Brigade getting warm K.C. reception

Sellout expected for squad's first home game, scheduled for Sunday in Kemper Arena

? Neil Smith stood casually in an end zone this week at Kemper Arena, lounging against one of the padded walls that encompasses the Kansas City Brigade’s new field.

A co-owner of the city’s infant Arena Football League franchise, Smith is demure in discussing Sunday’s home opener against the Austin Wranglers. But he’ll acknowledge the enthusiasm in the building is palpable.

“It’s going to be exciting,” he said, looking around the empty facility after a recent practice. “We’re renaming Kemper ‘the hangar.'”

A sellout crowd of 16,200 is expected for the 1 p.m. kickoff. More than 8,750 of them will be season-ticket holders.

And while Smith – a former Kansas City Chiefs all-pro defensive end – knows well the love affair the city has with its National Football League franchise, the fan response to the Brigade puts Smith at ease about the fact that the indoor game is much different.

The field is only 50 yards long, stuffed inside an arena built for basketball and hockey, and there are only eight players to a side. Balls rebounding off nets strung between the goal posts are in play, and out-of-bounds is a waist-high wall with about three inches of cushion.

There’s no punting and few running plays, resulting in high-scoring games.

“You don’t see those things in the NFL,” Smith said. “There’s not a lot of defense, and that doesn’t sound like Chiefs football.”

Kansas City’s home opener is the culmination of a frenetic six months for the Brigade, who have dropped their first two games on the road to Orlando and Dallas.

The brainchild of Kansas City-based sports agent Tyler Prochnow, the franchise was supposed to have its inaugural season in 2007. But when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August, it supplanted the team in New Orleans, the VooDoo.

“I talked to people in their organization who just lost their homes,” league commissioner David Baker said. “The question was, ‘Where do they go?’ It was the guys from Kansas City who called us and said, ‘If you need us, we’re prepared to step up.'”

The official announcement came in October. A two-year lease agreement to play in Kemper Arena quickly was signed, with plans to move to the Sprint Center – a $250 million downtown arena now under construction – in 2008.

The Brigade hired former Chiefs safety Kevin Porter to coach the team and then signed 15 players from New Orleans to one-year contracts, filling in the holes of their 24-man roster with a mixture of rookies and veterans.

“Having the infrastructure that came from New Orleans really made it much smoother than it would have been,” Prochnow said.

“My fear at this point is the staff has worked so hard and done so much to get this thing ready for Sunday, I hope every day they continue to walk through the door.”

The team has been embraced by a sports-savvy city from the beginning, with more than 3,000 season tickets sold before the team even began preseason drills.

“Embracing the team isn’t the right word,” seven-year AFL veteran B.J. Cohen said. “It feels more like engulfing.”