EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Winter hit the XFL, and the weather beat up the new league and its fans.
Freezing temperatures and 22 mph wind that made it feel like 6 degrees -- and that was at the start of the game -- sent most of the 36,458 fans at the New York-New Jersey Hitmen's home opener to the exits early Sunday night.
Duane Butler (31) joins a crowd of Thunderbolts in congratulating teammate Keith Franklin (hidden) after he picked up a fumble and took it in for a touchdown.
Only about 5,000 hardy fans were left at Giants Stadium when Charles Puleri's fourth-and-14 pass from the Birmingham 19-yard line fell incomplete in the end zone, allowing the Bolts to beat the Hitmen 19-12 in a sloppily played game.
"It was so cold, I still can't feel my elbows and fingers," Bolts cornerback Duane Butler said 30 minutes after Birmingham (1-1) won for the first time and sent the Hitmen to their second consecutive defeat in the fledgling league owned by NBC and the World Wrestling Federation.
"The field was like a brick of ice," added Butler, who might have made the biggest play for the Bolts, stripping Hitmen halfback Keith Elias of the ball at the 5 with Birmingham trailing 6-0 in the first quarter. "It was so hard. It was harder than ice. I couldn't understand why it was so hard. There was no grass. It was just green paint."
While the players had no choice but to play the game that started at 4 p.m. ET, fans didn't hesitate to leave early.
"It's just freezing," said Joel Rudy of Mount Laurel, who left at halftime. "It's as cold as I can remember. We weren't dressed properly."
"Tell them to start at 1 p.m.," added Stacey Casciato of Tabernacle, who also left at halftime.
Stepfret Williams, who played 26 NFL games mostly with the Dallas Cowboys, paced the Bolts' victory with eight catches for 134 yards. He caught a 70-yard second-quarter pass to set up a 7-yard touchdown pass from Casey Weldon to Quincy Jackson, and gave Birmingham the lead for good with a league-best 95-yard punt return for a touchdown with 8:12 left in the third quarter. Weldon's conversion pass to Kaipo McGuire extended the lead to 13-6.
Mike Archie's second 1-yard touchdown run got the Hitmen to a point down with 8:14 left, but Puleri's pass for the point after was broken up by Eric Sloan.
Linebacker Keith Franklin closed out the scoring, returning a fumble by Hitmen receiver Anthony DiCosmo 12 yards for a touchdown with 3:32 to go.
While the game was close, both teams made mistake after mistake. There were five turnovers, 18 penalties for 141 yards and a couple of questionable calls by the officials, including one that seemed to deprive the Hitmen of at least a safety.
XFL founder Vince McMahon admitted the new league was still a work in progress, but he insisted we're "the best darn football game there is in February."
The Hitmen got their first touchdown after Weldon (17-for-26 for 190 yards) threw an interception on the opening series. New York-New Jersey also blocked a punt and partially blocked another in the first quarter.
The Hitmen were just as generous. They lost two fumbles, Puleri (13-for-24 for 149) threw an interception and they gave up the two big plays by Williams
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