by Jay Luster
Wearing a Gatorade soaked Roughriders shirt; owner Gregg Fornario accepted the APF Championship trophy then shouted to the fans crowding the end zone, “We did it Richmond. We did it!”
Playing before the biggest crowd of the season, the Richmond Roughriders hosted the Florida Tarpons at the Richmond Coliseum for the first Arena Pro Football Championship game. The Riders won the right to host the game by beating Florida on May 6th in Richmond. That game featured 17 year indoor football veteran QB Chris Wallace’s Tarpon’s debut. While not a running threat, Wallace is an accurate passer and a stout presence in the pocket. That night, the Richmond squad proved to be too much for Florida beating them handily 55-34. While the Riders dominated the game overall, the Tarpons defensive line shortened QB Jimmy Laughrea’s night by putting him out of the game with a knee injury. Laughrea wouldn’t play again until the June 10th rematch for the championship.
The Friday before the game the Tarpon’s travel plans were derailed by a bus breakdown that delayed their arrival until 9 pm. Even with that hiccup, Richmond head coach Mook Zimmerman cautiously said, “It’s hard to beat the same team twice in one season.” The Tarpons seemed to be unaffected by the long ride, and they pushed Richmond harder than they’d been pushed all season. The Riders feasted on inferior competition for most of the year only getting truly tested in their last game by the Triangle Torch. The Torch came to town on short notice when the River City Raiders unexpectedly pulled out, leaving a hole in their schedule. With Roughriders owner Gregg Fornario and the APF scrambling to find an opponent, the Supreme Indoor Football League stepped up and sent their undefeated team from Raleigh, North Carolina to the Richmond Coliseum. While the Riders outclassed the Torch in the second half, they tested the home team’s character all night. Richmond, down by 13 in the second quarter came back and went into halftime with a one-point lead. When asked what Coach Zimmerman said to the team during halftime, Richmond’s pass rusher and APF Defensive Player of the year Ke’ontae Hollis said with a laugh, “It’s not fit for publication.” Whatever he said worked because the night ended with the Roughriders winning by 29 points.
The Tarpons showed up ready to play. QB Chris Wallace who was picked off three times in the first meeting protected the ball well, and the Florida offensive and defensive lines controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the night. Laughrea made his return to action after recovering from a procedure to drain fluid from the injured knee. With his right knee in a protective brace preventing him from running, the team lost one of their offensive strengths. The teams seesawed back and forth all night trading the lead, with the Tarpons holding the edge at the end of the first quarter, at the half, and up by one after the third. The lead changed hands on virtually every score, but things looked dire for the Riders when APF Special-Teams Player of the Year, Ricky Segers went down with a knee injury. Richmond was forced to abandon the kicking game and go for two after each score. They grabbed a 6 point lead deep in the 4th but Florida came back and went up by one. With only 51 seconds left to play, Richmond wide receiver Justin Burke, hauled in a pass from APF Offensive Player of the Year Jimmy Laughrea for the go-ahead touchdown. The successful two-point conversion gave the Riders a shaky 7 point lead. QB Chris Wallace rallied the Tarpons for one last drive, but with only a few seconds left on the clock, DB Malique Johnson clinched the game for the Riders with an interception and the return for a touchdown. The Riders defensive front forced the pick by pressuring Wallace to the boards. Faced what would have been a likely game ending sack, Wallace, threw the ball all the way across the field and into the end zone. The resulting pick six gave the Riders a 13-point lead with no time remaining and the championship trophy in their possession. After accepting the APFC Trophy, Gregg Fornario held it up for the crowd to see and said, “This team (on the podium) behind me is the real deal. This team behind me deserves to be the champions. This team behind me never stopped fighting, and that’s why this team behind me is your Arena Pro Football champions!” After the trophy ceremony Coach Zimmerman said, “They made us work for this win. Their guys fought hard and never gave up, but we just pulled through. I really love these guys.”
As sporting events go, arena football has an intimacy and excitement that is hard for other sports to match. When it’s played at a high level such as this championship game was, it’s speed and sheer brutality has to be seen in person to be believed. The Florida Tarpons and Roughriders put on a great show in the city of Richmond. The first-year Riders team finished the season undefeated with an 8-0 record, and the first-year league couldn’t have asked for a better finish. Summing it up nicely Florida’s QB Chris Wallace said, “We may have come up short, but it was good old-fashioned arena football.”
Photography by: Ed Breese, Thor Macht, Gwen Wilson, and Dwayne Morris