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BenFred: BattleHawks captured something sweet before coronavirus spoiled everything

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Hey BattleHawks fans, Zain Pyarali wanted to share something.

Maybe you didn’t know his name.

You are familiar with his work.

Pyarali, 22, was the brain behind the St. Louis BattleHawks’ social media accounts, the Internet maestro responsible for firing up the team’s passionate flock of online followers.

As Pyarali realized during a Friday teleconference that his position as the team’s social media editor was one of hundreds of XFL roles being eliminated, his first thought was not about updating his résumé, or how he will make ends meet moving forward.

He just hoped he would have access to the team’s accounts long enough to say goodbye.

But by the time a brief Zoom call with nearly 400 XFL employees ranging from defensive coordinators to public relations officials had ended, all previous passwords had expired.

“It all came to an end very quickly,” Pyarali said by phone.

You can say that again.

Everyone, even the folks who worked for it, wondered if XFL 2.0 would last. Professional wrestling kingpin Vince McMahon’s first run at professional football in 2001, more wrestling than football, flopped. His buttoned-up, reimagined eight-team league seemed like it had stronger legs, but nothing was certain.

Scratch that.

One thing was certain.

As long as the XFL existed, the BattleHawks were going to be a hit in St. Louis.

That much was made clear in terms of ticket sales, television ratings, attendance, merchandise purchases, social media engagement and any other tool that exists for measuring fan support.

If every XFL team got off the ground like the BattleHawks did, no one would have been worrying about the XFL.

At least not before a global pandemic made us worry about everything.

Friday appears to have marked the end of the BattleHawks, and it seems the official cause of death will be coronavirus.

The pandemic stalled the team’s inaugural season at 3-2 before it convinced McMahon to go ahead and pull the plug entirely, suspending operations and conducting widespread layoffs without releasing public plans for a return.

The previous news of the cancellation of the 2020 season had arrived at an especially brutal time for the BattleHawks. Team president Kurt Hunzeker had decided to open the upper level of The Dome for the team’s next home game against the Los Angeles Wildcats, a move fans cheered and supported by rushing to buy tickets. Hunzeker’s staff was prepared to handle a crowd of 50,000 before the gut punch announcement that the league was punting until 2021.

Compared to that, Friday’s news was a knockout. The XFL isn’t punting. It’s forfeiting.

What made the BattleHawks work so well here was a perfect cocktail of circumstances. This city loves football, first and foremost. The NFL’s slander of the region’s sports pride during the relocation process of the Rams ignited a desire to support any team that cared about the city, whether that team played soccer or horseshoes. Not to be overlooked in the mix was the work done by Hunzeker and his team, a hard-charging group of energized hires who reached out into our communities and reminded us how fun it is to support a football team that gives a damn.

The BattleHawks were at your kid’s high school football game before you decided to restart your downtown tailgate. They were hosting happy hour at your favorite drinking hole before you chugged a cold one to celebrate a Jordan Ta’amu touchdown pass. They were a constant presence on your apps, clearing you to engage with a hearty Ka-Kaw.

That last part was Pyarali’s job.

He’s not expecting to get it back.

Multiple people fired Friday described the tone of the teleconference as much different from the news that announced the cancellation of the remainder of the 2020 season. That decision was sweetened with talk of what to expect in 2021. This time, there was no talk about 2021.

XFL president Jeffrey Pollack thanked employees for their hard work before he explained that the coronavirus pandemic had created problems too large for the league to overcome. Those on the call were told their final paycheck would be deposited into their accounts along with compensation for unused vacation time.

That was it. Short and sour.

Some high-ranking XFL officials held onto their jobs, according to ESPN. That news made some wonder if an eventual return could occur after the coronavirus dust settles. No one from the St. Louis camp sounded very optimistic, and none were spared from the layoffs, including Hunzeker.

The team president spent his Friday checking in on his suddenly former employees.

“Best boss I’ve ever had,” said one of those employees.

It was Hunzeker who started making plans for the 2021 home opener the same day the rest of the 2020 season was canceled. He was determined to keep positive momentum moving forward. Now there’s nothing up ahead.

“Maybe later,” Hunzeker said in a text message to the Post-Dispatch when asked to share his thoughts. “A bit too raw.”

Pyarali, perhaps out of habit, tried to create a post.

That was when he found out the league had blocked him from the team accounts.

“It was that quick,” he said. “Terminated.”

What did he want to share?

“Thank you to everybody in St. Louis for getting behind this and making it such a success,” Pyarali said. “It was shown so much that St. Louis loves football. Compared to all of the other markets, it was the best. Bringing football back to St. Louis was absolutely remarkable. I was really glad to help be a part of it — even if it was for a short time.”

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