A Match Made in Heaven, the AFL and Me!
As the 30th season of the Arena Football League approaches, I have been thinking a lot about what the league has meant to me over the years. It has been a really fun league to follow as a reporter and as a fan. I have seen great teams, great players and great games over the years. Attending AFL games has also been a great bonding experience for me and my kids. It is a fan-friendly and affordable form of entertainment that has meant a lot to me over the years.
I have been a football fan ever since the 1970s, when I was a teenager. It all started with the NFL Detroit Lions, but my football passion runs much deeper than just the NFL. From 1983-1985 I was a huge fan of the Michigan Panthers and New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League and attended a game in each of the USFL’s three seasons. I simply could not get enough football in my life. In 1994 I went to see my first Canadian Football League game in Toronto at the SkyDome. To paraphrase humorist Will Rogers, “I never met a football league I didn’t like.”
While my personal connection with the Arena Football League does not go back to its beginning in 1987, it does go back almost 20 years. I was aware of the AFL’s existence back in the 1990s but I only had a vague awareness of the Michigan-based team called the Detroit Drive. At the time, I could not find much television or newspaper coverage of the team or the league. The Internet was still in its infancy in those days so I could not simply Google information on the league.
Then, in 1998, I heard about a new AFL team starting up just an hour away from where I lived, the Grand Rapids Rampage. It was 2000 before I finally attended my first Rampage game, but one game was all it took to get me hooked. I became a season ticket holder the very next year in 2001. That was the same year that the Rampage went on to host, and win, ArenaBowl XV over the Nashville Kats and the kids and I were there to see it in person. To this day it remains one of the greatest football moments of my life!
Over the next few years, I acquired a total of three Rampage season ticket seats in Section 208 of the Van Andel Arena. I was regularly taking my kids to games with me and they were loving the games as much as I was.
In 2003, I began covering the Rampage for ArenaFan.com. I moved into the press box on game days, which was conveniently located just above and behind my season ticket seats. It was prefect because I could look down and keep an eye on the kids from the press box. We would meet up on the field after the game where they would get player autographs and I would interview players and coaches.
The Arena game was the perfect excuse for the kids and me to hit the road also, spend quality time together, make lasting memories and see some new teams, especially those in the AFL’s developmental league known as arenafootball2.
We saw the af2 Louisville Fire play in Kentucky in 2003, the Green Bay Blizzard in 2004, the Quad City Steamwheelers in Moline, Illinois in 2006, the Fort Wayne Fusion several times in 2007, the Milwaukee Iron twice in 2009 and the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgs in 2009. In the AFL, we drove across the state to see Grand Rapids play the Detroit Fury in 2002 and 2004 as well as the Milwaukee Mustangs in 2011. It was at that Quad City game in 2006 that we got to meet AFL founder Jim Foster on the field after the game.
The kids and I were ecstatic when the AFL came back in 2010 after a one-year hiatus, but sad when it was announced that the Rampage would not be one of the returning teams. We adopted the Cleveland Gladiators as our new AFL team. I have attended at least one game in Cleveland every year since 2010 including ArenaBowl XXVII in 2014 between the Gladiators and the Arizona Rattlers.
Looking Ahead to 2017
Since the AFL returned to the field in 2010, the league has certainly had its share of turbulence on and off the field. Several iconic teams have disappeared and many so-called “experts” have been predicting the demise of the league every year. Yet, here they are, getting ready to kick off their 30th season on April 7, and I could not be more excited.
Of the eight teams that played last season, five of them either folded or jumped to various indoor leagues. Just three teams remained; the Gladiators, Philadelphia Soul and Tampa Bay Storm. Two expansion teams have also been added this year; the Washington Valor and the Baltimore Brigade. If that last team’s nickname sounds familiar, it should. The AFL had the Kansas City Brigade from 2006-2008. But when the team returned in 2011 and 2012, it changed its name to the Kansas City Command.
This year will be the 18th consecutive season that I will attend an Arena Football game in either the AFL or af2. I plan to make the four-hour drive to Cleveland from Kalamazoo a couple of times this season, specifically to see the new Washington and Baltimore expansions teams. Even though all my kids are now in their 20s, they still regularly attend games with me and they still enjoy the games and the league.
With more expansion teams expected to be added in the coming years, I have every confidence that the league will continue to grow and succeed. I will be there too, if at all possible, enjoying Arena Football, the greatest game in the land.
Oh, and one more thing. Just like the AFL, my wife and I will also be celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. It has truly been a marriage made in heaven! (I’m talking about me and Arena Football, of course) What more proof do you need that the league and I were destined to be one with each other?