ALBANY – Antonio Brown’s return to a professional football field is — apparently — happening Saturday night at MVP Arena in downtown Albany.
Brown, the former star NFL wide receiver who now owns the Albany Empire, is slated to make his on-field debut for the franchise he owns on Saturday when the Empire takes on the Fayetteville Mustangs in a National Arena League contest at 7 p.m.
A press release on the Empire’s official website says that Brown “is getting ready to suit up” for Saturday’s game. He signed a playing contract with the team earlier this week and participated in practice on Tuesday, when he ran a single route.
The controversial former NFL star and son of arena football legend Eddie Brown — who starred for the Albany Firebirds in the 1990s — caught 928 passes for 12,291 yards and 83 touchdowns over a 12-year career that was spent mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers before stints with the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Antonio Brown, whose last act as an NFL player was to take off his jersey, shoulder pads, gloves and shirt and run off the field mid-game in Week 17 of the 2021 season, joined the Empire’s ownership group in March. In less than three months, his presence with the franchise has been a near-constant source of change and turmoil.
Heading into his apparent playing return on Saturday, here’s a look at Mr. Brown’s wild ride with the Empire thus far.
Less than two months into his tenure with the Empire, Brown — whom previous owner Mike Kwarta said had purchased a 47.5% interest in the franchise — began referring to himself as the team’s sole owner, something that Kwarta disputed.
On April 19, Brown purchased Kwarta’s 47.5% share for $1, upping his stake in the team to 95%, with the remaining 5% owned by Steve and Charlotte Von Schiller. That day, it was announced that Kwarta, team president Matt Woods and director of media operations Jeff Levack were departing the franchise.
On May 3, Brown’s representatives told the Albany Times Union that Brown has no personal ownership or control over the franchise, and that the Empire is actually owned by Antonio El-Allah Express Trust Franchise, which is owned by a foreign citizen named Antonio El-Allah. A letter addressed to a Times Union reporter described Brown as “not the owner of this team” and, confusingly, “not a citizen of the United States at birth.”
Ten days before the start of the 2023 NAL season, the franchise announced that head coach Tom Menas — who led the Empire to back-to-back NAL titles — was no longer with the team. Offensive coordinator Damon Ware became the team’s head coach.
On May 1, Ware — who according to media reports said he had not been paid since April 21 — said he had left the team. The team confirmed Ware’s departure on May 2, along with the release of eight top players following a conflict on the team bus while returning from a road game in North Carolina. The next day, Brown announced that Menas had agreed to return as head coach.
Menas’ return lasted less than three weeks, as last Sunday — following Albany’s 79-34 loss to the Jacksonville Sharks the night before — Menas announced his resignation, noting in a statement that “I have come to realize that my vision doesn’t match our ownership’s vision.”
Later Sunday, NewsChannel 13 reported that Brown had announced that former Union College and current La Salle Institute head coach John Audino would become the Empire’s new head coach, though by Monday it was announced that Audino had opted not to accept.
Instead, long-time Capital Region football fixture Pete Porcelli — a former Firebirds player himself and former head coach at Lansingburgh, Hoosic Valley and Watervliet — was announced as the team’s head coach.
Ware’s departure on May 1 came after a flood of turmoil that included a period where players and coaches were not paid for nearly two weeks, which, according to team officials, was due to an issue with the team’s payroll processor and a problem created when Kwarta and much of the previous front office left the franchise.
An incident on the team bus resulted in multiple suspensions, a misdemeanor charge and multiple suspensions. Ultimately, eight players left the team, including quarterback Sam Castronova and the reigning NAL most valuable player, wide receiver Darius Prince.
Since the start of May, the Empire’s roster has been a carousel — particularly at quarterback. First came Roland Rivers III, who was released after a single game and replaced by arena veteran Jonathan Bane, who was granted his release following last week’s loss to Jacksonville.
Rivers is back in the fold this week . . . but maybe not for long. The brash Brown claimed to reporters at Thursday’s practice that former NFL MVP Cam Newton, who hasn’t played since 2021, will “be here soon.”
What that — and anything Brown says — means, remains to be seen.
Reach Adam Shinder at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Adam_Shinder.