If the American Arena League survives this offseason, it will return in a much different format. If it does not, few could deny it left nothing on the table Saturday night with a championship that was in essence two games in one, offering drama, comebacks, and a dash of intestinal fortitude that we’d been looking for all season.
Most fans regarded an Atlanta Havoc – Richmond Roughriders matchup as a fait accompli all spring, but a lackluster finish to its regular season sparked doubt about Atlanta’s ability to hold up their end. So after surviving the Cape Fear Heroes in an underwhelming effort to get here, it was not surprising to see the Havoc drag a 17-point halftime deficit into the locker room Saturday night like some weighty cross of unfulfilled expectations that was too much to bear.
We didn’t know it at the time, but that cross was about to get heavier as starting QB Lee Chapple suffered a first half concussion that would end his night. If we had, many of us would have moved on from a blowout-in -the-making and spared ourselves an unwatchable livestream experience as the Richmond Coliseum’s wifi spit out stilled images with the deliberation of a court-appointed sketch artist, and announcers Jeff Butler and Ricky Irby sounded like they were speaking into a tin can on the other end of a string. In short, it was shaping up to be another typical night in the AAL.
I myself skipped out on the rehashed interviews served up as halftime entertainment, but returned to an entirely different game in the second half. It was as if Dorothy had just opened the door onto Oz.
The tech crew of Fox Sports 1340 AM made that visual possible by fixing their streaming issues, but the real wizards behind the curtain were the Atlanta Havoc secondary, without whom this would have been just another disaster in 3MBPS. This group of thirty-somethings racked up five INTs and actually outscored the Richmond offense over the first 28 minutes of the second half by virtue of a pick-six and clamp-down coverage that kept a talented Roughriders receiving corps out of the end zone until only 2:06 remained. By then, the Havoc had scored 32 unanswered points, flipping a 17-point deficit into a commanding lead.
Three-possession deficits are the kiss of death in the AAL but Richmond was already involved in two notable exceptions, trailing by 24 points in an ultimate win against the Flight back in April, and losing a 22-point lead two weeks ago before getting by the Carolina Energy. But while the intrigue of a comeback is a great viewing perk, the endearing spirit of third-tier arena football is about developing resilience when things don’t go right, which was the rule rather than the exception this season across the AAL. We got to see that resilience on Saturday night.
Given a league championship was on the line, neither coaching staff would have preferred to change quarterbacks, but both had to. Havoc coach Boo Mitchell countered the loss of Chapple with Darren Daniel, who started the season in High Country, while Roughriders coach Mookie Zimmerman brought in former ACC Player of the Year Bryan Randall to replace Robert Kent, who was suffering from cramps at halftime. Within three possessions, the game completely changed.
In the pivotal possession that opened the second half, Daniel capped a three-play, 30-yard drive with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Thyron Lewis to get the Havoc going. Randall answered by throwing a pick-six on his first attempt.
Two passes later, Randall threw another interception, giving Daniel the ball on the Havoc 6-inch line. Daniel then completed three of four pass attempts for 38 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown again to Lewis. Throw in an ensuing uno and this 22-point explosion in less than nine minutes brought the Havoc their first championship.
But this game wasn’t about one guy succeeding where another failed. It was about two coaches having to throw their best Plan B at the other guy. It was about two journeymen quarterbacks summoning the resolve one more time. And it was about a secondary that had given up four first-half touchdowns nutting up against the best four-man receiving corps in the league.
And it’s what the league should have been about all year.
When the AAL was born one year ago, my expectation was for it to continue the mission of its predecessors, the Can-Am Indoor Football League and Arena Pro Football. It should have kept to its place in the distribution channel, drawing talent out of the NCAA’s undrafted pool and lower developmental leagues and mixing it with guys looking for a second chance. Somewhere along the line, the league lost that mission. It decided it too wanted to be the end product.
By chasing proven players from leagues two and three tiers higher, the AAL blocked out others it should have been recruiting and developing. Even worse, the more-talented pool created a chasm between the haves and have-nots that led to a season filled with insipid matchups and unprecedented blowouts.
The AAL should have never focused on star-versus-star drama. Rather, it should have stayed true in helping players work through those man-versus-himself conflicts that make the next generation of arena stars. And the next generation of men. Maybe if it had, Saturday’s championship game would not have been its last as we know it.