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Meeting of Rattlers’ Minds Set Path to ArenaBowl

Andrew Mason
Sunday June 22, 2003


TAMPA, Fla. – Usually, the fulcrum point of a successful season – the single, crucial moment at which the tone for a run to the championship game is set – takes place in full view of the world. An overtime touchdown pass. An unlikely rally from an apparently overwhelming deficit. An unexpected, gutsy coaching decision at the perfect time in a teetering game.

Yet for the Arizona Rattlers, the moment couldn’t have been more private. Not only was it away from the eyes of their fans, but it was out of reach of the team’s coaches – a players-only meeting one day after the Rattlers’ humbling 68-39 loss to the Tampa Bay Storm on March 28.

A 32-21 second-quarter lead morphed into a second-half meltdown in which the Storm outscored the Rattlers 40-7. Between that collapse and the fact that the Rattlers exited the St. Pete Times Forum with a 4-5 record, the trip back home to Phoenix seemed far longer than any cross-country flight the team’s players and coaches had ever been forced to endure.

“When we lost a few games, the guys got down a little bit,” Randy Gatewood remembered. “We had to go back and find it.”

The process of finding it began at that meeting. After the players worked out, the healing began.

“When you get called out, you can do one of two things,” quarterback Sherdrick Bonner said. “You can look in the mirror and say, ‘Am I going to respond to this?’ or you can point the finger back and start being negative. The leaders we have on the team looked right in the mirror and said, ‘It starts with us. We’ve got to turn it up a notch. We’ve got to get better every day in practice.’ We’ve got to work harder.’”

But that conclusion didn’t arrive without emotion – and as Gatewood recalled, not without some tears from another of the team’s bellwethers, Hunkie Cooper.

“(The most emotional part was) probably Hunkie talking,” Gatewood said. “The guy had tears in his eyes. Anytime you see a guy like him expressing himself like that – and me knowing him as long as I have and playing with him my whole career – I think it touched the guys in a way that, ‘Look, this guy has been there, he knows what he’s talking about. Let’s listen to him and let’s go out and play for each other. And that’s what he kept stressing.”

An inherent advantage Arizona carries into its games against most teams comes from its experienced cadre of players. Other teams possess AFL veterans, but none possess the years of continuous, shared service that Bonner, Bo Kelly, Gatewood, Cooper and Mark Tucker take with them onto the field for each game.

They remember what it was like to defeat Kurt Warner in a championship game – nearly five years before the New England Patriots did just that in Super Bowl XXXVI. They’ve strategized against Jay Gruden the player, Gruden the coach, and the player once again. They have seen more franchises come and go, relocate and depart, than there are currently teams in the league.

Yet they’d never seen 4-5.

“After that meeting, we said, ‘Look, this is unfamiliar territory for us. We’ve never been at 4-5,’” Gatewood said. “The veterans, we had been around for eight years, most of us, and Hunkie and Sherdrick a little longer, but we had never been below .500 for more than a week, I don’t think. So we told them, ‘This isn’t natural around here. We’re used to winning games, and we’ve got to do something to win games.’”

One needs only to look at the record to evaluate the significance of March 29 for the Rattlers. Since the meeting, the team is 9-1.

“I think from that day on, it was just a sense of everyone wanting to play for each other, to play together, and continue to keep the faith in each other to work,” Bonner said.

Added Gatewood: “You could see everybody standing around listening, talking, understanding what we have to do now. And from that point on, we’ve been a whole new group of guys, a whole new team.”

A whole new team, led by the same old veterans in a place as familiar as an aging living-room Barcalounger – the ArenaBowl.


 
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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