The Mid-Atlantic Indoor Football League came into the periphery of indoor football two years ago with all the conspicuousness of a tardy student slipping into the first empty seat before the teacher notices, yet even in that first year there was something bold about these guys. They rolled out their product in six cities between Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Richmond, Virginia and unabashedly declared themselves a developmental league by choice, not by necessity.
Four of those franchises had been on arena football’s Off-Broadway sportsplex circuit for several years. One of the two newbies was the Capital City Reapers, and the league quickly realized they caught lightning in a bottle. The Reapers won on opening weekend, 102-0, and never looked back. They ran the table at 11-0 and claimed the first-ever MAIFL crown, and in the process charismatic and outspoken owner-coach Reggie Shipp became the league’s unofficial frontman. Then as quickly as they came they were gone, an apparent one-and-done.
During 2018, the MAIFL struggled. With the departures of not only the Reapers but the Maryland Warriors, who joined the Elite Indoor Football League (EIFL), four remaining teams managed to play a total of only six league games. They augmented their schedules with EIFL competition, against whom they went 2-8. So, just a year later, why does the MAIFL now deserve so much attention? We’ve got three reasons.
#1 – The return of the Reapers.
That’s right: they’re back, and the theater their return will bring the MAIFL is compelling enough on its own for the rest of arena football to tune in.
In the same vein that it’s good for the NFL when the Cowboys are relevant, or for MLB when the Yankees are winning, so, too, will the Reapers’ return be a boon for the MAIFL. They are the rising tide for a league that has yet to get the limelight it deserves, and this may be the season they finally get their fifteen minutes.
Right out of the gate, Shipp is hellbent on reclaiming the championship he never really lost. For him, it was more a case of ceding it to league co-founder Matt Steeple’s Maryland Eagles last year while he shopped the Reapers in the American Arena League (AAL) and EIFL. After being underwhelmed by both, he opted to sit out 2018 and now has ground to make up.
“We’re hungry this year,” says Shipp. “We have a serious point to prove: that we deserved to win the championship in 2017 and that the Eagles shouldn’t have won in 2018 if the Reapers were around.”
Part of that hunger undoubtedly stems from an accident last July that nearly claimed Shipp’s life in a test of body and resolve that has given him new perspective.
“It made me respect the game a lot more, appreciate the game a lot more,” he says of surviving the accident, which has admittedly left him a little slow afoot but very humbled by the many well wishes he received during his recovery. “And it gives me the opportunity to share my life.”
In devoting his career to finding grassroots football talent, honing it to the inside game, and shipping it up the supply chain, Shipp has all the admirability of Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Mr. Holland’s Opus. It’s all about providing opportunities to each new generation of students.
And he’s not alone. It’s what others like Steeple and Warriors owner Julien Robinson have been all about as well. Which brings us to the next reason arena football should take note.
#2 – The MAIFL has an ICBM-like range that can reach any league on a moment’s notice.
In just one week’s time last year, Robinson took star receiver Dwayne Marshall out of the Warriors starting lineup and placed him on the practice squad of the AFL’s Baltimore Brigade, where he was able to see and be seen for several weeks. Although Marshall never got the call-up, he’s leveraged that opportunity into a spot on AAL defending-champion Carolina Havoc’s roster. In fact, the Warriors are so depleted by move-ups that Robinson, who is coaching the AAL’s New England Bobcats this year, can’t field a team in 2019. In addition to Marshall, three of his former players are currently on AAL rosters, another was briefly in the Alliance of American Football, and another is playing in the top American football league in Mexico.
Shipp is planning for some mass exoduses out of Richmond this year as well.
“We have quite a few young receivers who are just amazing,” he says. “Kam [Gray] should not be here three games after the season starts. He’s 6’5″, 210 pounds, and he leaps out of the gym.”
C.J. Bradley and D.J. Holmes are two other receivers Shipp trumpets, as are two 300-plus-pound offensive linemen in center Brandon Leary and tackle Tyler Shields. On defense, he says DB Breon Washington and returning captain LB Tunde Ogun should have their sights set toward a much more distant horizon before their careers are through.
Steeple, too, has shepherded his share of move-ups, both prior to and since partnering with Ric Guy in founding the MAIFL in 2017. For him, the MAIFL formula is working.
“The talent level has gotten better,” Steeple says. “Guys have seen that coming [in] to learn the game has helped a few to move up to the next level.”
As the de facto league president, Steeple’s biggest challenge has been in finding pieces that fit. His success brings up the third reason this is will be a league to watch in 2019.
#3 – It’s a league of champions, and that means drama in every game.
Steeple pulled off a significant offseason coup by bringing the Major Indoor Football League four-time defending champion Reading Raptors into the fold. The Raptors haven’t lost in four years and ride a 41-game winning streak into the MAIFL where they’ll join Steeple’s defending-champion Eagles, along with the Reapers and last year’s runners-up, the Capital City Seahawks. Given the Warriors’ late withdrawal, Steeple is looking at a field composed of three teams that won league championships the last time they took the field, and a fourth whose last game was in a championship. This make the 2019 MAIFL the biggest Tournament of Champions outside of Jeopardy!.
“Right now, we are just going with the four teams,” says Steeple. “What we all talked about is getting competitive teams together in one league.”
And the key to that competitive league comes back to the return of the Reapers. But unlike the biblical prodigal son who deferred to dad, Shipp aims to take axe in hand and slaughter his own fatted calves roaming the MAIFL field in the coming season.
“I see dropping maybe one game,” he conceded on his recent appearance on Legacy Internet Radio’s The Hot Seat program. “It may come from getting relaxed a little bit. It may come late in the season. Outside of that, I only see one loss for us this season.”
Words are second only to actions in Shipp’s toolbox, and stoking the fires so early all but ensures these four teams are going to come out of the box fuming. Things get underway this Saturday when Steeple’s Eagles start their title defense against the Reading Raptors and their 41-game winning streak. The Capital City Seahawks get started the following weekend, while Shipp will have to bide his time for another two weeks.
He may well be the first to tell you it will be worth the wait. I’ll be the second.