LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Etu Molden might well have become a star with the Billings Outlaws in the state where he made his name as a wide receiver with the Montana Grizzlies.
Instead an unsavory incident that served as a lesson in maturity landed Molden in Chicago and ultimately in Las Vegas where he hopes to cap a third season with the Windy City's Rush by winning today's Arena Bowl XX.
Molden was poised to join the Outlaws in 2003, but instead was sent packing by the team.
"I went up there and one night I got into it a little bit in a bar with the owner and ended up spending the night in the tank," explained Molden. "So they decided I wasn't what they needed and they let me go and I was on the search for a team again."
That team turned out to be the Chicago Rush who reached the American Conference championship in 2004, while Molden was named the club's rookie of the year. The hands that had reeled in 161 catches for 2,300 yards and 26 touchdowns at the University of Montana led the Rush in all receiving categories.
"Everything happens for a reason," said Molden. "That was a good lesson in my life and I watch myself now when I go out and I play it cool."
When the Rush lines up against the Orlando Predators at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas this afternoon (1 p.m., Mountain) Molden will add his prowess on defense into the mix.
Playing both ways, operating at linebacker as well as receiver, won Molden the team Ironman of the Year vote in 2005 when he was also named Chicago's MVP. This season he led the team with 67 receptions for 694 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Molden hopes to inspire the Rush, considered the underdog having sneaked into the playoffs with a losing record (7-9) and then gone on the road to win three straight postseason contests.
"It's been difficult getting here," he explained. "We've been on the cusp. You have to have some breaks and have some balls go your way and you have to put in some time and hard work. We did that all season and kept on shooting for the playoffs until somebody told us we couldn't make it. That's what we've been focusing on."
Opponent Orlando qualified for an unprecedented seventh Arena Bowl and despite their favorites tag, Molden believes today's game has little to choose between the rivals.
He added: "I think we both match up pretty well, so it will be an even race and will come down to who plays the hardest and who wants it the most. I know we want it. Usually what happens in these big games is the team that plays the most physical and makes the least mistakes wins."
Molden will have an opportunity to influence the outcome on both sides of the ball. His experience of originally playing at cornerback and safety for the Grizzlies before settling at receiver turned out to be the ideal proving ground for the Arena League.
"It was definitely an adjustment going from playing my final three years at receiver at Montana to playing linebacker here," he said.
"I took to it like a fish to water and it's been a good experience. Because I play the linebacker position on defense I get a lot of contact with the big boys, so it's a little more taxing on my body."
If the physical demands of the Arena League do not take their toll, Molden hopes to follow up on his indoor success by taking a shot at making a NFL roster this summer. Despite signing a contract to keep him in Chicago through 2007, the lure of the 11-man game at its highest level remains strong.
"I'd like to get to the NFL and try my luck up there, but if this is a situation where I'm a lifetime Arena ball player then that's OK too," he admitted. "I just want to be able to play football and support my family. As long as they've got an Arena League and a team that wants me then I'll have a job.
"I've talked to my agent, but I've told him I don't want to hear anything until this season is over because I want to keep focused. I'll find out next week what's happening."
More immediately comes Molden's quest to win an Arena Bowl ring. The awkward lesson he learned in Billings serves as a reminder that the distractions of host city Las Vegas are to be ignored in the interest of victory.
"We're here for one thing and that's to win an Arena Bowl," said Molden. "We're not here to party."