out to Krish Vyas for the suggestion. McCluster signed with the Massachusetts Pirates in the 2019 season right before they joined the Indoor Football League.

Despite the versatile nature of McCluster’s game it was somewhat surprising to see most of his damage was done as a wide receiver for the Pirates. He played in 6 games catching 19 passes for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns on the year. McCluster never turned into the star player he was envisioned to be for the Kansas City Chiefs when he was selected in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. McCluster would play seven seasons in the NFL from 2010-2016. Although he wasn’t able to play his final season in 2016 due to a fractured forearm.

Displaying his love for the game, and perhaps his hope to get back into the NFL, the running back/receiver/return man headed north to play in the Canadian Football League after sitting out of football for almost two full years. In the 2018 season playing for the Toronto Argonauts, he displayed his patented burst, and change of direction on his way to 5.3 yards per carry. He would carry the ball 22 times for 117 yards, adding 12 receptions for 111 yards or 9.3 yards per reception. He returned just 1 punt for 6 yards, and 2 kicks for 40 yards. He appeared in just four games for the Argos.

Although it looked as if McCluster could have been a great fit for the CFL game, he never returned after the 2018 season, instead landing in the NAL in 2019. Much closer to his home of Largo, Florida, he would play for the Massachusetts Pirates, a team that is known for their ability to attract the top talent in any league they compete in. McCluster is just another example of this, and he wasn’t the only player signed in 2019 with NFL ties, but we will save that story for another day as well.

Honorable Mention

Nick Truesdell, Tight End

Nick Truesdell

Nick Truesdell is not the household name that the last two players are, but he was still playing as recently as the 2022 season with the New Jersey Generals of the USFL. Truesdell went un-drafted in the 2014 season, seeing interest from a couple NFL teams but ultimately wasn’t signed. He ended up signing with my home town Colorado Ice for the 2014 season. Over the next three years, Truesdell would play in the IFL, and AFL with the Ice, Bemidji Axeman, Spokane Shock, and Portland Steel. In 2016 he got his first chance in the NFL signing with the Indianapolis Colts.

The following season he would spend time with three teams. The Arizona Rattlers selected him in round 5 of a dispersal draft, but he also spent time with the Cleveland Gladiators, and Minnesota Vikings as well. After the 2017 season he didn’t sign with a team in 2018, and had to wait until 2019 when the Alliance of American Football was launched. He would end up with the Salt Lake Stallions. He would end up with an impressive 89% catch rate with just 3 of 27 targets falling incomplete. He managed 24 receptions for 269 yards and 3 touchdowns. This stint helped him land back in the NFL.

The New York Jets saw something they liked in Truesdell after his stint in the AAF and he would sign a contract with them after the AAF folded. He unfortunately only lasted 9 days with the Jets, but this kept him relevant and he would end up selected in round one of the XFL Draft with the Tampa Bay Vipers. While with Tampa he put up 9 receptions for 91 yards as well. After the XFL folded, he like many other players were left without a job. That was until the USFL came back in 2022. Mike Riley and company selected Truesdell in the 2022 USFL Draft, but he would wind up injured and never play a down in the USFL. It appears that Truesdell’s career is likely over at this point, but between his indoor/arena career, and outdoor career he should be very proud of the career he carved out over eight seasons in nine years.

McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Quarterback

McLeod Bethel Thompson, also known as MBT, has played in several different leagues during his career. From the Arena Football League, to the United Football League, to the National Football League, Canadian Football League, The Spring League, and finally in 2023, the United States Football League. However, if you look back to his rookie season, it was his stint under legendary head coach Darren Arbet with the San Jose SaberCats of the Arena Football League that began his career.

After falling undrafted in the 2011 draft, the SaberCats hopped on the chance to bring in the young gunslinger. He would go on to play three games with San Jose, completing 20 of 43 passing attempts for 220 yards and 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception. He also ran twice for 24 yards. This short stint with the SaberCats helped him land a contract with the San Francisco 49ers. With San Francisco he was competing for the third string quarterback job. He ultimately was let go, and took the next chance he could with the United Football League’s Sacramento Mountain Lions. Three teams all just a couple hours from where he was born and raised.

From 2011-2016 MBT bounced around the NFL trying to find a way to stick in the largest football league on the planet, but due to the numbers game he was always just short of finding a lasting home. Now just three games away from an NFL pension when he retires, the man who built his legend in the CFL, returned to the United States in 2023 to play in the USFL during the NFL offseason. Word is he already has CFL offers to return now that the USFL season is over, but he is waiting out an NFL offer at this time. It was believed he was a target for the Ottawa Redblacks, but after the victory against Winnipeg with Dustin Crum putting the team on his back late, that could have come off the table, unless he wants to ride the bench.

He will end up playing somewhere else in 2023, whether he tops the 20,000 yard passing mark in the CFL, or lands a back-up gig in the NFL as the aging veteran mentor for a younger player is the only question left about the rest of his calendar year now.

Alternative Football Leagues, Indoor or Outdoor Have Their Value

While the examples aren’t many in the current day and age that isn’t to say there are no players currently in the NFL that didn’t once play indoors. See Kavontae Turpin’s pro-bowl bid in 2022 if you need recent evidence that sometimes NFL level talent does end up indoors. If you want a quarterback to speed up his release, and decision making send him to the indoor football league where he will be forced to or be beaten up by the pass rush all game.

If you have a very green quarterback who needs reps, but looks promising as a long term developmental prospect, send him to the XFL or USFL in the offseason to allow him to continue developing in the NFL offseason. This wear and tear wouldn’t be as bad for quarterbacks who are likely third or fourth options in the NFL where reps are scarce. The reps however could be their best bet to turn into a viable NFL player.

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