1997: It was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times
There were two major changes for the Storm last year. The first was a new home. In 1997, the Storm moved from the ThunderDome (now Tropicana Field) in St. Petersburg, which they had called home for six years, to the Ice Palace in downtown Tampa. Although it is a wonderful atmosphere for an Arena Football game, the Storm was not always able to use the facility for practices due to scheduling conflicts. As a result, the team finished the season with a better road record (5-3) than home record (4-4).
The second major change was at the quarterback position. For six years, the Storm had been led on the field by Jay Gruden, a lock for the Arena Football Hall of Fame. After the 1996 season and his fourth championship with the team, Gruden decided to retire, going into coaching and joining the Nashville Kats expansion team as their Offensive Coordinator. The Storm signed Peter Tom Willis as his replacement. Willis started the season 2-0 with wins against the Arizona Rattlers , who would become the 1997 League Champions, and the Florida Bobcats.
Going into the sixth game with a 3-2 record, Willis was hit by Albany Firebirds lineman Leroy Thompson. He was taken off on a stretcher; the diagnosis: bruised ribs. The Storm lost to Albany 53-31, and Willis tried to come back the next week against the New Jersey Red Dogs. During that game, Willis aggravated his rib injury; this time the diagnosis was broken ribs, and the Storm lost 44-28. Because the backup quarterback, Dan White, proved to be ineffective, Willis continued to be the starting quarterback for the remainder of the season, even with the broken ribs. Willis finished the season 225-of-413 for 2846 yards, 41 touchdowns and a Storm record 19 interceptions.
Although there were many challenges to overcome during the 1997 season, there were many also highlights. Storm Defensive Specialist Tracey Perkins set the Arena Football League single season record for interceptions by snatching his twelfth with 13:34 remaining in a Week 13 win over the Florida Bobcats. Perkins` 12 interceptions and 20 passes defensed and 40 tackles earned him the Defensive Player of the Year honor, as well as a spot on the All-Arena Football first team with teammate Willie Wyatt.
In Week 6 against the Albany Firebirds, Storm Fullback/Linebacker Les Barley broke the Arena Football career rushing record previously held by Major Harris (837 yards). Barley finished the season with 183 yards on 43 carries, bringing his career record to 938 yards.
The 1997 edition of the Tampa Bay Storm may not have met the standards of their fans, but the players showed determination. Willis recovered from his rib injury to lead the team to a playoff upset of the Nashville Kats (52-49) and nearly upset the top-seed Arizona Rattlers (49-46 loss in over time). Many of the players finished the season with performances that were much improved when compared to the beginning of the season. With most of last year`s standouts returning for the 1998 campaign, fans should look forward to their team returning to the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year and possibly bringing home the Arena Football Championship.
That`s my view from the press box.
This column was originally written for the Storm Shelter, a Tampa Bay Storm fan site, and also appeared in the preseason program for the game between the Tampa Bay Storm and the Florida Bobcats on April 17, 1998.
Joe Kauffman is President and Editor in Chief of Arenafan Online, having joined the staff in 2000. He graduated from Florida State University in 1998 with a degree in communications andbuilds ecommerce sites for a day job. Joe has enjoyed Arena Football since 1991 and has been a member of the Arena Football Internet community since 1995. Prior to Joining Arenafan, he was a co-founder and Technical Editor of the Storm Shelter, which covered the Tampa Bay Storm from 1996-99. Joe and his wife Erika live in Hackettstown, New Jersey with their two daughters.