SALT LAKE CITY - As is tradition the morning of every road game for the Utah Blaze, players and coaches gathered in the meeting room of the visiting hotel for an overview of that night's matchup. Rather than incite inspiration using his own words, coach Ron James opened the floor to his players, allowing them to opportunity to express their own motivations.
The mentality of Arness Ikner was defined in that moment. When the floor became his, Ikner explained to a room full of his teammates that he wakes up every morning with a chip on his shoulder. The chip is the result of being constantly overlooked and underestimated. And it's the chip that fuels Ikner every time he steps onto the field.
"Everybody looks at my stature because I'm short compared to [other defensive backs]," Ikner explained. "The way I see it, I have to prove myself each and every day. Not to anyone else, but to myself. I feel like if I'm going to play (defensive back), I have to play big. This is a man's game and there's no time to be a boy."
Despite standing at five-foot-seven, Ikner walks tall and carries himself with a confident sense of determination. Adversity has strengthened his resolve, and his attitude is a product of finding success through perseverance.
"To work with a person of Arness' character is refreshing," said defensive coordinator Rob Keefe. "The intellect, the physical prowess, and the work ethic all created a good football player who continues to learn and get better every day."
Ikner was largely overlooked by NFL franchises following a standout collegiate career at Middle Tennessee State University. To make matters worse, he suffered a strained hamstring a week before his pro day and was unable to showcase his athletic ability in front of NFL scouts. But the setbacks didn't sway his focus.
Determined to prove that he belonged in professional football, Ikner made his way to Salt Lake City and attended an open tryout with the Utah Blaze. The odds were stacked against him as over 90 participants took the field that morning. Yet with limited time and only a handful of reps to go around, Ikner managed to separate himself from the crowd. He wasn't offered a contract just yet, but the Blaze coaching staff invited him back for a private workout.
Weeks later, Ikner returned to Utah and battled against a group of elite hand-picked prospects. Again he impressed, but again he wasn't offered a contract. Instead, the Blaze offered him the opportunity to attend training camp and participate in practice on waivers, giving him four days to earn a roster spot.
Needing only the promise of a chance, Ikner made the trip to Salt Lake City for a third time. The stakes were higher as he competed for a spot against a group of defensive backs that included AFL veterans and rookies who brought NFL experience. Rather than cower on the bigger stage, Ikner rose to the occasion, challenging anyone that lined up across from him.
"The receivers on our roster are six-four and six-six," Ikner explained. "(Those bigger receivers) are going to try and pick on me. I feel like it's just another challenge. Somebody's got to win and it gives me the opportunity to see what I can do. I pride myself on being physical at all times, regardless of my size."
At the end of his four practice days, Ikner was finally rewarded for his tireless efforts as the Blaze handed him a contract. He continued to excel throughout training camp and made the final roster, but still wasn't satisfied.
Ikner sat on the bench as an inactive player during the first four games of the season, continuing to go about his business during the week with a blue-collar attitude. He practiced hard while soaking up knowledge about the Arena game until the coaching staff simply couldn't deny him. Six weeks into the season, Ikner was inserted into the starting lineup against the Cleveland Gladiators and has remained there since.
"There are things you can't teach," Keefe explained. "What I try to do on defense is recruit leaders. Arness was a team captain in college and to be captain, you have to know what you're doing, you have to be accountable for your actions, and you have to be disciplined. Arness brings those same qualities to the field as a pro."
"It's a blessing to get this opportunity," Ikner stated. "There are only two professional leagues in America right now, the NFL and Arena Football. To be in one of those leagues, you know you're in a special group."
Ikner has come a long way in his professional career, but he still isn't content. He continues to work on perfecting his craft day-in and day-out in hopes of one day reaching his ultimate goal of playing in the NFL. Ikner will get the opportunity to showcase his talent in front of a nationally televised audience this week as the Utah Blaze face the Jacksonville Sharks on CBS Sports Network.
As he has time again, Ikner will look to rise to the occasion as the stakes get higher on Arena Football's biggest stage.
Micheal DiJulio is director of communications for the Utah Blaze