ArenaFan Travelogue: Cleveland Gladiators
Last year, when the Arena Football League was absent from the sports landscape, I used the opportunity to take in some arenafootball2 games with my sons. We traveled to Wisconsin from Michigan to see the Milwaukee Iron play twice and we even made a trip to Oklahoma to see the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz play a game. This year, the AFL is back and the Cleveland Gladiators were on my radar as a team to see in person.
When I looked at the 2010 AFL schedule and saw that Oklahoma City was going to be in Cleveland on Saturday night, July 17, I decided to make my first trip to Quicken Loans Arena for the game.
It didn’t hurt that former Grand Rapids Rampage head coach Steve Thonn was now in charge of the Gladiators. Thonn led the Rampage in 2008 and took the team to within one win of advancing to ArenaBowl XXII.
My son, Aaron, and I left Kalamazoo for the four and a half hour drive to Cleveland that morning with more than just a football game in mind. We also wanted to take in another Cleveland attraction, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We parked about a block away and walked to the Hall, admiring the unique glass pyramid structure located right on the shore of Lake Erie.
As we entered the Hall, a young woman was taking everyone’s picture in front of a green screen as they waited in line to buy tickets. She then gave us a card with a number on it to identify our picture later. After purchasing out tickets we took the escalator to the lower level and began the tour. There were a ton of displays and interactive exhibits. Being a huge Beatles fan I was most interested in anything having to do with The Fab Four. Guitars used by George Harrison and John Lennon in the early days were there on display as well as a Grammy that Paul McCartney received for the song “Band on the Run” with his post-Beatles band, Wings.
There are actually six levels of the Hall containing exhibits. The lower level is the largest since the Hall is contained within a pyramid shape. The fifth and sixth levels at the top are where featured exhibits are contained. Currently, a Bruce Springsteen exhibition is on those two levels.
Instead of having a bust of those enshrined there, like they have at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame features several signature walls where their names are forever preserved in the artist’s own handwriting.
As we left the Hall we stopped at the photo counter to look at the picture that was taken of us when we first arrived. There were actually three pictures with different background scenes added to our picture. One showed us standing in front of the Hall with the familiar glass pyramid behind us. A second had us on a rock stage and the third had us in front of the Hall once again, but this time at night. I bought one for each of us to commemorate our visit.
From there we headed a few miles down 9th Street to Quicken Loans Arena to get ready to attend the game. Across Huron Street from the Arena is the Gladiators office’s and team shop. We stopped in and Aaron found a T-Shirt that he liked, so we bought it. As we walked down the block we ran into former Rampage intern Alex Meachum sitting at an outdoor table of a restaurant. She was also in town for the Gladiators game that night. What a nice surprise that was.
Gladiators Director of Communications Phil Tesar had arranged press passes for me and Aaron, so we headed to the media entrance. As we crossed Huron Street we were met by a horde of people leaving the Cleveland Indians baseball game at Progressive Field, which is located on the other side of the Quicken Loans Arena. The Indians were playing a double-header that day against the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland had just won the first game, 4-3.
While the teams were warming up, I went down to the field and talked to Yard Dawgz head coach Sparky McEwen. He is also a former Rampage head coach (2005-2007) who I have known for many years of covering Grand Rapids for ArenaFan. Since he has coached Oklahoma City the past few years in the af2, I asked him how things had changed now that the team is a member of the AFL.
“The biggest difference in the league is the talent level,” McEwen said. “The game itself obviously is the same, but when you are watching film and preparing for the next week, the talent level has gotten back to where it was with the AFL.”
I also talked to Coach Thonn and asked him whether he thought an Arena Football team will ever return to Grand Rapids. “I hope they do (put a team back in Grand Rapids),” he said. “Obviously, I liked my time up there. I know the fans would love to have a team back because they had a team for so long (11 seasons). The year I was there we got hot there at the end and it got the city all excited. It’s kind of a shame that it just ended on them , so I hope they get (a team) back.”
Up until the spring of 2009, Steve Thonn was still employed by the Rampage and planning for the team and the league to return to the field. He spent his time scouting players in the af2. But in June the league officially filed for bankruptcy. Thonn then began looking into coaching opportunities in the af2 but when the AFL finally reemerged again late last year, he was hired by Cleveland.
Both teams were fighting for playoff spots when they met last night. Cleveland was 6-8 and Oklahoma City was 6-7.
The Yard Dawgz jumped out to an early 13-0 lead in the game, but Cleveland finally scored when former Rampage wide receiver Jermaine Lewis caught a four-yard touchdown pass from quarterback John Dutton with 5:29 left in the first quarter.
On the first play of the second quarter, Oklahoma City kicker Michael Salerno missed a 32-yard field goal. The live ball was picked up by Gladiator wide receiver Brent Holmes and returned 55 yards for a touchdown. The extra point game Cleveland a 14-13 lead. The Gladiators led 21-19 at halftime.
Cleveland extended its lead to 28-19 in the third quarter when Jermaine Lewis caught his second touchdown pass of the game, this time for 30 yards.
Later in the third, Yard Dawgz quarterback Tommy Grady was injured and replaced by backup QB/WR Xavier Lee. Lee led the team down the field and scored himself on a 31-yard scramble that saw him literally run over at least three defenders on his way to the end zone. A two-point conversion made the score 28-27 in favor of Cleveland.
In the fourth quarter, another former Rampage player, WR/KR Timon Marshall caught an eight-yard touchdown pass that gave the Yard Dawgz a 39-38 lead, but with under a minute to play in the game Cleveland wide receiver Victor Williams hauled in a 45-yard pass for a score giving Cleveland the lead once again 44-39. It all came down to the final play of the game for Oklahoma City. With 5 seconds left on the clock, Lee threw a pass into the end zone. It was tipped in the air twice by Cleveland defenders but it was still almost caught Timon Marshall. However, the ball hit the ground and the game was over. Cleveland had secured a 44-39 victory in front of a crowd of 7,682 enthusiastic fans. It’s great having AFL games broadcast every Friday night on the NFL Network this season, but nothing beats going to a game in person.
We drove back to Michigan after the game and listened to the second Indians-Tigers game on the radio. There had been a rain delay of almost 2 hours and the game was in extra innings tied 1-1. The Indians eventually won the game 2-1 in the 11th inning.
We arrived home at about 3:15 AM. It was a long day but Aaron and I had a good time seeing the sights of Cleveland as well as the football game. However, as soon as I finish writing this article, I am going back to bed!