And at quarterback, wearing No. 1...
Well Arena fans this, as they say, is it.
After the bye week and a three game skid a familiar name will be entering the starting lineup for your Portland Thunder. Yes, Saturday night at Portland’s Moda center Oregon’s adopted favorite son Darron Thomas will be getting the nod under center for Mike Hohensee’s 2-4 Thunder.
I have been on a brief hiatus as I finished up duties as the Offensive Coordinator for the Benton Bulldawgs of the NNFL here in Oregon. Just a quick congrats to the ‘Dawgs and our head coach Andrew Licon and Defensive coordinator Beth Buglione. A .750 winning percentage and a decent playoff run was the reward for Licon and his staff’s insistence on chemistry and character. Barring an injury to league leading rusher Paul Johnson, we had a shot at the title. However football happens, ya know?
I will relate just one anecdote from the Bulldawgs successful 2015 in an obscure if well run “semipro” league to illustrate the importance of just such chemistry. Ryan Jones was our starting QB from day one. Ryan is fast, tall, smart, a good leader and oh yeah, has a howitzer for an arm. Unfortunately, the youngster’s spleen decided to rebel and bleed a bit, and thus he was benched by doctor’s orders.
Jake, his replacement, was recruited and quickly became everything we could ask for and had a great deal more experience. Then to our great joy, Jones was cleared to play. Can you say “distraction?” Can you say “quarterback controversy?” Fans, in the “semi pro” ranks, even for a team with top flight alumni such as former Thunder lineman Brandon Lockhart, controversy is a death sentence. To our horror amongst fans online and players on the field sides were beginning to be taken.
However, Jake and Ryan had other plans. You see, Jake and Ryan wanted to win.
Quarterback’s are among the world’s most identifiable alpha males, and we can tend toward reinforcing that title often. Unfortunately once in a while, that comes at the expense of team chemistry. To be brief, Ryan said that he understood his replacement was now the starter, Jake was winning and he (Jones) would do whatever helped the team most. Talk about a breath of fresh air. Thanks to the maturity, selflessness and team-centered focus of these two players, the winning continued all the way to the NNFL South division title.
Come Saturday night the Thunder will hopefully reap the benefits of a similar behavior.
Last year, I asked a very prominent member of the Thunder about the relationship between quarterbacks Kyle Rowley and Darron Thomas. His response was one I awaited with some trepidation. I will not overstate the following, but honestly, I have become more familiar and dare I say friendly with both men than the average fan is. I find both of them to be personable and sincere and hoped the answer would not ruin what was a great first impression of both guys. In short, the aforementioned teammate said they both wanted to play, and that was okay, but he felt Thomas was, at times on the receiving end of some excellent mentoring from the former MVP Rowley. This was a real relief. I am learning there exists a strange dichotomy in this business in that it is more fun to cover guys you like but far easier to cover guys you don’t care about.
I had read Rowley’s bio, and it will come as no surprise to those who have spoken with him that he is a smart guy. He attended Brown University, and while I consider my intellectual capacity pretty darn fair, Brown wouldn’t admit me into Underwater Basket Weaving 101.
Then there is this; Rowley’s is tough. Not Charles Haley crazy, bully tough, but mentally a rugged dude. He is big into the AFLPU and is a bulldog advocate for AFL players. Rowley shows no tolerance for owners who treat athletes as the sideshow and not the main attraction. (A pet subject of his about which I believe his opinion is both correct and underappreciated.) In fact Rowley has convinced me in his words and actions that he not only loves arena football, but is fiercely proud of the differing skill set that the game requires of its signal callers. Having said as much, it was not much of a surprised when one Thunder staffer categorized Rowley’s attitude about Thomas’ promotion as that of a good teammate and a professional.
My guess is that Rowley has a couple of productive years left as a player, just exactly where remains to be seen. When he does decide to leave the field, he would be, at least to me, an obvious head coach prospect for a team with some perspective. Rowley is a winner and a football intellectual with a great deal of on field credibility. However, while I could see some short sighted ownership groups balking at hiring a player advocate as a head coach, some with a bit more vision might see these very relationships and as a huge asset both in player “buy in” and recruiting power.
For the former Oregon Ducks quarterback, the move to the starting role is one that is probably fraught with equal parts of hope and relief. Hope because like all serious athletes, Thomas dreams of a shot at a championship. He stated during our first interview that come what may with regards to other leagues, while he wears the Thunder colors he’s “Thunder 100 percent.”
In fact, and by every account, that attitude has been a Thomas hallmark throughout his Portland tenure. Thomas has been used sparingly as a signal caller and heavily as the face of the team. As one of Oregon’s most recognizable collegiate football players, he has been on every poster, billboard, print and online advertisement, and is easily the cause of the team’s longest postgame autograph lines.
Thomas had a memorable pick off of Nick Davila versus the Arizona Rattlers in what was nearly a monumental upset in last year’s playoffs but has otherwise been relatively invisible. This invisibility, as …uh… the teams most visible player, must be tough on such a gifted athlete and upbeat person. In his position I would battle greatly with feelings of being just an ad campaign and can only hope that I would act and continue to prepare like Thomas has.
I’m told head coach and former AFL quarterback Mike Hohensee has taken Thomas under his personal wing and is confident in the chemistry that is brewing between his young charge and a number of Thunder receivers. Then there are Thomas’ legs. Running doesn’t work in the AFL until one day it does. The rules in the AFL are such that escape for a mobile QB is all but impossible. However, Thomas has flashed a combination of both speed and strength that may change this dynamic.
Thomas is just easy to root for, I guess. He is an affable, easy going guy with a quick smile and a huge amount of patience with a league-wide Ducks fan base. Meadow Lemon, long a Terry Emmert confidant, said that in every city the play there is a long line to meet No. 1. The point goes deeper, though.
In a very ugly and well-publicized recent incident, a former Thunder player threw his helmet at the dasher board and going awry it struck a young girl in the first row. The player was visibly shaken at the result of his own bad judgment and can be seen on tape vigorously attempting to reach the child to apologize or comfort her. Thomas was seen on screen removing the helmet thrower from the scene and attempting to generally de-escalate he situation. The young former Duck clearly grasped the severity of the situation and has the maturity to realize that interaction with distraught parents, no matter the intention, has disaster written all over it. It is this growth, this character instilled by a good mother and a father figure/high school coach that I anticipate seeing in a few days.
Saturday could be a night of great change for the Thunder and the city of Portland. For Rowley, who has apparently handled the tough news with dignity and class, Saturday may signal a change of location sooner rather than later. Rowley’s skills are still in high demand and would be greatly welcome by a familiar Los Angeles KISS coaching staff, for example. For Thomas, who still remains the quarterback to take Oregon nearest an NCAA championship, it could be a sign of things to come. If so, it will be a dish that Thunder fans have waited nearly two years to taste.