Football can’t be ignored. It can be a giant — a bully — though it has a little brother. That little kid who’s an underdog of professional sports.
The AFL. Arena Football.
With crazy names like the Georgia Force, the Dallas Desperados, the New Orleans VooDoo and the L.A. Avengers, who could ignore that lingering little kid nagging at you to pay attention to him?
Then of course, there’s the hometown favorite: Tampa Bay Storm. In its 14 years of existence, the team’s won five Arena Bowls and 116 out of 165 games it has played.
Nothing too notable.
It’s been less than a year and people barely remember the Lightning taking the Stanley Cup for a ride through downtown. And the Storm play in the same arena that makes it Arena Football.
At 401 Channelside Dr. — the stadium formerly known as the Ice Palace — there’s football, believe it or not, and they’re pretty good.
With a 5-4 record, they’re doing better than their pirate counterparts at 4201 North Dale Mabry Hwy.
But it’s more than just trying to get to — and for some players, getting back to — the NFL.
The AFL has become a way of life for some players. It’s becoming something to strive for.
“I know I’m happy playing in the arena league,” said Storm quarterback Shane Stafford, who’s played in the NFL on practice teams with the Buccaneers, Patriots and Browns. “(Arena) players can make a decent living now. I don’t worry about trying to get back up there. I’m happy just playing football.”
It’s refreshing to see some players take it seriously — to live a life that may not be all that glamorous. But the players sure like playing in Tampa.
“It’s frustrating that more people don’t recognize arena football in (the Tampa area), especially with the Bucs and all the championships this team has won,” Stafford said. “But I can’t worry about that. I have to play football. I love playing football. Period. The locker room, the camaraderie.”
Arena football has gotten help in the past and it still does.
Former NFL greats own teams.
A pop singer owns another.
But putting John Elway and Jon Bon Shot-Through-the-Heart Jovi aside, network TV airs AFL games on nearly a regular basis.
“Those owners, especially the NFL ones, really help get the game out there. But having that contract with NBC is great,” said Clif Dell, a Storm wide receiver and former USF football player who has been playing in the AFL for seven season. “(It) gets on TV and people watch.”
The problem is that no one knows these guys. They’re invisible on the street. They need reservations at restaurants, like most other mortals.
But they don’t care. They get paid to do what they love. They play football. They can’t be ignored.
“I don’t really care if I’m recognized or not, even though (Tampa) is my hometown,” said Dell, who played on the first USF football team and graduated from King High School. “But we get to play so close to the fans. That’s the best part: playing. And we can run 30 yards down the sideline and the fans can reach out and touch you. The NFL doesn’t have that. So in home games, the fans really get behind you and you can feel them.”
They make all the difference in the world. They are the ones who really can’t be ignored. They are the real storm rolling into the St. Pete Times Forum.
AFL is football, plain and simple. It entertains.
AFL is football, smaller and more condensed. To entertain.
The Storm have been around for a while. Five titles. The winningest coach in AFL history.
And for Tampa, the Storm will always be rolling in.
“It’s great football,” Dell said. “A lot of action. A lot of points and we — the Storm — win a lot. People should come see us.”