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Breaking it Down: AFL HOF Edition

Andy Lopusnak
Wednesday June 15, 2011

This Friday during the NFL Network broadcast of the War on I-4, ten individuals will be selected as finalists for the first AFL Hall of Fame class in nearly a decade. As the self-anointed AFL historian, I've taken the liberty of going through the list of eligible individuals and present to you my ten finalists.      

Before I begin, here's a refresher on who’s already in and who’s not eligible.
The AFL Hall of Fame started in 1998 and currently has 23 individuals:
15 players: Dwayne Dixon, Gary Mullen, Tate Randle, Alvin Rettig, Craig Walls, Jay Gruden, Durwood Roquemore, Jon Roehlk, Ben Bennett, Carl Aikens, Herkie Walls, Joe March, John Corker, Fred Gayles and Reggie Smith
Three head coaches: Tim Marcum, Perry Moss and Danny White
Three executives: Jim Foster, Jerry Kurz and Gary Vitto
Two owners: Mike Ilitch and Glenn Mazula - a third if you count Foster
After the 2002 induction, the Hall of Fame mysteriously vanished until this season.
To be eligible, players need to have played at least three AFL seasons unless that player played in the league's first two seasons (1987-88 - I assume this was done to get Craig Walls into the Hall because no one else fits this). In addition, players need to be retired two full seasons plus the current season (unlike the NFL that mandates five full seasons with induction prior to the sixth season after a player's last game). The 2009 non-season doesn't count, so a player's last game needed to be in the 2007 season. Coaches need at least five years of service and can be active.
It's been nearly a decade and the list of eligible players is vast and represents some of the biggest names the sport has ever seen. There are plenty of worthy executives, owners, officials and coaches that are sure-fire Hall of Famers, but with the league allowing just ten finalists with an undetermined number of individuals getting into the Hall it's very difficult to justify allowing anything but players in this season.
The list gets even bigger in 2012 when players that last played in 2008 are eligible. This includes QBs Sherdrick Bonner and Clint Dolezel, receiver/offensive specialist Chris Jackson, lineman James Baron and defensive back Clevan Thomas.
Five years ago, the AFL had a huge celebration of its first 20 seasons and put out a list of its 20 Greatest Players list. Though I disagreed with some names in the top 20, the list was pretty much spot on. For example, I felt then and still do that Andre Bowden had a better career as a FB/LB than Bob McMillen, who was voted #20 on the list. Bowden had more rushing touchdowns, sacks, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and blocked kicks in fewer games and while playing along side another great FB/LB in Les Barley (another worthy HOF candidate).
However, since the league officially announced these players as the 20 Greatest of all-time, then they are the 20 Greatest and not a single player should be considered until all eligible “20 Greatest AFL Players” are in either the Hall or finalists. If the league allows a non-20 into this year’s top ten, then it is an embarrassment (though if Bowden slips in, I wouldn’t mind at all).
Only five of these "20 Greatest" are currently in the Hall (#4 Gruden, #9 Dixon, #16 Rettig, #17T Mullen and #19 Corker). Three others aren’t eligible this season (#6 James Baron, #8 Sherdrick Bonner and #11 Aaron Garcia). Garcia is active and is the starting QB for the Jacksonville Sharks. Baron and Bonner last played in 2008 and were teammates on the Chicago Rush.  
This means 12 players on the 20 Greatest Players in AFL History are eligible this season, including the top three on the list. Again, so the league doesn't look like a joke only these players should even be considered for induction.
That being said, there's a long list of non-20 Greatest that are eligible this season that I feel will make it into the Hall one day. Nevertheless, until this pesky 20 Greatest list is taken care of, you shouldn't see the likes of Andre Bowden, Les Barley, Lynn Bradford, Bo Kelly, Darryl Hammond, Calvin Schexnayder, Michael Baker, Gary Compton, Tom Briggs, Willie Wyatt, Flint Fleming and Steve Papin. 
There are some players that are eligible that didn't make the "20 Greatest" but had big career numbers like QB Andy Kelly that you'd think would be Hall worthy until you look at what he did in each of his 14 AFL season. Not once did his peers feel that Kelly was an All-Arena performer in any of those 14 years. He still holds the one career passing record no QB wants - most interceptions thrown. Kelly never won an ArenaBowl (he was on the losing side of two though) and never led the league in passing yards.
It's called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Very Good.
Though my ten finalists feature nine players and one coach this season, there are some very worthy administrators and contributors that I considered but ultimately decided against because the backlog of players was too vast. All of these are very worthy of not just consideration, but induction to the HOF. These include:
Bill Niro: Along with Jim Foster and Jerry Kurz, Niro founded Gridiron Enterprises, Inc., the founding member of the Arena Football League. Niro, a lawyer by trade, secured the 1989 patent for the AFL game system. He was the 1996 recipient of the Founder's Award recipient, given to an individual that has dedicated his life and career to the growth and improvement of Arena Football. The Sports Business Daily reported that Niro owned 10% of the pre-2008 AFL. He was prominent in purchasing the assets of the old AFL when it was sold in bankruptcy to the AF1 that quickly changed its name to the AFL we have today. Niro is part of the ownership group of the new version of the Chicago Rush.
Gene Nudo: The league's only three-time AFL Executive of the Year. He led Arizona to five straight Commissioner's Awards given out to the league's best-run organization. Nudo has been involved with the league since before there was a league when he coached in the 1986 test game. He has served as an assistant coach, director of player personnel, vice president, general manager and head coach of teams and spent six years as the AFL's VP of Football Operations. Nudo was the 2002 Founder's Award recipient. Today, Nudo is the General Manger & President of the Chicago Rush.
I have no problem at all if Niro and/or Nudo are part of the ten finalists. They are very worthy.
David Baker: AFL Commissioner from November 1996 until the 2008 ArenaBowl. Love him or hate him, the league's fourth commissioner shaped the game more than any other commissioner did. He helped create arenafootball2 that was a developmental league that at one point produced nearly 50% of AFL players. Baker brought the game to five of the top six media markets in the country (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia). However, he did abruptly resign as commissioner two days before the 2008 ArenaBowl and within five months, the league folded. Does he deserve a place in the HOF? Yes. Should he ever get in? No. 
I've heard from message boards and other sources that someone from the media should be considered like Eli Gold or Ari Wolfe. I just don't see it. Gold was an excellent broadcaster back in the brief TNN days and though Wolfe is also fabulous, I just don't think that any media personality should go into the Hall of Fame side-by-side with any players, coaches or executives. It doesn't happen in other sports. Yes, these sports have special wings of their respective HOFs but none is recognized with NFL busts or MLB plaques in the actual Hall of Fame. And yes, Gold and Wolfe would be great additions to a media wing but to put them in the category of a Jay Gruden or Tim Marcum is just silly. Plus, neither were play-by-play nor color analyst for any ArenaBowls on national TV (Wolfe was a sideline reporter at last year's title game). Tom Hammond called four ArenaBowls, Craig Bolerjack did three. Hell, I was a stats guy on the national broadcast of five ArenaBowls. When the league creates a physical HOF one day, then by all means there should be a special wing for the media, but no media member or organization should be a finalist or even garner consideration in the same process as players, coaches or executives.
Now, here's the 2011 Breaking it Down AFL Hall of Fame finalists:
Darren Arbet, head coach: San Jose (1999-2008, 2011)
If one coach that isn't already in the Hall is a finalist, it should be Arbet. Some might say Mike Hohensee or Mike Dailey should be mentioned, but the numbers don't lie and Arbet's a better coach when it comes down to the only thing that matters - WINNING. Yes, all three have won ArenaBowl titles, but Arbet won as many ArenaBowl titles (three) as Dailey (two) and Hohensee (one) combined. Plus, Arbet has a better winning percentage in the regular season and playoffs than both of them. One day Dailey and Hohensee will get into the Hall, but it shouldn't be this year.
Despite his current five-game losing skid with the SaberCats, Arbet still ranks second in winning percentage among coaches with at least 40 games coached (behind HOFer Perry Moss). Hohensee's win percentage is just 54.7 and Dailey was at 58.0 compared to Arbet's 68.4%. Aside from his ArenaBowl win in 2006 with a 7-9 team, Hohensee never won more than one playoff game in a single season and has a career playoff record of 12-12 (Dailey was 11-7 in the playoffs and Arbet is currently 15-6). Hohensee has been the head coached of six different AFL teams, Dailey coached two different ones and Arbet has been head coach of only the SaberCats.
Aside from his 6-8 first year in 1999, the two-time AFL Coach of the Year has never had a losing season and posted eight double-digit win seasons in his nine other years (was 9-7 in 2005). His teams have made nine straight playoff appearances (longest active streak in the AFL). Arbet's 2002 team was selected as the greatest in AFL history during the 20-year celebration five years ago (the 2004 San Jose squad ranked ninth on the top 20 list).
Barry Wagner, WR/DB: Orlando (1992-99, 2007), San Jose (2000-06)
  • #2 on 20 Greatest AFL Players list
  • 15th Anniversary Team member
  • 10th Anniversary Team member
  • Six-time AFL Ironman of the Year
  • Two-time AFL Offensive Player/MVP of the Year
  • Member of All-ArenaBowl Team
  • Four-time ArenaBowl Ironman
  • Three-time ArenaBowl winner
  • AFL all-time leader in: points scored, seasons with 100+ points, career touchdowns, rushing touchdowns, forced fumbles, two-point conversions and all-purpose yardage.
  • Holds AFL playoff career records for: games played, points scored, touchdowns scored, two-point conversions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, rushing touchdowns, MFG return touchdowns, interceptions and tackles.
  • Holds ArenaBowl records for: receptions, rushing touchdowns and interceptions.
George LaFrance, OS/KR: Detroit (1988-89, 91-93), Tampa Bay (94-99), New Jersey (2000)
  • #3 on 20 Greatest AFL Players list
  • 15th Anniversary Team member
  • 10th Anniversary Team member
  • Five-time ArenaBowl winner
  • Only three-time ArenaBowl MVP
  • Member of All-ArenaBowl Team
  • First player to reach 20,000 all-purpose yards
  • Was the league's all-time leader in nearly all receiving and return categories when he retired after 2000.
  • Still ranks as the league's all-time leader in combined kick returns, MFG returns (by almost double). Also the all-time playoff MFG return yardage leader.
  • Is #2 all-time in AFL playoff career records for: games played, points scored, touchdowns scored, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, kickoff return yards and all-purpose yards.
  • Holds ArenaBowl career records for: games played, games won (tied with Stevie Thomas), points scored, total touchdowns, receiving touchdowns (tied with Thomas), kickoff returns (by almost triple), kickoff return yards (by almost triple, kickoff return touchdowns, MFG returns, MFG return yards, all-purpose yards.
Eddie Brown, OS: Albany/Indiana (1994-2003)
  • #1 on 20 Greatest AFL Players list
  • 15th Anniversary Team member
  • Three-time AFL Offensive Player/MVP of the Year
  • Was AFL leader in all receiving categories when he retired after 2003 season.
  • Still holds AFL record for most points scored in a game (54) and most TDs in a game (nine).
  • Holds AFL playoff single-game record for receiving yards and ArenaBowl single-game record for receiving yards.
  • Seven seasons with 1,000+ yards receiving
  • Ranks #3 all-time in AFL playoff history in most receiving categories.
  • ArenaBowl XIII MVP
Stevie Thomas, OS/KR, WR/LB: Tampa Bay (1991-99), Orlando (2000)
  • #9 on 20 Greatest AFL Players list
  • 15th Anniversary Team member
  • Two-time ArenaBowl MVP
  • Five-time ArenaBowl winner.
  • When he retired after 2001, Thomas was the AFL's all-time leader in fumble recoveries and interceptions returned for TDs despite not playing defense in his first four AFL seasons.
  • The greatest play in AFL history involved Thomas returning a loose ball on a kickoff with just seconds left for a touchdown to propel Tampa Bay into ArenaBowl IX.
    His career average of 14.9 yards per catch is the highest in league history among players with at least 325 catches.
  • Tied for the most career interception returns for touchdown in AFL playoff history.
  • Game MVP for four of the "20 Greatest Games Played In AFL History," including the top two games. 
Hunkie Cooper, OS/KR, WR/LB: Arizona (1993-2005)
  • #5 on 20 Greatest AFL Players list
  • 15th Anniversary Team member
  • Two-time AFL Ironman of the Year
  • One-time AFL MVP
  • ArenaBowl XI Ironman
  • AFL all-time leader in combined kickoff return yards and MFG returns for touchdowns.
  • When he retired after the 2005 season, Cooper was the league's all-time leader in nearly all return categories.
  • Holds career AFL playoff records in: kickoff return yards and all-purpose yards.
Sylvester Bembery, OL/DL: New England (1988), Albany (90-93), Tampa Bay (1994-99, 2001), Buffalo (2000)
  • #7 on 20 Greatest AFL Players list
  • 15th Anniversary Team member
  • 10th Anniversary Team member
  • Was the AFL's all-time leader in sacks when he retired after 2001
  • Played 13 seasons and won two ArenaBowls
  • Six-time All-Arena selection
  • Member of All-ArenaBowl Team.
Kurt Warner, QB: Iowa (1995-96); AFL Ambassador 1999-present
  • #12 on 20 Greatest AFL Players list
  • 15th Anniversary Team member
  • First Team All-Arena in two of his three seasons and led the Barnstormers to the ArenaBowl in his final two years.
  • Only former AFL player to receive the AFL's Founder's Award.
  • After the AFL, Warner became one of the best QBs in the NFL and should be a first-ballot inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • He was a two-time NFL MVP and a Super Bowl MVP. Warner is still the only player in NFL history to toss 40 TDs and win a Super Bowl in the same season. He holds the top three Super Bowl marks for passing yardage.
  • Looking at Warner’s ArenaBowl and Super Bowl appearances, he holds the record for career 300-yard games in both title games (two in the ArenaBowl; three in the Super Bowl). Warner was the first AFL player to pass for 300 yards in an ArenaBowl (316 in 1996) and his 325 a year later was the record until 1999 – it stands as the fourth most today.
  • Including Warner's three Super Bowl appearances, he passed for over 300 yards in all five professional football championship games he played. He still holds the ArenaBowl records for most completions (31) and pass attempts (51); both were set in ArenaBowl XI against Arizona (1997).
Sam Hernandez, OL/DL: Charlotte (1992), Las Vegas/Anaheim (1994-97), San Jose (1998-2005)
  • #13 on 20 Greatest AFL Players list
  • 15th Anniversary Team member
  • 2000 AFL Lineman of the Year
  • Five-time All-Arena selection
  • Still ranks as the AFL's all-time leader in sacks and ranks third in forced fumbles (most by a lineman).
Since I'm sticking to the 20 Greatest list that the league proclaimed as the best ever, my last spot is up between the four remaining eligible 20 Greatest players (Cory Fleming, Greg Hopkins, Randy Gatewood and Bob McMillen).
For my vote, McMillen is out this season. As previously mentioned, I feel that there were other FB/LBs that had better careers than McMillen, like Andre Bowden who is the only three-time All-Arena First Team FB/LB in league history and still has the most career rushing touchdowns by a FB/LB.
This sets up a three-way battle for the final spot between excellent two-way receivers with Fleming, Hopkins and Gatewood. All three played during the same timeframe for about the same amount of games. All three were named Ironman of the Year (Gatewood twice) during the course of their careers and offensively had similar numbers. Fleming and Hopkins played Jack linebacker and Gatewood played the much more difficult defensive back as the Jack for the Rattlers was Hunkie. Fleming was the primary receiver for his respective teams, while Gatewood shared the spotlight with Cooper, and Hopkins was seemingly always in the shadow of either Eddie Brown or Chris Jackson. In terms of receptions, Gatewood was far behind the other two (each had more the 140 more career catches) and he never reached 90 receptions in a single season (Fleming had five 90+ catch season and Hopkins had three). All three had at least 20 interceptions on defense with Gatewood grabbing ten more than Hopkins.
This is my toss up and I'd be okay with any of these three getting a nod this year, but my final spot goes to...
Randy Gatewood, WR/DB: Arizona (1996-2007)
  • Tied for #17 in 20 Greatest Players in AFL History
  • Two-time AFL Ironman of the Year (earned second award after the 20 Greatest list was released)
  • Six-time All-Arena selection
  • His 36 career interceptions are the second most ever by a player with at least 3,500 receiving yards (only Wagner had more).
To review, my ten finalists are: Darren Arbet, Barry Wagner, George LaFrance, Eddie Brown, Stevie Thomas, Hunkie Cooper, Sylvester Bembery, Kurt Warner, Sam Hernandez and Randy Gatewood.
It's very fitting that the announcement of the finalists will be during the league's greatest rivalry - the War on I-4 between the Tampa Bay Storm and Orlando Predators. Four of the ten listed here played on these teams (Wagner, LaFrance, Thomas and Bembery). Thomas actually won an ArenaBowl in his first AFL season with the Storm in 1991 and then ended his career in 2000 with a title as a member of the Predators.
In next week's Breaking it Down, we will see how the league's top ten differs from mine. If an individual (or individuals) that I haven't mentioned here is selected, I'll breakdown the merits of those against my top ten.


One last note... the wonderful photo of George LaFrance making a diving catch for a touchdown against the Florida Bobcats in a 1996 game at the Thunderdome used on the cover of this article is courtesy of the most excellent Tampa Bay Storm team photographer Chris Arnold. Thanks Chris.

Andy Lopusnak is an 11-year AFL front office veteran, spending time with the Tampa Bay Storm, San Diego Riptide and Grand Rapids Rampage. He works as a statistician for NFL and college sports for CBS Sports and is a freelance photographer. Lopusnak received two Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of South Florida and has been a fan of ArenaBall since its inception.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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