Louisville Welcomes Japan All Stars
It was about goodwill and ambassadorship. It was about learning and listening, respect and rapport. OK sounds like a synopsis for a Fat Albert cartoon or maybe a Facts of Life Go to France reunion special, right? The truth is, players from both sides really seemed to be enjoying themselves. They helped each other up after tackles; they patted each other on the helmet. It was obvious these Warriors were not the Peoria Pirates. There were no fisticuffs, no void of sportsmanship.
As with exhibitions, coaches learn something about their teams and players they maybe can’t as readily see during practices or inter-squad scrimmages. During the post-game presentation, Japan coach Shinzo Yamada said his team had only practiced together eight times. In addition to such relatively little time together, this was also their first arena game. Ever. That makes their effort, which included a 26-23 fourth quarter lead, even more impressive. In fact, this may be one of the better, quicker, and most disciplined teams the Fire will see all year. The Warriors played penalty-free football. The Fire, by contrast, committed eight penalties for sixty-three yards, including two illegal defense calls. Needless to say, Coach Tommy Johnson will address that in the upcoming weeks leading up to the regular season debut at home versus Hawaii on April 10.
On paper, this year’s roster is arguably the best the Fire have compiled in their four seasons. In fact, it is unimaginable that any team in the league could have a better receiving corps than the Fire. Tony Stallings is back and looks to have an extra spring in his step. Few players can do as much with a screen pass as Stallings can. Anthony Payton has also returned after arena stints in Buffalo and Cincinnati. When a key fourth down is needed, he’s as dependable as it gets. And now former U of L and Arizona Cardinal Zeke Parker is on the team. His speed will be a nightmare for defensive backs around the league. In his debut Sunday, he caught two touchdowns against the Warriors.
So, the Fire have both a lot to build on and a few things to work out, but that’s pretty standard for a game so early in the pre-season. However, at first glance, this team seems to be deeper than previous squads. The All-Japan team also has a bright future. They have embraced American football not just in how they wear their uniforms or how they look in them; they understand the game, and their competitive play backed that up. They played smart and enthused.
Surprisingly at the end of the game, the Fire took a time-out up 36-26 with 10 seconds to go and the ball on the Warrior’s two-yard-line. And while the Fire’s Ryan Russell was stopped short of the goal line, it was a curious call. Maybe for the sake of international relations, they should have just taken a knee. Nevertheless, at the end of the game, there was a lot of handshaking, picture taking, and genuinely good feelings. This was a big event for our Japanese visitors and as well it should be. The city of Louisville was lucky to have them visit and play. Perhaps it could become an annual event. And maybe for one evening a year the Freedom Hall concessionaires could replace popcorn with sushi.
When asked to preview the Fire’s upcoming season on a local sports radio show few weeks ago, head coach Tommy Johnson talked about last year’s 5-11 team and forecasted 2004`s results. Referring to the win total of last season and projecting what to expect this upcoming season, Johnson said, “I guarantee you we’ll double that.” For a soft-spoken and easy-going coach like Johnson to make a bold claim, he must feel very confident in his players’ and coaches’ abilities. He’s a dedicated and smart guy, so fans should feel good about his assessment.
Like last year, a limo makes its way to mid-field to deliver the dignitary responsible for the coin toss. And again, it is a slow and arduous task. So here’s a helpful hint; if you are debating if you want concessions before the kick-off and you see that limo emerging from the end zone tunnel, go ahead and get in line. You won’t miss a minute of action.
It was a semi-rough beginning for Fire newcomer QB Matt Sauk and veteran WR Alfonzo Browning. Early in the first quarter, Sauk, a 4,000-yard passer last season for Tennessee Valley, appeared peeved by one of Browning’s routes and later a dropped pass. On the next possession, Browning, a fan favorite, went after a Sauk pass in the end zone and hit the wall hard, suffering a concussion. Browning will be fine and so will QB-WR communications as practice continues and the season nears. The passing game should be a strength of this team; all-af2 Sauk’s back-up George Whitfield looked good in his debut, completing 11 of 16 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns.
Despite his picture on schedules and media materials, Pookie Jones is not on the current Fire roster. When healthy last year, he gave the team some real leadership and stability.
One of the standout performers for the Fire was newcomer lineman Derrick Shepard. The former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket reeked havoc for tough Warrior QB Kenta Yagi through most of the game. He also was a force on special teams, blocking a field goal attempt. He was also very quick off the ball. Although not as big as most offensive lines, the Warriors had a quick bunch, and that makes Shepard’s moves at the snap even more impressive.
The Louisville crowd let out one of the biggest roars of the night when the P.A. announcer gave the news that the University of Kentucky had lost to UAB 76-75 in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament.
Fire fullback-linebacker Demetrius Forney was injured, but returned to the sidelines to watch the rest of the game. Although he could barely put weight on his injured leg Sunday night, hopefully he will be good to go for opening day on April 10. Last season, he was one of the Fire’s most consistent players.
Favorite Pepsi Vision moment on the big scoreboard screen: An older, kindly looking usher in the upper arena was caught dancing to Men Without Hats’ Safety Dance.
Kevin Sedelmeier is a native Louisvillian. A graduate of the University of Louisville with a B.A. in Communication and M.A. in English, he works as a technical writer and has written fifteen screenplays and numerous short stories. He lives with his wife Elizabeth, son Lukas, and their dog Springsteen.