After 9 years, 5 leagues, Michna at home with Rush
Russ Michna has been a starter and a backup; he has hoisted championship trophies and clipboards; he has been signed to teams and cut from them.
In nine years as a professional quarterback, Russ Michna has seen it all.
The 31-year-old Chicago Rush quarterback is one of the few -- if not the only -- players to have signed with a team in every currently active professional football league.
"I don't know if there's any more out there right now, but I've been in quite a few," Michna said.
After a four-year college career at Western Illinois, the Conant High School grad spent time in the NFL, CFL, UFL, CIFL, and both the original and current AFL.
"And I don't know what that necessarily means," he said. "Maybe it means you're good enough to get there but not good enough to stay. But I've definitely had some experiences playing football, that's for sure."
With nine years as a pro and five different leagues under his belt, Michna said his experience gives him a unique perspective on the game of football.
"The one thing you learn is that you're always replaceable," Michna said. "There's so many factors that go into every single situation, every single play even, that all you can do is continue to work hard and focus on the things you can control, and try and get better."
Michna learned that lesson early in his career during his short stint in the NFL. After he was passed over in the 2004 NFL draft, the St. Louis Rams signed Michna as an undrafted free agent on the same day they released Kurt Warner.
Michna stuck with the Rams through training camp and spent the time on the practice squad, but he was released after the season.
"I learned more in that short amount of time I spent with (Rams head coach Mike Martz) than I knew about football in the 23 years I had lived before that," Michna said. "Although, my stay wasn't as long as I would have liked it to have been."
Michna then spent one season north of the border with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League before returning to his home state to play for the Chicago Rush from 2007 to 2008 as a homegrown quarterback who attended Conant in Hoffman Estates.
When the Arena League folded in 2009, Michna, like many of his Rush teammates, latched on the Chicago Slaughter, which at that time played in the Continental Indoor Football League. He led that team to an undefeated championship season and was named league MVP.
Michna also spent two seasons with the United Football League's Las Vegas Locomotives as a backup to J.P. Losman and Tim Rattay during the team's 2009 championship run. He was cut before the 2010 season but returned after an injury to Rattay.
The Arena League resumed play in 2010, and Michna returned to the Rush and Chicago, where he has spent the majority of his pro career.
"The Arena game is the most quarterback friendly," he said. "The game is all about you. You have to make the decision with the ball almost 100 percent of the time, and you get to throw it around pretty darn close to that too."
Michna is now among the league's top passers and leads the AFL in completion percentage (68.6) and is second in pass efficiency (127.1).
"He moves around (leagues) a little bit, but I think that has helped him understand the situation he's in," said Rush wide receiver Terrance Turner. "Being able to adapt to different types of people, different types of guys -- that's why no one on the team has any bad blood with Russ."
While Michna's original plan was to pursue his NFL dream, the window on his opportunity to play in football's premiere league is now more closed than open.
"That time has come and gone," he said. "Life happens. ... I'm enjoying playing and I'm going to continue to play as long as I can."
But if an NFL team called, Michna would certainly listen.
"I can't imagine you'd say no. That's what everybody dreams of, right?"
Now, football has become more of a second career, or even a hobby, for Michna.
With salaries of $400 per game, most AFL players aren't playing for the money, and although Michna receives an additional $1,275 marketing bonus each week, he has established a career off the field working in the finance department of The Higher Gear Group, a software company based in Schaumburg.
"It makes days long, let's just say that," said Michna.
As the years have gone by, Michna has watched the Arena League get younger as salaries decreased and older players found it harder to justify the commitment.
"You still see some veterans, but just not as many," Michna said. "I got very lucky in that I fell into a situation (with the Rush) where they were flexible and allowed me to work a full-time career."
Balancing the two careers can be difficult, but Rush head coach Bob McMillen said his quarterback rarely complains.
"He's just that type of kid," he said. "He just comes out, does it and gets out of here, and then he goes and puts a full day in at work."
McMillen schedules meetings and practices by the minute to help his players balance other jobs and commitments.
"I'm very lenient when it comes to that, especially with Russ," McMillen said. "If he ever needed to take a day off, he knows he can come to me and we would allow him to do that because we know he'll be prepared for the game."
With Michna having arguably his best season in the AFL this year, McMillen hopes to keep his signalcaller in a Rush uniform down the road.
"I understand with the money and his job it'll be tough for him," McMillen said. "I think Russ has hit his stride. He's starting to be one of the elite quarterbacks in this league, and it would be a shame to not see him play for a few more years."
Michna said he doesn't see himself leaving the Chicago area any time soon. After nine years, five leagues and as many teams, he believes he's found where he belongs.
"I have my career here, my family; my life is set up here," Michna said. "I would have a hard time imagining I would go play somewhere else."
Have arm, will travel for footballRush quarterback Russ Michna has played in five different pro football league, and here is his assessment of each experience:
NFL: St. Louis Rams (2004-2005)
"It was an amazing experience. It didn't last long enough as far as I was concerned, but I learned a lot and took away a lot that has groomed me as a player moving forward."
CFL: Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2005-2006)
"The Canadian League again was a great experience. It's a different culture; it's a different game. I enjoyed my time there."
UFL: Las Vegas Locomotives (2009-2010)
"I got to be around another very well-known quarterback coach in Jim Fassel and continue to learn as a quarterback. I would have loved to have had a little more opportunity to be a part of that. I think I kind of set myself back a little bit by trying to play in the Arena League at the same time."
CIFL: Chicago Slaughter (2009)
"I had a blast doing it. Being around coach (Steve) McMichael and that group of guys was a lot of fun. I appreciate the opportunity they gave me to continue playing."
AFL: Chicago Rush (2007-2008, 2010-present)
"The AFL has been fun. The original AFL was a blast, and I'm still having a blast playing now. Hopefully we can get it back to what it was a few years ago. I think all the fans as well as all the players are hoping that we can evolve the league back to that."
-- Chad Thornburg