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Once More … With Feeling

Andrew Mason
Sunday June 22, 2003


Most championship pairings are about the season at hand, and nothing more. They involve two best teams of that particular year, dueling for a crown that will likely be ceded to someone else 365 days later, eventually to be a line in history, and little else beyond that except in the memories of those who were there.

A few stand as something more. Perhaps they’re about rivalry, like the 2000 World Series between the Mets and Yankees. Arena Football’s answers to that one are the 1995 and 1998 couplings of Orlando and Tampa Bay, two clubs who are still waiting for a third ArenaBowl with which to settle matters and give the winner long-term historical superiority. Or they’re the result of years of excellence, two teams that have taken turns at the pinnacle of their sport, but have rarely crossed paths to establish the better of the two, such as Pittsburgh and Dallas’ Super Bowl showdowns in the 1970s.

Sunday’s game is just that. Since 1993, the Storm have won three ArenaBowls and played in four; the Rattlers have won two and qualified for three. Only the Predators, with their two world championships, can lay claim to similar success in the AFL’s ultimate game.

They’ve had a decade of duels in the regular season, and two memorable playoff encounters, decided by a combined four points, that demand to be in the discussion of the finest games in league history.

It would seem these teams have had this date planned for a decade.

“We know them very well. We have a long history with (Storm) Coach (Tim) Marcum; he’s a tremendous coach and is always able to find unbelievable talent. We understand that they’re going to bring it. But we’re going to show up and bring it as well,” Rattlers quarterback Sherdrick Bonner said. “What more can anyone ask for in the ArenaBowl?”

What more, indeed. All one can ask for is a reprise of the 1996 and 1997 semifinals. The first one – the last AFL game in the then-ThunderDome in St. Petersburg – saw the Rattlers nudge in front in the second quarter and hold the lead until a Tracey Perkins touchdown for the Storm early in the fourth period, spawning a tit-for-tat struggle that finally ended when Bo Kelly was swung to the turf by Sylvester Bembery on a two-point conversion with nine seconds left.

“We went for two right here in this corner end zone,” he said, standing right on the point on the field where the conversion went wildly astray, “and they stopped us and beat us/”

“That’s not what I wanted, man. I remember that game clearly,” Arizona’s Randy Gatewood said. “We played well, man, real well all game. The sad thing about it is that I think we were up in that game (two scores, 38-29), because I remember (Jay) Gruden threw a couple of interceptions that game … and somehow they got back in the game. It came down to that last play where we scored, and we decided to go for two for the win.”

Seven years later, Gatewood still believes White made the right call.

“I don’t question that – playing in a hostile environment like it was over there. I think we had a couple of players hurt,” Gatewood said. “Overtime probably wasn’t the best thing to do right there. That’s good. It shows a lot of confidence from Coach White, that he had a lot of confidence in us to make that one play and say ‘Look, we’re going for the win right now, we’re going to do it.’ Unfortunately, we didn’t win it, but I think that game taught us a lot, because the next year we went on to have a great season and rebounded and responded with the world championship the next year.”

But before the Rattlers could thump Kurt Warner and the Iowa Barnstormers in ArenaBowl XI, they had to sneak past a determined Storm team, one that had lost two of its most dominant players in the offseason – Gruden at quarterback and Johnnie Harris at cornerback – and had struggled to its worst season to that point, an 8-6 finish that put them in the postseason as a No. 6 seed. And to the league’s biggest fan, it remains the apex of the sport.

“I still contend that the semifinal game that led to ArenaBowl XI was the best game that I’ve ever seen,” Commissioner David Baker said.

In the 1997 rematch, overtime wasn’t a choice – it was a fate, unavoidable as the teams went scoreless in the final 10:57 of regulation, dragging a 43-43 deadlock into the extra session. But the Rattlers dragged something else out of regulation – a limping offense, crippled by the loss of Bonner, who’d left the game with a broken leg suffered as he threw the touchdown pass that had put them up 43-36 early in the final period.

As overtime began, the Storm took possession and drove into Rattlers territory. But the drive stalled, and the team settled for a 30-yard field goal by Rich Fall. On the ensuing kickoff, Hunkie Cooper returned the ball to the Tampa Bay 10, and two plays later, Gatewood was in the end zone, waltzing across the goal line with nary a finger laid on him, proud possessor of a 13-yard touchdown pass from Donnie Davis.

“I caught that ball and all I remember was out of the corner of my eye, the DB (Jack Kellogg) was over here, so I’m thinking there’s no way he’s going to get to me,” Gatewood remembered. “So I just kind of strolled in the end zone, man, and it hit me right then that, look, we’re in the ArenaBowl, and we’re going to be playing for it all.

“We had run that play once or twice earlier in the game, so I had kind of set it up to maybe run it a little bit differently this time, and Coach White called my number and I responded.”

Of such moments do games pass from significance in the moment to something more – to a spot in history. Indeed, Bonner is right. Who could ask for anything more than what these two franchises have already provided in their past postseason tussles?


 
Andrew Mason was at the Tampa Bay Storm`s first home game on June 1, 1991 and has followed the game ever since. While in college, he served as content editor and co-founder of The Storm Shelter, a Web site which covered the Tampa Bay Storm on the Internet from 1996-99. He also volunteered with the team`s media relations department in 1998 and currently contributes to ColoradoCrush.com. He's covered the NFL for various on-line outlets since 1999.
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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