Friday, November 24, 2017
Tampa Bay Storm

Tampa Bay's Arena football survivors shoot for title

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TAMPA — They're playing for the championship of a five-team league. Yeah, and there were semifinals, too. Most of them don't even know the name of the trophy they'll be handed if they become champions Saturday night: the Foster Trophy.

"All I know is I'm going to drink from it if we win," Kendrick Ings said.

Here's to the Tampa Bay Storm, still alive and kicking, like its Lazarus of a league. The Storm is playing in ArenaBowl XXX on Saturday in Philadelphia against the defending AFL champion Soul.

REMEMBER WHEN? Arena Football League has evolved from a quirky afterthought into nation's fastest growing sport

"I don't care if it's two teams in the league, a championship is a championship," said Ings, a Storm receiver with 22 touchdown catches this season.

"This team has gone through things that have reminded me of things I went through on my championship teams in college and the Bucs," Storm president Derrick Brooks said.

The AFL seemed on the brink of extinction last year as it shriveled from eight teams to three teams. From the outside, it looked like curtains.

But Ted Leonsis, owner of the NHL Washington Capitals and NBA Washington Wizards, created two new AFL teams, the Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade. He represents solid ownership, along with Lightning and Storm owner Jeff Vinik and Cleveland Cavaliers and AFL Gladiators owner Dan Gilbert.

REMEMBER WHEN? Storm wins a fantastic fifth ArenaBowl title

The Storm lives.

It went 10-4 this season, a robust turnaround from 2016, when it went 2-14. Mind you, 2-14 still made the playoffs. Oh, that nutty league. But here is the Storm's chance to win a record sixth ArenaBowl, though it would be Tampa Bay's first since 2003.

I mentioned this to Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard, a very nice man who has thrown 80 touchdowns this season, but, more important, wears No. 12. I suggested he could maybe stir interest in this ArenaBowl if he sat at the pool at the team's Philadelphia airport hotel and told media that he "guarantees" a victory over the Soul. The full Joe Willie.

Two problems.

"I'm not flashy," Hippeard said with a laugh.

Second problem: There would have to be media.

The Storm could use some love.

"These guys are putting their bodies on the line every week," said first-year Storm coach Ron James, a 20-year AFL man who will work at his first ArenaBowl. "The turf is unforgiving. The walls are unforgiving."

And the paychecks are unforgiving, roughly $900 per player per game, though QBs make a little more.

Storm receiver Joe "Superman" Hills has caught 36 touchdowns this season and holds the AFL record with TD catches in 81 consecutive regular-season games and counting. In the offseason, Hills works as a trainer at a YMCA in Bradenton.

"Playing is a labor of love," said Hills, who spent some time on the Bucs' practice squad.

There are still Storm fans. Fans like Tampa Bay Storm Surge Club president Cindy Wright. She has had Storm season tickets since the team moved here from Pittsburgh in 1990.

Wright said the club has about 35 members. It often sees the team off at the airport on road trips and meets it when it returns. She usually brings treats and over the years has made meals for players and helped them with errands. Nickname: "Storm Mom."

Last season, the AFL began shrinking.

"I was scared to death," Storm Mom said.

Now she's flying to ArenaBowl XXX.

The game, at 7 p.m. Saturday, won't be televised locally. But there will be a watch party at Amalie Arena. And there is radio (WHNZ-AM 1250). You also can watch on the Storm website ( tampabaystorm.com); the AFL's app, AFLNow; or Twitter ( afl.twitter.com). And feel free to meet the Storm's charter when it lands in Tampa on Sunday, American Airlines, around 6 p.m.. Actually, just go to baggage claim. The Storm never charters.

"Commercial all the way, middle seats, unless we get on early," Hills said.

By the way, the Foster Trophy is named for Jim Foster, who co-founded the Arena Football League and who was its first commissioner. The trophy is 28 inches tall, weighs 40 pounds and is topped by a silver bowl. That's right: You can drink out of it.

"That's all I need," Kendrick Ings said.

Here's looking at you, Storm.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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