Arena Football in Albany, Version 2.0
I remember because I was one of those fans in attendance.
I remember Eddie Brown catching four touchd-1own catches to earn game MVP, Mike Pawlawski scorching the Predators’ defense in passing seven touchdowns, and Jon Krick’s championship-clinching catch with seconds remaining.
A year later, the team announced they were leaving for Indianapolis after nine seasons in Albany. The league awarded a franchise in 2002 in af2, but the feeling was never the same. That Albany franchise (the Conquest and Firebirds ‘Lite’) lasted until the league folded in 2009. Most of us who watched the Firebirds thought that this was the end of Arena Football in New York’s capital city.
Until October 24, 2017: in a press conference at the now-Times Union Center, the Arena Football League announced their intentions to add Albany as an expansion franchise for the 2018 season. In January, the franchise announced the team name and colors and the Albany Empire was born.
The Empire has generated a lot of anticipation for the inaugural game that is set to be played on Saturday night against league kingpin Philadelphia. I’m excited and I have reasons why other sports fans in Albany should be.
Coach Rob Keefe: Keefe brings a wealth of Arena experience to the Empire. Keefe will be coaching his third Arena Football franchise. He guided the Spokane Shock to an ArenaBowl win in 2010 and went 35-17 with the Orlando Predators, winning two South Division titles in 2014 and 2015. A defensive specialist as a player, Keefe has a reputation in crafting aggressive defenses predicated on heavy pass rushes and creating turnovers. In addition to experience, he displays an infectious enthusiasm that any team can feed off of, an attribute of his coaching success.
QB Tommy Grady: Many Empire fans were wondering if there was going to be veteran leadership at quarterback, seeing as Baltimore (Randy Hippeard), Philadelphia (Dan Raudabaugh), and Washington (Nick Davila) all had experienced quarterbacks on their roster. Last week, the Empire introduced one of the most prolific passers in Arena history, Tommy Grady, as their newest signing. Grady last played in Arena in 2016 with Jacksonville but missed most of 2017 due to injury. Still, his career numbers are as follows: 32,008 yards, 701 TDs in seven seasons. His greatest season came in 2012, when he broke two league records with 5,870 yards and 142 touchdowns with Utah.
Arena League Heritage: The Firebirds entered the league in 1990 as part of the christening of the then-Knickerbocker Arena. Under the ownership of Glenn Mazula and general manager Joe Hennessy, they would be one of the most competitive teams in the league for the better part of ten seasons, making nine playoff appearances in that time. Their hard work would finally culminate in an ArenaBowl win in 1999, their only appearance in team history. With the league allowing NFL owners to buy into AFL franchises, the Firebirds couldn’t compete in a smaller market and in 2000, they announced the move to Indianapolis. Those who were Firebirds fans remember what it was like with a full arena on a Saturday night in the Summer and the league hopes that the success that the Firebirds had in the early days of the league.
Saturday Night Fun: The Times Union Center looked to gain a new tenant after the New Jersey Devils’ AHL affiliate relocated to Binghamton at the end of last season. Arena Football was more than happy to oblige. The Empire will play their inaugural season in an arena that had renovations completed earlier this winter. For the casual fan, it’s a cheap, fun night out with friends. For the serious football fan, it’ll be the football fix needed until NFL training camp starts. And with only four franchises playing in the league this season, rivalries with Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington will be established quickly (especially if you’re a Steelers, Giants, or Cowboys fan).
This Saturday night, a new era will begin for Arena Football in Albany. Prior to the game, Eddie Brown’s number 17 will FINALLY be retired and the ArenaBowl XIII championship banner will be re-raised to the rafters of the Times Union Center.
After the pomp and circumstance is over will be kickoff and we’ll officially be back in the Arena family once again.
Ryan McCarthy has been an on-and-off Internet columnist and blogger since 1997. He has been an avid follower of Arena Football since 1990 when the Albany Firebirds were established. Ryan currently attends Regent University, where he is pursuing his Bachelors degree in Communications with a Journalism concentration. He anticipates graduating toward the end of 2019. You can follow Ryan on Twitter at @rwhoisryanmcc