NORCROSS, Ga. (AP) - As the Georgia Force wrapped up a recent practice at a suburban Atlanta high school, a group of students strolled onto the field for a physical education class.
And Darryl Hammond, one of the best players ever in the Arena Football League, was reminded again that he's not in the NFL.
"I don't really worry about it now," he said. "I've gotten past that."
Hammond is nearing the end of his record-setting 13th season in the league, and he's played for so long that he's been a teammate of two current coaches, including his own.
As with nearly everyone else in the AFL, Hammond plays both ways - doubling as a wide receiver and a linebacker - and he ranks second on the all-time tackles list and fifth in receptions. Yet he's never had more than a passing glance from the NFL, spending part of one training camp with the New Orleans Saints shortly after graduating from Virginia in 1988.
"That doesn't reflect poorly on Darryl at all," insisted Force coach Marty Lowe, who played with Hammond in 1996 with the St. Louis Stampede.
"There are only so many spots in that league, and with all of the great athletes and players around the country, some don't get that chance."
Still, the 36-year-old Hammond never dreamed he'd stay in the AFL for this long.
"I figured I'd play a year or two, get back in shape, then sign with an NFL team," he said. "But here I am."
He's still pretty good, too. In 13 games this season, Hammond has caught a team-leading 68 passes and scored 14 touchdowns, and on defense, he had 30 tackles and two interceptions.
At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, he doesn't have the speed of some of his smaller, much younger, teammates, but Hammond still gets his chances to take over a game.
"I still look to him as our go-to guy," Lowe said. "I know he's a guy that will make a play when we need it."
Initially, Hammond may have gone unnoticed by the NFL because he played two positions in college. A wide receiver for two years at tiny Ferrum College, he then transferred to Virginia, but he caught only 11 passes for 115 yards as a junior.
The next year, Hammond moved to defensive back, and he was honorable mention all-Atlantic Coast Conference after finishing with 61 tackles.
When he didn't find work immediately in professional football, he got a job as a deputy sheriff in Manassas, Va. Since he was the only one in the department who wasn't married, Hammond volunteered for the overnight shift, working by himself in the early hours.
"I mostly just watched TV," he said. "I brought some movies with me. I had to call the jail every hour to make sure everything was OK, and I had to go on patrol every hour. It was a great job."
Later, he spent two years as a graduate assistant on the staff of Joe Paterno at Penn State, finishing up a master's degree in turf management. No NFL teams inquired about him when he was done, so when Hammond was offered a tryout for the AFL, he went.
Now, nearly 13 years later, he's still one of the league's top players.
"This is the kind of guy that, for me, keeps me coming to work every day and why I love being commissioner," commissioner David Baker said. "I don't think there's another player in any other league that's done what Darryl has done."
As for how long he can keep going, Hammond doesn't have any immediate plans to retire. He stays in shape in the offseason by working out several times a week with trainer Kathy Moore in Nashville, Tenn., where he lives with his family.
Moore has developed a training method called "piloga," a combination of Pilates and yoga, and Hammond credits these workouts for extending his career.
"I'm in better shape than I've ever been," he said. "Plus, I eat better, so I think I'm the healthiest I've ever been, too."
There's also some unfinished business. First on the list is a championship, but that might have to wait until another year. The Force (7-6) have struggled of late, losing four of their past five games, and they've yet to wrap up a playoff spot heading into Sunday's game at Indiana.
If that elusive title doesn't come his way, Hammond has simpler goals.
"I want to leave the game healthy and enjoy the rest of my life," he said. "I want people to know that I had an impact on this league, and that I helped make it into something that gives guys like me an alternative in professional football.
"That would make me happy."
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