An Homage to the Orlando Predators
No city should ever lose a sports franchise at any level. There's just too much invested in each franchise. Too many fans, too many players, too many coaches, too many guys who sell popcorn, too many interns who are just hoping to get a start in sports. When a team goes away at any level, all of that goes away, too.
But on the day the Orlando Predators died, I only have two words to say, the first of which ends in "K," and the second of which is "You."
(See, you thought I was going somewhere else with that, eh?)
Oh sure, when it became evident to me this morning that my beloved Predators were ceasing operations, I let out a sigh with that other word that ends in "K" and traditionally is followed by "You," but after going through the wave of emotions around this, I can't be all that upset in the end.
Sure, there's plenty of discussion that could, should and will be had about passing blame around for the fiasco that has become the 2016 AFL offseason, but I can't help but be thankful for all of the great memories I've had with this team for the last two and a half decades.
The Predators were essentially my life stream when I first moved to Florida as a 6-year old kid. I fell in love with this quirky little game almost immediately. My family, just like so many others in the City Beautiful, chose to support the Preds over the Magic who, at the time, were the only other sports game in town. And while the Magic were struggling by NBA standards, the Predators were selling out game after game at the old O-Rena. It was so much fun as a kid. There were blowup dolls, copious amounts of beer, girls wearing leather known as Prowlers, Sweet Home Alabama and Barry Wagner. What more could an adolescent kid want than that?
The moments on the field were awesome. I remember the Miracle Minute, the question, "What do the Tampa Bay Storm and marijuana have in common?" David Cool's field goal, that goofy high five with Jason Lucas in the first round of the 2006 playoffs, Jay Gruden making it cool to go for it on 4th and 10 from your own 5-yard line and throwing a 45-yard pass on the decisive play of the drive, chanting "Tampa Sucks" at the top of my lungs year after year… So many awesome memories on the field.
But it was the moments off the field that were really the best. Barry Wagner signing my mom's beloved #82 jersey, Don Dizney paying the players with $2 bills after a first round playoff win in 1994 to remind the players that there were still two games left to be won, making a "No Pizza" sign in 1997 when Will Meris backed up Wags' guarantee that the Preds would beat the Storm by offering free pizza to all fans in attendance if Orlando had lost the game (it won), Webbie Burnett telling the story of how he just kept eating pizzas after he was told there wasn't going to be a season, booing the holy hell out of Tim Marcum (only to have him turn around and blow kisses in my general direction), bus trips to Tampa, becoming great friends with the only mascot in sports who spoke for himself because he created Klaw himself, the popcorn guy in the stands who was a dead ringer for O.J. Simpson, Rich McKenzie telling the story of threatening to kill Cool if he had missed said aforementioned kick in 2000, standing next to Joe Hamilton and laughing that he was listed at 5-foot-10, Greg White literally sacking Shane Stafford into a pool at the team's picnic…
And my time as a member of the media for sure. Interviewing a man I idolized as a kid, Kenny McEntyre for the first time, talking X's and O's with Jay Gruden, flying all over the country to watch this team play, running onto the field to get a postgame interview in Austin when the game wasn't even over yet because of a penalty, any interview with Marcum after a Preds/Storm game, getting my first experience as a radio color man, and then a play-by-play man for a game… And hell, without ArenaFan, I never would have gotten my sports writing job I have today that is such an important part of my life.
Oh sure, the Predators' existence was as maddening as Gruden's clock management skills at times (you knew I'd get one dig in here, Dan Ryan). It's a damn shame Perry Moss never won a title with this team, and it's amazing to think that a missed extra point and failure to stop a two-point conversion in the playoffs in what I called the best game of arena football I've ever seen was the only thing that stood between this team and 250 victories for its existence. And who knows if the 2016 Predators could have gone on the road and beaten Philadelphia to get to the ArenaBowl at that point. Just thinking about winning only two titles with seven trips to the ArenaBowl may as well be a gut punch, and the last time the Preds were on the precipice of a title was 10 years ago. Still stings. But I'll always have my #98 jersey with the name World Champions on the back even though it was at least two sizes too big for me.
And we all went through some really sad times, too. Justin Skaggs and Fran Papasedero must be looking down and shaking their heads in disbelief today. And well, y'know Marcum was only technically a member of the Predator family for a short time as an assistant coach, he's got to be turning over in his grave today, too. She wasn't always pretty, but we danced with her anyway.
All of those things, happy, sad and indifferent that made this team what it was as one of the proudest franchises in the history of the Arena Football League, and I'm so happy to have been a part of the mass majority of it. I'll never forget the people who made the Predators what they were. Coaches. Players. Fans. We're all family now and have been for 25 years.
So for all of that, today I'm thankful. Sure, I'm sad that the Predators are no more, and if by some chance the City Beautiful and the AFL cross paths once again, I'll be happy as a clam and ready to welcome the team back with open arms. But there's just too many memories of this franchise to be sad about not having the ability to go forward.
It's been a hell of a run, Predators. 249 wins. 168 losses. 2,615,089 fans in attendance. 25 seasons. 7 ArenaBowl appearances. 2 championships. And friendships and memories that will last a lifetime.
Thank you, Predators. You'll be missed.
RIP Orlando Predators, 1991-2016.