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Josh Banderas gets paid to play football nowadays. That's new for him.

But there was nothing new about those visceral feelings pumping through his 6-foot-3, 228-pound frame this week as game day crept closer.

"I've had this festering urge to go out and play -- hit somebody and have fun again," said the former Nebraska and Lincoln Southwest linebacker.

He reminds you that he hasn't played in a regular-season game since 2016, his senior year at Nebraska. Since then, he's dipped his toe in the radio business and coached the sport in high school. And, yes, he rehabbed injuries -- one to a wrist, another to a calf -- that waylaid his push to make an NFL roster.

"There was no putting on the pads and hitting," he said.

That chance comes Sunday when Banderas and three former Nebraska teammates -- Kenny Bell, Terrell Newby and De'Mornay Pierson-El -- take the field for the Salt Lake Stallions, one of eight teams in the fledgling Alliance of American Football. The Stallions open the season against the Arizona Hotshots at 7 p.m. in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. The NFL Network will broadcast the game.

The Hotshots are coached by Rick Neuheisel, a face familiar to Nebraska fans.

The Stallions are coached by Dennis Erickson, another face familiar to Husker fans.

Remember the 1991 Miami Hurricanes squad that defeated Nebraska 22-0 in the Orange Bowl? Yeah, that guy.

"His only message to us is keep your nose clean and win," said Banderas, a middle linebacker for the Salt Lake team. "Every day after practice, he says there's only one word -- win. That's how he is."

Just win, baby.

Banderas is just happy to be playing again, baby.

"It's all about the love of the game," he said. "I got hurt, which happens. God blessed me with this opportunity. I mean, this is the first year of a startup league that came right when I needed it. If this league wasn't around, there really wasn't much out there for me to do in football, being two years out of action. It was just the perfect storm. I finally got healthy, and this opportunity happened to come around.

"I know I'm a good football player, so I know I can put on tape what I need to get to where I want to get."

Which, of course, is back to the NFL. Banderas got only a small taste of it after leading Nebraska in 2016 with 93 tackles. During February following his senior season, he was training in Florida for a chance to impress NFL scouts on the Huskers' upcoming pro day. But he tore a tendon in his wrist and a few days later tore a muscle in his calf. It was awful timing. He missed pro day and wasn't drafted.

However, he did land a free-agent deal with the Denver Broncos and made it through the team's offseason training program. But the calf injury returned, and he was released. A few other NFL teams contacted him, but he wasn't healthy. He couldn't run, couldn't hit. But he never considered giving up the game.

He enjoyed coaching linebackers at Lincoln North Star. He still talks to a lot of his players. But that visceral feeling never left him. You know, the feeling he had this week as game day neared.

"I sometimes wanted to push the high school kids out of the way and say, 'Here's how you do this, I'll really show you,'" Banderas said with a chuckle. "There was just really no way I could let myself get into the normal workforce just yet."

Mind you, Banderas is working an 8-to-5 job. But it's a football job, an important distinction. The Stallions have meetings at 8 a.m., practice at 10 and then it's back to meetings. There's mandatory weightlifting twice a week. Keep your body ready to compete, Erickson says, and stay out of trouble. 

Banderas thinks fans will like what they see in the AAF. Yeah, there will be skeptics who have watched similar leagues go kaput. But this could be different, in part because of the names behind it. A so-called stopgap between college football and the NFL, the AAF is indeed loaded with names you already know -- Birmingham Iron running back Trent Richardson, Orlando Apollos coach Steve Spurrier and San Antonio Commanders GM Daryl "Moose" Johnston, to name a few.

From the starting quarterback to the backup defensive end, each player is on a three-year, non-guaranteed $250,000 contract.

That's a nice salary, but Banderas hopes he's a one-and-done AAF player.

"I've got to get back to the NFL, man," he said. "I never got a chance to put on a helmet and run out into an NFL stadium to play. If that's not in the cards, I'll have to move on to the next phase. But I've got to give it everything I've got."

He's a 23-year-old with something to chase. That's a good thing. The AAF gives him that chance, and he thanks the heavens for it.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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