Call Them Lucky, Call Them Destiny's Darlings -- But Call Them Champions
Yes, the Chicago Rush are all these things. They couldn't care less if you say that to them, because Sunday they became something more -- ArenaBowl XX champions.
In outlasting the Orlando Predators for a 69-61 win at the Thomas and Mack Center, the Rush earned its first championship by winning in a manner that was only possible in this peculiarly entertaining brand of the 137-year old sport. They massaged the last minute of the first half to score and keep the Predators from replying. They turned a gift of an untimed down -- provided by a Predators penalty for crossing the 5-yard-line before a missed field goal could be fielded -- into a 51-yard field goal after the first half had expired. They grabbed a kickoff off the iron and turned it into a touchdown that stretched their lead to 13 points.
Both of ArenaBowl XX's head coaches have witnessed such randomness before. After all, Chicago's Mike Hohensee has been around the AFL as long as the league itself has existed, while Orlando's Jay Gruden has watched such lunacy for 16 seasons.
"They get the ball off the damn iron," Gruden lamented afterwards. "That's the one thing I hate about Arena Football. You coach your ass off the entire season and the ball bounces off the iron."
He couldn't help but crack a knowing smile, though. Whether it's been with Tampa Bay, Nashville or Orlando, he's been on teams that won games in much the same fashion. Spend long enough in the AFL and the game's unpredictable vagaries giveth as much as they taketh away.
It was old-school Arena Football, the way its creators intended -- balls bouncing off the walls, uprights and, finally, off the nets, as one of Chicago's final touchdowns came -- appropriately -- when D'Orazio lobbed the football off the left rebound net and into Etu Molden's grasp.
That play was an advertisement for how gloriously wacky the 50-yard, eight-on-eight brand of football can be. It was also by design.
"That was a play we did up in Albany when I was there (coaching) for a two point conversion, Hohensee said.
He sensed, though, that his players were unconvinced of its merits.
"I thought I heard a bunch of 'Oh, s---s' coming out of the huddle," Hohensee said.
But as the league's winningest coach, Tim Marcum, once said, "Only in Arena Football can you go from 'Oh, s---' to 'Atta-boy' that quickly.' Seconds later -- success, an ultimately insurmountable 15-point lead and a looming championship for the Rush.
In every way, the manner in which the Rush won this championship was appropriate. Its coach is the ultimate old-school AFLer; he was part of the losing Pittsburgh Gladiators side back in ArenaBowl '87, long before Roman numerals made their way onto the league's marquee.
It took Hohensee 19 years to make it back to the ArenaBowl.
It took him just his second try in the game to make his fondest football dreams reality.
"It feels like I thought it would, and these ar ethe type of men I thought I would be surrounded by," he said, a look of pride washing over his face as he glanced at owner Alan Levin and players DeJuan Alfonzo, Matt D'Orazio and Bob McMillen.
"That's what makes it special."
D'Orazio, the ArenaBowl's offensive player of the game for its XXth edition, is perhaps the case study. He went into the preseason widely expected to be the understudy quarterback, not unlike what Gruden faced when he broke into the league in 1991, or what none other than Kurt Warner -- who watched from a luxury box Sunday -- encountered when he took a shot with the Iowa Barnstormers 11 years ago.
Like Gruden and Warner, he took his shots -- repeatedly. Orlando unleashed a fusillade of pass rushers and blitzes upon him, and he gallantly absorbed the hits or deftly skirted away from trouble, keeping play upon play alive for his receivers to find wiggle room in Orlando's usually dominant secondary.
"He was a magician out there. He was dropping back 15 yards throwing off his back foot and completing the ball," Gruden said. "The guy made some throws that you never teach a quarterback to make, falling backwards and getting hit."
And on 26 of 36 occasions, he found his targets, turning in the kind of performance that allowed Warner to draw notice beyond the AFL from 1995-97. Whether the still-young D'Orazio gets that kind of opportunity is to be determined. Whether he -- like his teammates -- maximized his AFL opportunity is a subject that need not be debated.
"These guys are all in Arena Football for a reason and I think we explimpify Arena Football for a reason," Hohensee said. "A lot of these guys were told they weren't good enough for someone else and they come here and they have to pick their pride up off the floor and go out there and try to do something great."
They did just that.
Sure, they did something that the Pittsburgh Steelers did just four months ago -- win a championship by notching four triumphs away from home. But the Rush did it in its own way, a manner endemic to the sport its plays.
So maybe it was destiny.
At the very least, it was meant to be.
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.