Russ Michna says there’s something special about playing arena football in the area. | Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 3, 2011 9:21PM
Russ Michna was going to play in the NFL.
That was his one and only plan.
What he didn’t count on was playing in four other professional leagues.
The Rush quarterback has toiled in the NFL, the Arena Football League, the Canadian Football League, the United Football League and the Continental Indoor Football League.
‘‘The way everything worked out is kind of crazy,’’ said Michna, who also works for a Schaumburg-based software business. ‘‘I’ve played in five leagues and worked for one company. I would have liked for it to be the other way, where I played in one league for a long time and then figured out life after that.’’
Michna spends his mornings and evenings working in the finance department of the Higher Gear Group. In between, he’s at Rush practices. He usually leaves home before 6 a.m. and rarely gets back before 9 p.m.
‘‘Working two jobs definitely makes for long days,’’ said Michna, 30, ‘‘but I’m really lucky to be in a situation where I can do it.’’
Michna left Western Illinois in 2004 with school records for passing yards (3,160) and total offense (3,327) in a season. He signed with the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent, but he never made it off the practice squad.
So Michna signed with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2005, but he didn’t like traveling back and forth to Canada and lasted only a year and a half.
That’s when he joined the Rush for the first time.
Michna was satisfied. He was making close to $80,000 a year and living near his family.
But when the AFL folded in 2009, Michna was forced to move on again. First, it was to the Chicago Slaughter of the CIFL. A year later, it was to the UFL’s Las Vegas Locomotives.
Michna was the CIFL MVP and won two UFL titles with the Locomotives, but when the AFL made a comeback in 2010, Michna returned to his hometown team.
He was happy to be back with the Rush, but the league wasn’t the same.
The players were offered $400 a week — a salary of $7,200 a year with an 18-game schedule — with three players on each team earning a ‘‘marketing’’ contract worth $1,000 a week. Before the league folded in ’09, the minimum salary was $31,000.
Michna was one of the Rush players offered a ‘‘marketing’’ contract, but it was still $62,000 less than his 2008 salary. By this time, he had a steady job with the Higher Gear Group, and it would’ve made sense for Michna to quit football and focus on his business career.
But he wasn’t ready to do that.
‘‘That says a lot about Russ,’’ said Rush receiver Reggie Gray, who played with Michna at Western Illinois. ‘‘For him to come back and play for crumbs compared to what he used to make, that says a lot about his character.’’
So why keep playing?
‘‘There’s something about arena football that’s special here in Chicago,’’ Michna said. ‘‘I don’t think I’ve had a better experience than playing for the Rush.’’
Michna threw for 3,860 yards and 70 touchdowns last season and had the second-best passer rating in the league. He has thrown for 2,734 yards and 61 touchdowns in 12 games this year.
‘‘He is so smart, and he knows the game so well,’’ Rush coach Bob McMillen said. ‘‘He knows where he’s going with the ball and what kind of trajectory and arc he needs. When he breaks the huddle and gets under center, he can figure out the defense. That energy and intelligence transfers to the other guys.’’
Michna still believes he could’ve been a productive NFL quarterback. He says he just wasn’t in the right place at the right time.
But he’s OK with that.
Michna no longer thinks about the NFL on a regular basis. He isn’t trying to be the next Kurt Warner.
‘‘My mind-set is to play where I am for as long as I can and let everything else work itself out,’’ Michna said. ‘‘I don’t even know if anybody will let me play the game next year. I’m becoming an old man in the football world.
‘‘For now, winning is the only thing I think about. Nothing else matters.’’