‘The energy’s infectious’: Inside the Los Angeles Wildcats’ XFL draft room

Left, Los Angeles Wildcats quarterback Luis Perez. The Wildcats held their inaugural draft meeting for the XFL in the Torrance Marriott Redondo Beach Hotel, over a two-day period on Oct. 15 and 16. Photo courtesy of Luca Evans

A horseshoe of tables seating an army of coaches, their inquisitive stares at computer screens and statistically dense papers, invites possibility. Yet it does not bustle with a particular urgency. It is quiet. Content. Smiles and laughs are exchanged. This is draft day, with the creation of an entire franchise hanging in the balance, and I am expecting a dark cloud of stress to be hanging over this Torrance Marriott Redondo Beach Hotel conference room. Instead, I watch from the back of the room as Los Angeles Wildcats head coach Winston Moss gleefully picks up a phone.

Throughout the entire second phase of this draft on Tuesday, Oct. 15, it’s hard to catch him with anything but a smile. He wears a red shirt. Seemingly everyone else wears black. Come for the color contrast, stay for the personality. The phone in his hand rings to offensive lineman Jaelin Robinson, who Moss is about to notify has been selected by the Wildcats. Moss cradles the phone in his meaty palm, the speaker pointed directly at his lips and says the words that will define the next phase of Robinson’s professional career.

“Domino’s Pizza.”

A cacophony of laughter swells within the room. After a few seconds, Moss abandons the joke with a smile and welcomes Robinson to the Wildcats.

There is a new football team in Los Angeles. It is not the Chargers or the Rams; the Wildcats are part of a newly reinstated XFL. First created by the Worldwide Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) and National Broadcasting Company and pitched as a more fun alternative to the National Football League, the league quickly died in just a year after rule changes and financial losses crippled any hopes of success. Now, CEO of the WWE, Vince McMahon, is attempting to revive it as a viable football league, with play scheduled to begin in February 2020.

The Wildcats are part of that XFL, hoping they’ll stick in a dense Los Angeles sports media market. It won’t be easy. But Wildcats president Heather Karatz has a plan – utilize social media to raise awareness as much as possible and offer five-game season tickets for as low as $100.

“There are three components: we put our fans first, we give them more access than ever before and we make it affordable,” Karatz told The Panther. “When it comes to the LA market in particular, we really have to build a grassroots effort where our fans and our partners and media all feel like they’re building this with us.”

On Tuesday, I watched as fans who’d won sweepstakes to attend the draft stood up from their chairs directly behind team representatives to shake the hand of Wildcats quarterback Luis Perez. I watched Karatz, who carried herself with the kind of composure that made me involuntarily straighten my spine, go out of her way to tape up a banner that had fallen from its perch on the wall. Most of all I watched Moss, the chancellor of his pie-shaped council, extend verbal feelers through the room and encourage bursts of laughter and smiles that hung in the air for minutes.

“The energy’s infectious in here. And it starts with Winston,” Karatz said of the draft room. “Coach Moss has got incredible energy; he’s so exuberant, he lights up a room and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner.”

During a break, I heard Moss mention to an interviewer for a television network that he had drank nine cups of coffee that morning. Nine cups. I raised my eyebrow and asked Moss if he’d actually drank that much. With his arm around the back of my chair, he glanced at me and the corners of his mouth upturned in a chuckle – a kid who’d just stolen a cookie from the jar in the cupboard without being caught.

He was joking, as usual. He didn’t have nine cups of coffee. What he did have was perhaps a lack of sleep, as he had woken up at 3:00 a.m. that morning in excitement for an opportunity he’d never had before in his career: being the key decision-maker in a professional draft.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time and it’s here and I’m enjoying it; I’m embracing it,” Moss told The Panther. “It’s been fun. If you heard me interact with the players on the calls and interact with the staff, I’m embracing this moment and having a hell of a time.”