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Cleveland Rocks… the AFL

Randy Snow
Tuesday August 5, 2014

It seems that the city of Cleveland is all the sports world is talking about lately. From the return of LeBron James to the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers to the minute-by-minute coverage of everything that rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel is doing at the Cleveland Browns NFL training camp. But where is the national coverage of the most exciting sports story to come out of The Forest City so far this year, the incredible season of the AFL Cleveland Gladiators?

All that the major sports media outlets can focus on right now is who will bring a championship to Cleveland first, Manziel or James. The answer to that question just might be none-of-the-above. Rather, it could be a former University of Hawaii quarterback who has the Gladiators poised to host a conference championship game this Sunday in his first season with the team.   
It all began back in March when the Arena Football League kicked off its 27th season. The Gladiators, who posted a disappointing record of just 4-14 last season, went on a nine-game winning streak to begin the 18-game regular season. During that stretch, a couple of games were won by Cleveland on the final play of the game. The only blemish on their record this entire season is a 48-34 road loss to the Pittsburgh Power on May 31. Cleveland finished the regular season 17-1, an AFL record.
Head coach Steve Thonn has led the Gladiators since 2010. The team won their division in 2011 but lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Georgia Force. Thonn also led the Grand Rapids Rampage to a conference title appearance in 2008 before losing to the San Jose SaberCats.
But there is something very special about this 2014 Gladiators team. I have travelled to Cleveland four times this season from my home in Michigan to see them play in person, including Saturday night’s playoff game against the Soul, and not once was I ever disappointed. They are a team that never gives up and always believes that they can win every time they take the field.
Before 12,684 screaming fans at the Quicken Loans Arena Saturday night, the same venue where LeBron James will lead the Cavs this coming NBA season, the Gladiators hosted the Philadelphia Soul in the first round of the playoffs. The game began in the worst possible way for Cleveland, with an interception on the very first play from scrimmage. This led to an early 6-0 deficit. Philadelphia took a 12-6 lead later in the first quarter, but the extra point was blocked by Cleveland and returned by the Gladiators for two points of their own, making the score 12-8. 
Cleveland led 15-12 at halftime in a game that that neither team seemed to want to take control of. Both defenses were outstanding; knocking down passes, covering receivers and keep the opposing offense from getting into a rhythm. 
The game was tied 29-29 with one-minute remaining in the fourth quarter. (And that’s when the nail-biting began) With 42 seconds left to play, Cleveland took a 36-29 lead but Philly came right back to score its own TD on the ensuing possession, and also made a daring two-point conversion for a 37-36 lead with just 25 seconds remaining.  But once again, the Gladiators did what they have done so many times before this season. They won the game on the final play of regulation, this time thanks on a clutch 36-yard field goal by Aaron Pettrey.
Cleveland quarterback Shane Austin completed 23 of 40 passed for 246 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran four times for 26 yards and three more touchdowns. However, he threw five interceptions in the game, which kept Philadelphia within striking distance all game long.
So don’t count this Gladiators team out of any game they play this season, as long as there is time left on the clock for just one more play. So LeBron James and Johnny Football may have to get in line behind Shane Austin in their attempts to bring the NEXT sports title to Cleveland. Come on all you major sports media outlets, give some love to the Gladiators, who are currently the best team in Cleveland!
Six times this season, the Gladiators have won games on the very last play. Three of those wins came against Philadelphia. They beat the Soul twice in the regular season and again last Saturday in the playoffs. The other last second wins were against the Spokane Shock, the Los Angeles Kiss and (in overtime) the San Antonio Talons
Usually, when I make the four-hour drive to Cleveland for a Gladiators game, I pay $10 to park in a parking garage across the street from Quicken Loans Arena. But this time there was also a Cleveland Indians MLB game going on at the same time at Progressive Field, which is right next door. Because of that, I ended up having to pay $25 to park. Thanks, Major League Baseball, for turning my affordable, fan-friendly experience into a big pain in my wallet.
The Gladiators (18-1) will host the Orlando Predators (11-7) in the American Conference Championship game on Sunday, August 10 at 3:00 PM EST on CBS Sports Network. A win will bring the ArenaBowl to Cleveland for the first time ever on Saturday, August 23 at 8:00 PM EST on ESPN.

Randy Snow covered the Grand Rapids Rampage of the Arena Football League for ArenaFan from 2003-2008. He also covered the Fort Wayne Fusion of arenafootball2 in 2007. From 2004-2008 and in 2010, he was a member of the Arena Football League Writer’s Association and, since 2011, has been a member of the Professional Football Researchers Association. Randy lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan but will travel just about anywhere for a football game or a great football story. He runs the web site and hosts a podcast with his son, Adam, called “This Week in The World of Football.”
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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