Ironman Lives Again!
Everything changed in an instant for perennial Ironman Chris Avery. He went from one of the most feared and respected fullback/linebackers in the Arena Football League to a mere spectator in the flash of an eye.
Avery had torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) of his knee on the very first drill in camp, going down in kickoff coverage, and missed the entire 2007 season. He admits he felt worthless and was nearly in tears everyday when he came to the team’s facility for rehab as he could hear the smashing of helmets and pads just outside the training room door. It hurt to walk. All Avery wanted to do was run – run away from the training room, run onto the field, but he couldn’t. “It was the worst time of my life.”
From 2004-06 when the Grand Rapids Rampage had lost more games than any team in the league, Avery was the only consistent bright spot year after year. He was a team leader, a fan favorite and one of the best players at his position in the league.
Grand Rapids’ poor on-the-field record overshadowed his play though – as evident with his 2005 season. That year, he had the best statistical year in AFL history by any fullback/linebacker when he led all FB/LBs in nearly every single offense, defense and special teams category. In fact, he topped all FB/LBs in 13 categories - a feat no FB/LB had ever achieved in league history. Although he had more rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, tackles, receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns than the two players selected All-Arena combined, he was not selected as one of the league’s best FB/LB in 2005. Additionally, he led all players, not just FB/LBs, in special teams tackles and served as the team’s long snapper on all kicks.
It’s been little over a year since that morning and Avery is running, tackling and getting ready for the AFL season that opens this weekend. He says that his knee is completely healed and “it’s like it never happened.”
“After six seasons on the field, I got bumps and bruises that just continued to add up,” Avery said. “My body needed time to heal and honestly, I’m in the best shape of my career right now.”
There’s something different this year though – when Avery puts on his helmet this week, it won’t have a snarling rhino on the side. It’ll have a stealth bomber instead; the two-time All-Ironman team honoree signed with the Kansas City Brigade in the offseason.
Grand Rapids’ all-time leader in rushing yards and games played never imagined playing for another team. “I wanted to finish my career in Grand Rapids. I loved it up there. I loved the fans – they were like a second family to me.”
Just 256 yards from being the first player in league history to reach 1,000 rushing yards with the same team was something that Avery strived for (NOTE: Bo Kelly, the league’s all-time rusher had over 1,000 yards with Arizona, but played a season with the Carolina Cobras during his run to 1,000).
The three-phase Ironman was highly recruited in free agency after the 2004 and 2006 seasons, but chose to stay in Grand Rapids because he relished playing in front of the rabid Rampage fans he had grown to love. He was a free agent again after 2007, but with concerns about his health and the arrival of new head coach Steve Thonn, Avery was not offered re-signed. “It hurt after seven years with them, but it’s a business.”
During the 2006 season, Avery spilt time with Chris Ryan, who had spent the previous two seasons with the Philadelphia Soul. The duo played together in Grand Rapids from 2001-03 before Ryan left for two seasons when former head coach Michael Trigg went to Philadelphia. While both players’ statistics dramatically decreased in 2006 from 2005, the pair gave the Rampage without question the best fullback/linebacker combination in the league.
Benefiting from the first year of arenafootball2 in 2000, Avery used his strong two-way performance with the Norfolk Nighthawks to earn a roster spot with the Rampage. Grand Rapids, which had never won a playoff game in its first four AFL seasons, ended his rookie campaign with an 11-3 record and won ArenaBowl XV. Avery played a huge role in the team’s unlikely run to the title. In the championship game, he recorded a rushing touchdown and the game’s lone sack.
Even after missing last season, Avery is still among the AFL’s all-time leaders in all rushing categories. Oddly enough, Avery wasn’t known for his ball-carrying skills in high school and college, where he was a defensive lineman known for sacks and a fierce pass rush. However, his transition from the large, wide-open spaces of the outdoor game to the more confined close quarters of the indoor game unleashed Avery’s running spirit. His 3.6 yards per rushing attempt is the highest in league history among active fullbacks.
With the free substitution rules, Avery will go back to his defensive roots and be the defensive captain of the Brigade this season. He will be the lone defensive player with coach-to-player communication via a wireless transmitter in his helmet – the AFL is the first sports league to use this technology on the defense. “I think the challenge is to get my breathing down so I can understand the coaches in between plays. I look forward to it. It’s just another challenge.”
“Chris has always been one of the more difficult matchups in the league because of his ability to run the ball on offense and his quickness on defense,” Kansas City head coach Kevin Porter said about Avery. “On top of that, he’s one of the best special teams players in the game.”
Avery admits that he loves to carry the ball and score touchdowns, but knows all too well from his time in Grand Rapids that winning is ultimately more important. Kansas City was the league’s number-one ranked defense last season by nearly 20 yards per game to its closest competitor in total yards and passing yards, but was in the bottom half of the league in red-zone defense and third-down conversions. Porter believes that the addition of Avery will make the team much better in these areas. Last season, San Jose had the best red-zone defense and held opponents to a league-low in third-down conversions – they won the ArenaBowl.
“Right now he’s played mostly on defense; we’re integrating him into the offense and he’ll see time there, but for now he’ll be focused on defense and special teams,” Porter added. “Everything that he does well, you’ll see him do it this year.”
“I got a taste of a championship my rookie season and want to get there again,” Avery said. “I’m going to do what ever helps this team get there.”
Out to prove he’s still among the league’s best, Avery could adopt Ozzy Osbourne’s song Ironman as a personal anthem. When reading some of the lyrics, the song mirrors Avery’s injury and his return to the field:
Can he walk at all, or if he moves will he fall?
Is he alive or dead?
Has he thoughts within his head?
We'll just pass him there why should we even care?
Nobody wants him.
They just turn their heads.
Nobody helps him.
Now he has his revenge.
Heavy boots of lead fills his victims full of dread.
Running as fast as they can…
Ironman lives again!
Avery and his new team, the Kansas City Brigade, host the Tampa Bay Storm this Saturday, March 1st at the brand-new Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Kickoff is at 6:00 P.M. Central Time.
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.