The relationship between the American Arena League and Gregg Fornario has not exactly been symbiotic. Sure, it started on mutually beneficial footing when the late Jack Bowman took Fornario and his-then Richmond Roughriders into Arena Pro Football, the AAL’s predecessor. APF got a foundational franchise and Fornario got a ring in his first year. But as APF morphed into the AAL, the needle swung decisively in favor of Bowman and partner Tony Zefiretto. The pair struggled through a two-year rough patch yet still managed to grow a base of onlookers morbidly fascinated by Fornario’s ability to continually bail them out. Following the AAL became like watching Inspector Gadget bungle his way through an investigation blissfully ignorant of his watchdog Brain’s efforts to keep him alive.
It was becoming clear the risk-reward equation was getting far out of balance and something had to give. So, it should have come as no surprise to us when Fornario told Inside The Arena last Friday that he and his West Virginia Roughriders have had enough.
This is an announcement a year late in coming. After Fornario’s attempt to launch his own league last summer failed to garner enough commitments, he turned down an offer from the Indoor Football League and returned to the AAL. But lost in the excitement of his homecoming was an implied warranty that the league would hold up its end and get itself together.
Instead it was business as usual. Kevin Adkins was allowed back in despite the Georgia Doom’s unprecedented withdrawal from the previous postseason. So, too, were the Jersey Flight, notwithstanding the upheaval in ownership following the Federal indictments of two former owners. The front office then went on a land grab with a long but indiscriminate reach, pulling in an unvetted group out of Pittsburgh that lacked the facilities, equipment, and acumen to compete. Zefiretto also recruited Cynthia Hudson, a personal acquaintance who came over from the EIFL leaving a trail of red flags in her wake. Moreover, most of these new teams, not to mention most existing teams, never had to pay their league dues, leaving that financial burden to Fornario and a few equally in-the-dark peers.
For their part, the Roughriders helped the new-look AAL gain a legitimacy it never had. Along with the addition of the West Michigan Ironmen and retention of the Carolina Energy and the relocated Carolina Havoc, the league formed a nucleus arguably on par with its NAL rivals. Fornario built a 21-man roster that included 12 former FBS players, and West Virginia games were appointment television every Saturday night. Attendance at WesBanco Arena surpassed all other league venues combined when the Roughriders were in town.
“I joined up to play in a professional league and spent a ton of money to do it right,” he said in reflecting on his two years in the AAL.
And what did he get in return? He got a flaming bag of dog pooh left on his front porch with Zefiretto hiding behind the bushes waiting for him to answer the doorbell.
Fornario opened his season by hosting a hapless Burgh Defenders team clad in pinnies. Six weeks later, he had to host them again after the indoor soccer facility they called home was deemed unfit to play in. On two occasions leading up to a May 11 game in Massachusetts, Fornario contacted Zefiretto with concerns he had over the viability of the New England Bobcats. Both times he was assured the franchise was stable, then got stuck with $6,000 in nonrefundable plane tickets and an empty date on the calendar when the Bobcats folded days before the game.
On May 16, Fornario was told a Southern Division team would host the AAL’s championship game, assuming one advanced that far. In all likelihood, that stood to be the Carolina Energy. As it happens, both teams reached the championship game as undefeateds, but the Roughriders were 10-0 in league play with road wins in Cape Fear and West Michigan while the Energy were 5-0 and never left Bojangles’ Coliseum.
“The last two years under Tony, it was the high seed that hosted,” Fornario pointed out. “Why would it be different? Why would you state this on May 16 and not before the season starts?”
The game was eventually played at the WesBanco Arena, but Fornario was forced to fork over $15,000 to the Energy for the privilege, leaving a bad taste in his mouth.
The entire 2019 AAL season was a mess hotter than the back of Jules’ car after Vincent shot Marvin in the face, and more often than not Fornario was left to clean up. In a league that canceled 43 regular season games in two years, only the Roughriders and Chris Duffy’s Havoc honored their schedules and never petitioned for a forfeit. The Roughriders played ten games over 13 regular season weeks, far more than anyone. For a league besieged with uncertainty, they were a sure thing.
The only way the AAL could have saves any semblance of face this season was for Zefiretto to present the Jack Bowman Trophy to either the Havoc or Roughriders, and Fornario saw to that. For two years, he was the league’s high tide, a kind of Piano Man playing songs to real estate novelists and stoned businessmen as we kept asking him, ‘Man, what are you doin’ here?’
Well, last Friday he gave us our answer.
AAL CEO Tony Zefiretto was contacted before publication of this story, but no further comments were offered.