A funny thing happened to me tonight as I prepared to watch the first game of this make or break series for the Tribe against the White Sox.
It was the Arena Football League playoffs, Cleveland Gladiators versus Orlando Predators at The Q. And I was hooked.
I turned it on with about five or six minutes left before halftime, right in the middle of an interview with Bernie Kosar, former Browns legend and current Gladiators owner.
Listening to him talk, the genuine passion in his voice about the team, the city—I couldn’t turn it off.
You know why? Bernie spoke with the kind of energy and emotion that I have never once heard from any Indians player, manager or executive. Ever.
Especially not this year.
Entranced in Bernie’s words, and watching the Gladiators rally to score the final 10 points of the half to take a 34-33 lead into the break, I completely lost track of time.
I watched a few ESPN2 ads before I realized that it was past 8:30 and the Tribe game had started.
I flipped over to Sportstime Ohio and saw we were up 1-0 in the bottom of the first. It didn’t even faze me.
Jeremy Sowers was on the mound and I knew he wouldn’t protect the lead—my faith was rewarded just moments later when Jim Thome blasted a three-run shot, and I changed it back to the AFL halftime show.
Is this an anti-Indians column or a pro-Gladiators column? I have no idea.
But in the course of about 30 minutes, I realized that I’d much, MUCH rather spend my evening watching a team that played with excitement and energy than a group of disinterested, unenthusiastic mopers who had been dragging me and thousands of Tribe fans down over the past month and a half.
I’d been casually rooting for the Gladiators all season, but outside of the quarterback, Raymond Philyaw, I couldn’t name anyone else on the team or the coach.
I knew nothing about them—heck, these guys weren’t even stars in college, or journeyman NFL players—yet they had pulled me away from the team of my childhood, of the sport I loved obsessively.
Judging by the large and loud crowd at The Q, I wasn’t alone, either. I even saw a kid in a St. Ignatius shirt sitting next to a kid in a Solon shirt.
What, in the name of bitter high school rivalries, of east side versus west side, was going on here?
This was the jumbled mess inside my head as the second half kicked off, and the Gladiators came up with a quick score.
I yelled, to no one in particular since I was sitting by myself in my living room, in celebration.
But the Predators struck back.
Their quarterback, Shane Stafford, who is whiter than the Pillsbury Doughboy, celebrated a touchdown with one of his receivers by slipping into a voice reminiscent of Young Jeezy:
“Yo, I was goin' ta find you! You know I was goin' ta find you!”
Fine time to mention here that all the players and coaches were miked up, and let’s just say the ESPN censors were kept pretty busy throughout the game. Gosh, who knew pro football players were so vulgar?
With the Predators up six to close the third quarter, which came to an end when Philyaw was sacked, the energy just sucked out of the Q.
I was deflated, sitting on my couch. Seeing the Indians down 8-1 on the ESPN2 ticker, thanks in large part to a Nick Swisher granny, didn’t even affect me.
The fourth started with a Gladiators touchdown, and the fans were back. Some of them started barking and woofing as if they were in the Dawg Pound, and I almost got chills. Not quite, but almost.
Quick flip to the Tribe to see the score 8-2 and Ryan Garko snapping out of a 0-for-17 slump with a base-hit. Yippee. Can't believe I was missing out on this.
The lead changes again on another Predators touchdown. Now the Gladiators face a fourth-and-five with just over six minutes, and we hear the play-call from the offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski (no, not really)—he wants a slant.
Shaun King, the former Tulane and Tampa Bay Buccaneer QB—not to mention one-year wonder on me and my dad’s fantasy football team way back when—was doing the color commentary and diagrammed the play beautifully on the telestrator before the snap.
Philyaw hit the receiver in stride, who waltzed into the end zone for a 62-60 Gladiator lead.
Bedlam ensued. King, who had earlier proclaimed that Cleveland was as good as any team in the AFL playoffs, went nuts.
Up two with six minutes left, ESPN immediately flashed the inevitable montage of Cleveland sports heartbreaks over the years.
I think I blacked out. The whole sequence was a little hazy.
But when I came to, they were showing Cavs banners in the rafters and King was lavishing praise on LeBron James, calling him the best player in the league, even better than Kobe.
Have I mentioned that Shaun King is my second favorite ex-NFL quarterback, behind Bernie Kosar?
Random interruption number two: I remember more about watching Vinny Testervarde and Eric Zeier playing QB for the Browns than I do Kosar, but if you grew up or lived in Cleveland at any point, you know Bernie is the man.
Who else has been immortalized in a song to the tune of “Louie Louie”?
We needed a defensive stop. Unfortunately, those are tough to come by in Arena Football, unless you get a turnover.
The Predators were marching, and when Stafford hit their top receiver, TT Toliver, over the middle with no defender in sight, it appeared as if the Predators had taken the lead.
Except for one thing: Toliver tripped over his own feet, stumbled to the ground…and fumbled the ball.
The Gladiators recovered inside their five-yard line. Jubilation swept the Q, and my living room.
There’s two minutes left in the game, and I have legitimate butterflies in my stomach. Cleveland went for the kill—this doesn’t happen—throwing deep on its first play. Incomplete.
But you know what? It’s Arena Football! They dialed up the long ball again and completed a pass inside Orlando’s 15.
Now it’s time to salt the game away. A sweep play, an actual running play, results in a touchdown, and the extra point is good. 69-60 Cleveland with 52 seconds left.
It’s a two-possession game, but 52 seconds is an eternity in the AFL. The Predators score with 21 seconds left .
Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, are the thoughts running through my head.
They’re going to try an onside kick, and recover, and score, and we’ll chalk it up to another Cleveland heartbreak.
The Gladiators, in their first season in the city of Cleveland, having moved from Las Vegas last year, put that to the test.
They recovered the onside kick—YES! YES! YES!—and then fumbled on the first play with the ball—NO! NO! NO!
But a Gladiator fell on the loose ball, and three throwaways later—the clock stops automatically if you kneel the ball, an entertaining yet heart stopping rule—the game ended in sweet, sweet victory for the home team.
I threw both hands into the air. A sweet, sweet victory indeed. The new team avoided the old city curse, for one week at least.
Yes, I’ve found my new boys of summer in 2008—and it’s the Cleveland Gladiators.
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