Forging an Empire: arena football is back

The Albany Empire of the Arena Football League have sold out the TU Center for their 2018 debut on Saturday
The Albany Empire practice at Afrim's Sports Dome in Latham on Thursday in preparation for their Saturday season opener.
The Albany Empire practice at Afrim's Sports Dome in Latham on Thursday in preparation for their Saturday season opener.

ALBANY — In with the new, and … in with the old.

The Albany Empire will make their Arena Football League debut at the Times Union Center at 7 Saturday night against Philadelphia, ushering in the latest chapter in the Capital Region’s long association with the indoor version of the sport that began in 1990.

Back then, the Albany Firebirds were one of the best teams in the league, winning the ArenaBowl in 1999. By 2001, they were on their way to Indiana, and arena football made a comeback in 2002 in a lesser form as the Albany Conquest of the lower-level arenafootball2.

By 2009, the hockey-rink sized green rug and the 32-foot high yellow nets and goal posts were gone.

But not for good.

 A local ownership group partnered with the Philadelphia Soul to create the Albany Empire team that is part of an AFL that has been scaled down to just four teams for the 2018 season.

To commemorate Albany’s return to the AFL, the Empire are bringing in an old face who wore the most recognizable jersey on the Firebirds’ roster, Eddie Brown, who will serve as an honorary captain with his son Antonio, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ All-Pro wide receiver. At halftime, Brown’s orange No. 17 will be retired to the rafters.

“I think it’s going to be off the charts,” Empire defensive back Marrio Norman said. “It’s going to be high-intensity, a lot of passion. Albany, obviously, used to have a team here, so hopefully we can bring back what you guys had before, and a bit more.

“Eddie Brown is coming in to raise his banner, so that’s huge, and Antonio Brown, I personally know him, so that’s awesome, and hopefully we’re going to pull out this win.”

“I think it’s going to be crazy,” Empire quarterback Tommy Grady said. “I think the city’s pretty excited about us coming here, and I know the team and the coaches are ecstatic, so we’re ready to go.”

The Brown ceremony will offer a nod to the past; ticket sales suggest the present could  recapture the glory days of the 1990s.

The team announced on Thursday that the 13,500-seat arena (as configured for football) was sold out, as it was in 1999 when the Firebirds defeated the Orlando Predators for the AFL championship. Because of that, the Empire have re-named the pre-game Block Party on South Pearl Street the Watch Party.

Fans who were shut out of Saturday’s game, which will be broadcast live on the cable channel CBS Sports Network, have the option of watching it outside the arena via the TU Center’s new 15-by-70-foot video boards.

That news was a huge victory for the team by itself, but the Empire also has high expectations on the field, where head coach Rob Keefe has assembled a roster rich in arena football experience.

That includes the 6-foot-7 Grady, who has played seven AFL seasons, during which he has piled up eye-popping statistics.

In 2012, he compiled the greatest season in league history, with 142 touchdowns and 5,863 yards (on a 50-yard field). He also threw 12 TD passes in a game against the Cleveland Gladiators, a single-game record.

He ranks eighth all-time in career TD passes, with 701.

“I love our quarterback,” Keefe said. “Tommy’s a leader, he’s a great person. He’s going to be awesome both on and off the field. But when you say 6-7, who commands respect, the guys love to play for him. He’s a former AFL MVP, a former AFL offensive player of the year, an AFL record-setter. This is completely set up for him to be successful. I’m so happy that he’s here.”

Keefe has plenty of AFL experience himself, having played as a defensive specialist from 2006-08 and coached from 2009.

With so few teams in the league, he has been able to find players not only with AFL experience, but have had a taste of the NFL, such as Doug McNeil, who spent the last two seasons on and off the Seattle Seahkawks’ practice squad. Norman, whose brother is Washington Redskins All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, was on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad.

The roster includes several wide receivers who should be inviting target for the towering Grady.

“Greg Carr … his catch radius is ridiculous,” Keefe said. “He’s going to go up and get the football, at 6-6. Guys like Doug McNeil, who are 6-4 and just played two years for the Seattle Seahawks. There’s a lot of guys that we feel comfortable on.”

“The league went down a couple teams, so it’s almost like an all-star team here,” Marrio Norman said. “We picked up some of the veteran players from those teams, and we’re meshing well.”

So Saturday will be a celebration of arena football past and present. The Firebirds’ legacy will be prominently on display, while the Empire attempt to establish one of their own.

“We want to pay homage to the Firebirds,” Keefe said. “Everywhere I go, it’s ‘I remember when I was …,’ ‘I remember when I was …’ and I love it and appreciate it.

“The foundation is here, the roots are here for arena football. But we’re re-branding. We’re going to be here to stay, and that is 100 percent the goal.”

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

Categories: Sports

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