Kyle Whitehurst never dreamed of playing professional football in Hampton Roads.
Which is just as well, because at times getting the United States Football League's Virginia Destroyers up and running has been more of a nightmare. But after a drama-filled offseason, the Destroyers will indeed make their maiden local voyage Saturday at 7 p.m. against the two-time defending UFL champion Las Vegas Locos at the Virginia Beach Sportsplex.
"It's a blessing from God. I mean, how many people can say they played high school, college and pro ball all near their hometown?'' said Whitehurst, a defensive back who starred at Bethel High and Hampton University before landing with the Destroyers. "It's hard to believe it's really happening."
Area sports fans likely share that sentiment, particularly those that have followed the team through a head-coaching carousel, the departure of general manager and former Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams and a league-imposed 30-day suspension of training camp.
Even Eric Kevitz admits to becoming skeptical — and he's the president of the Destroyers fan club.
In March, though, the Destroyers pulled off a coup when they landed proven NFL team builder/winner Marty Schottenheimer as their head coach. Despite the uncertainty surrounding his new venture, the 67-year-old Schottenheimer launched himself into his new job with the same vim and vigor he used to amass more than 200 victories in the NFL.
"Different league, same ol' Marty," said Destroyers offensive lineman Shane Olivea, who played for Schottenheimer with the San Diego Chargers. "Nothing's changed."
Including the results. Last week, the Destroyers christened the 2011 UFL season with a remarkably tidy 23-13 victory at Omaha, a game that featured no Destroyers turnovers (they forced four from Omaha) and just two Virginia penalties.
For his part, Schottenheimer credited last week's success to having quality players, and indeed, the Destroyers roster is littered with ex-NFL performers. Heady veteran quarterback Chris Greisen ended the 2010 season on the roster of the Dallas Cowboys. Running back Dominic Rhodes ran for 113 yards and a touchdown for the victorious Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI. In all, two-thirds of Virginia's players have appeared in at least one NFL game, and 88 percent have at least participated in an NFL training camp.
The Destroyers are hoping that pedigrees of the coaches and players, coupled with last week's success, will be enough to induce a finicky Hampton Roads sports public to sample the product.
"We've spent money on TV and radio, but right now, there's no question our best marketing tool is the football team on the field," said John Castleberry, the team's vice president of sales and marketing.
Castleberry acknowledged that the 30-day suspension of training camp crippled promotional efforts. Kevitz, who said the team's fan club membership is upward of 3,500, said even some of the team's most passionate supporters believed there would be no season at all and asked for season-ticket refunds.
Perhaps buoyed by the season-opening victory — and the realization by fans that the season actually will be played after all — ticket sales for Saturday's game have been brisk, Castleberry said. Still, he added that even with reasonable walk-up sales, home opener attendance projects to be "close to 10,000," well shy of the Sportsplex's expanded 14,000-seat capacity.
"Some of our mistakes were self-induced, but that's in the past and people ought not to dwell on those," Castleberry said. "We're here now, and if people come out, I think they'll be pleasantly surprised by what they see, on and off the field."
Want to go?
What: UFL football - Virginia Destroyers vs. Las Vegas Locos
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Virginia Beach Sportsplex
Tickets: Reserved $35, reserved bleachers $25, general admission $20, military (with ID) gets $5 off price of ticket. Anyone that buys a general admission ticket will receive two additional tickets for youth age 12 and under. For more information, call 757-962-8866.
Fan fest, 5 p.m. (outside of Sportsplex) – features clowns, face-painting, inflatables, radio stations, performances by the band Quatro, a Marine Corps chin-up bar and tent and obstacle course, among other items.
Tailgating – beginning at 4 p.m. in the tailgate lot. Fans must have purchased the $50 tailgate pass to get in.
General parking – $5 at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater; free shuttle provided.
Note – Fans are asked to bring two cans of food to benefit the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia. The goal is collect the combined weight of the players (12,645 pounds).