(NY Times) - At 26, Danny Wimprine lives with his parents, not far from his old high school, in a room full of timeworn football posters and state championship rings. His father has a dog named Boots, and Boots likes chasing squirrels. Sometimes Boots will catch a squirrel and eat it, and other times the squirrel will get away.
Last Wednesday afternoon, there was a righteous chase, but the squirrel reached the chain-link fence ahead of Boots. So Wimprine followed along and laughed and told Boots she was a good girl just for keeping at it, then loped off at a pace suggesting he had all day.
Wimprine knew something about not getting what you want, but for the moment he seemed at ease, savoring his new role as the hometown hero of the off-season, quarterback of the New Orleans VooDoo, aspiring champions of the Arena Football League.
"The other night we went to get an ice cream, and a lady and her daughter, every time they thought you weren't looking, they'd look over," said Wimprine's father, Ronnie.
By the standards of arena football, even star players count themselves lucky to receive a look over ice cream. But the VooDoo, 7-2 and in first place in the Southern Division, has been charmed. After a season lost to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the team has enjoyed the embrace of this damaged city, where many people still sleep in tents under highway overpasses.
The VooDoo has sold 13,000 season tickets for the spring, a record for the league. Its home games regularly sell out, though actual attendance has fallen more than a thousand short of capacity at the 16,021-seat New Orleans Arena. Seizing on the popularity, the league has scheduled its championship game here for the second year running, on July 27.
"It's all the young kids - young, young, young," said Blanca Maya, a taxi driver who keeps an amulet to ward off the evil eye dangling from her rearview mirror. "They go crazy."
Wearing black and purple uniforms adorned with images of a skull in a top hat, the team seeks to evoke the New Orleans of the Widow Paris, gris-gris and dark Sunday nights on Decatur Street. Its cheerleaders call themselves the VooDoo Dolls. Its fans call the arena the Graveyard.
"They love a great show, and they love to dress up," said Rita Benson LeBlanc, whose family owns the team. "They're very creative. It's costume night every time we have a game."
In a city that took its time rallying around the Hornets of the N.B.A. on their way to a dazzling playoff run, the groundswell for arena football has arrived in unpredicted fashion. The $8 ticket price provides a partial explanation. And Louisiana is football country.
But the VooDoo, formed as an expansion team with open tryouts in 2003, also started out with the advantage of resources from the Benson family, owners of the Saints . Only the Dallas and Atlanta arena franchises share such intimate ties to the N.F.L.
At the Saints' headquarters, the VooDoo has its own locker room and offices, plus the support of Saints coaches, operations staff and equipment managers. From the first season, the team's sales agents have made calls to Saints season-ticket holders, said Marcus J. Boyle, director of special events for the organization.
The VooDoo players practice inside a cavernous hangar on artificial turf lined with the hash marks of a full-size N.F.L. field. To simulate the boiling pot of arena football, coaching assistants block off a smaller field with four-foot-high inflatable walls. Mindful of the N.F.L. coaches wandering around, the VooDoo players work out with vigor, whooping, clapping and diving over the walls.
"Come on, let's go, pay attention to the ball!" Wimprine said to his teammates during practice last Wednesday.
In the fast-paced passing game of arena football, where field goals are considered defensive stops and running the ball is practically a trick play, quarterbacks are even more central figures than their N.F.L. counterparts. The VooDoo coaches found theirs living a mile or so behind their practice facility.
Wimprine had led John Curtis Christian School to consecutive state championships and broken just about every passing record the University of Memphis could offer before failing to secure a job in the N.F.L.
"When you don't go to a big school and you're only 6 feet tall, sometimes you don't get as many chances," Wimprine said last week as he drove home from practice.