Honoring the best with the best
I’m not a huge fan of hockey, but I love the fact that the NHL honors some of its legends on the names of the trophies handed out to the league’s annual award winners, like the Hart Memorial Trophy given out the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. What better why to honor the pioneers and all-time greats of Arena Football than to do the same?
With the AFL concluding its twenty-second regular season this past weekend, here’s what I feel each award should be named and why. Later this week, I will select who should receive each award based on statistics, what each player did for his respective team and his overall impact on the league.
This season, the AFL added a Quarterback of the Year award (and according to its schedule of when the awards are given out, this is the most important next to the community award), but yet has not created (or re-created) a league Most Valuable Player Award like the NFL and most sports leagues have. From 1987-1995, the AFL had a league MVP award, but changed it (for some odd reason) to the Offensive Player of the Year in 1996. The Offensive Player of the Year is not always the MVP of the league. Like this season, Utah’s Joe Germaine had a fantastic season, but there is no way that a QB with a 6-10 record should ever be considered a candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player, but can be considered a serious candidate for the Offensive Player of the Year because of his stats. With that in mind, I’m going to assume the league will one day put the MVP award back in the mix and am going to including it here.
Most Valuable Player Award (the George LaFrance Trophy)
When George LaFrance retired after the 2000 season, he held many AFL records and is still the only player to be named ArenaBowl MVP three times. LaFrance, who began his indoor career in 1988 with the Detroit Drive, earned league MVP honors twice, won five ArenaBowl titles and appeared in eight championship games. He was the league’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards and games played when he retired.
Offensive Player of the Year Award (the Eddie Brown Trophy)
Brown was a one-man show with the Firebirds from 1994-2003. When he left the game, he was the league’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. In 2006, the AFL named him as the league’s greatest player of all-time. He was named league MVP/Offensive Player of the Year three times and was ArenaBowl XIII’s Most Valuable Player.
Defensive Player of the Year Award (the Kenny McEntyre Trophy)
The Glove as he’s been called is the league’s all-time leader in interceptions. He has been named Defensive Player of the Year more times than anyone in league history (three times) and has been named All-Arena First Team six times.
Ironman of the Year Award (the Barry Wagner Trophy)
Barry Wagner earned AFL Ironman of the Year for the first six years of his career and is the embodiment of the concept. Wagner also earned league MVP/Offensive Player of the Year twice. No player dominated both sides of the ball like Wagner.
Quarterback of the Year Award (the Jay Gruden Trophy)
From the start of his career, Jay Gruden was a winner. He led the Tampa Bay Storm to ArenaBowl championships in his rookie season and four of his first six seasons. Gruden retired after his sixth season to focus on coaching and guided the Orlando Predators to an ArenaBowl title in his first year (and third year) as head coach. He decided to return to the field as the Predators’ signal caller in 2002 after a five-year hiatus. In his final season before returning as the team’s coach, Gruden was 10-0 as a starter in the regular season and tossed 49 TDs to just two interceptions.
Lineman of the Year Award (the James Baron Trophy)
This was one of the hardest awards to give out since there are so many deserving players like Sylvester Bembery and Sam Hernandez. The league only gave out this award once in the first nine seasons (in 1991), but has given it out annually each year since 1996. Baron is the only player to earn the award twice and was the highest ranked lineman on the league’s twenty greatest players list (sixth). Even today, Baron is feared. He is known for anticipating the snap count and disrupting the center-to-QB exchange causing many fumbles and sacks (though he’s probably been called for jumping off-sides more than any player in league history).
Kicker of the Year Award (the Mike Black Trophy)
No kicker was as dominant as Mike Black for the league’s first twenty seasons. Black was named All-Arena First Team four times; including his rookie campaign, and earned Kicker of the Year in 1999 (the league did not have the award for his first three seasons, which he would have likely won each year). He was the first kicker in league history to score 1,000 career points and retired from the game as the league’s all-time leader in every kicking category.
Rookie of the Year Award (the Hunkie Cooper Trophy)
As a rookie, in 1993, Hunkie Cooper electrified the AFL and earned league MVP honors. He was one of three rookies to ever win the award (Russell Hairston, 1987; Eddie Brown, 1994). Cooper made the switch from offensive specialist to two-way player and earned AFL Ironman of the Year twice. He left the game in 2005 as the league’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards.
Coach of the Year Award (the Tim Marcum Trophy)
Marcum won the first AFL title in 1987 and won six more with three different teams. He is the league’s all-time leader in overall wins, regular season wins, playoff wins, as well as games coached. Marcum has more ArenaBowl titles than any of the other 16 active head coaches combined.
Executive of the Year Award (the Gene Nudo Trophy)
Nudo earned the distinction as Executive of the Year a league-record three times, so this seems like a no-brainer.
In a perfect world, maybe the AFL would honor its greats in this fashion, but it’s highly unlikely. This is coming from a league that abandoned its Hall of Fame, which has not had a single inductee since 2002. So until it happens (or not), this is my dream. I hope you agree with the choices.
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.