During the years when Albany had a top-level Arena Football team, the Firebirds had several “rival” opponents. There were the Tampa Bay Storm, who never seemed to lose when they came to our building. There was the Detroit Drive, with quarterback Art Schlichter, who would take bets on everything and anything.
But mostly, the biggest opponent and fiercest rival for the Firebirds were the Orlando Predators.
Albany versus Orlando was like printing money. They were two teams that hated each other, and the rivalry spread from that point. Orlando had Barry Wagner, who could score touchdowns on a whim; while we had “Touchdown” Eddie Brown, who wet Arena League records for touchdowns in a season. Oh yeah, and he’s also Pittsburgh Steelers super-wide receiver Antonio Brown’s father. Heck, Time Warner Cable actually created a challenge trophy for games between Albany and Orlando, that’s how powerful those matches were.
In 1999, the Firebirds and the Predators met at ArenaBowl XIII, the league championship series, with Albany hosting. Albany won the game 59-48, with QB Mike Pawlawski throwing four touchdown strikes to Brown. But the Predators were so good at that time, that Barry Wagner earned the “Ironman” trophy of the game, despite playing on the losing team. Still, twelve years after that classic battle, both Eddie Brown and Barry Wagner were elected to the Arena Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
But by 2011, the Albany Firebirds were a distant memory. The team moved to Indianapolis, a second-division Arena League team called the Albany Conquest played downtown (they were awful), and even a last-season change to the old Firebirds name didn’t help the sagging attendance.
Now comes the news that the Orlando Predators, after three decades in the Arena Football League, are suspending operations and leaving the AFL. The AFL’s financial woes have been cited as the main reason for Orlando’s decision, but there are certainly other behind-the-scenes reasons that we’re not completely privy to.
I know. For someone who hasn’t had a reason to follow the Arena Football League in 15 years, and who barely watched a few moments of it when it was on TV since the time the Firebirds moved away, it’s hard to understand why anyone would care.
Well, here’s why I care.
At one point in time, the Arena Football League was a viable gridiron alternative when the NFL and the college game weren’t on the schedule – i.e., during the spring and summer. And although there were several upstart football circuits that tried to take the NFL’s thunder – the United Football League, the XFL, just to name two – there was always the excitement and unpredictability of the Arena League.
Think about this. 50 yard gridiron. Eight men per side, and seven had to play offense AND defense. Big springback nets in the end zones to corral the action. Dasher boards on the sidelines. A razor-thin goalpost opening to humble even the most accurate field goal kickers. And high-scoring action. That was Arena Football. And it was fun, and it was exciting.
You know who else thought the league was exciting? Rock musicians. John Bon Jovi owned a team for a few years (the Philadelphia Soul). Gene Simmons also owned a squad (the LA KISS).
At one point in time, the league had as many as eighteen franchises. But this year, the league is rumored to have dropped down to maybe four teams. Four teams. That’s not a league, that’s a tournament.
And with the Predators out of the league, only the Tampa Bay Storm remains from the days when Albany was a part of this circuit.
I wanted to find a video clip of ArenaBowl XIII – the game where Albany dominated Orlando in an intense rivalry that never seemed to end. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any online video footage of that competition. Darnit.
I just know one thing. The Orlando Predators were a helluva rival.
Sorry to see them go.