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Empire, fans partying like it's 1999

Empire, fans partying like it's 1999

Albany Empire lose, but game and experience harken back to the glory days of the Albany Firebirds
Empire, fans partying like it's 1999
Greg Carr and Collin Taylor celebrate the first Albany Empire touchdown at Times Union Center on Saturday.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

ALBANY -- This was no longer a vacation.

It was a quest.

A quest for funk.

I was on the lookout for someone in an Eddie Brown jersey, a shirt that perhaps hadn't been washed.

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Since 1999. A shirt with a little whiff of old sweat and stale beer.

There were jarringly contrasting black-and-gold jerseys all over the place, especially No. 84, because Eddie's kid, Antonio -- yes, that Antonio, Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro wide receiver -- was in town for his pop's special ceremony.

And there was plenty of crisp, new Albany Empire gear walking around South Pearl Street, fresh off the concession racks, in a very familiar dominant color.

But it took me four hours of hunting to finally spot the old orange No. 17, the lettering a little worn, but the fabric otherwise holding up well for its age.

Jeff LaPorte, 59, of Guilderland dug through his closet and found his Eddie Brown jersey and wore it for Saturday's rollicking debut of the Empire, Albany's latest Arena Football League incarnation.

"I haven't worn it since 1999," he said.

I remember that year. The Albany Firebirds, featuring offensive specialist Eddie Brown, won the ArenaBowl championship over the Orlando Predators before a sold-out crowd of 13,500 at the Pepsi Arena, since renamed Times Union Center. Then the Firebirds played one more season, and were gone.

The Empire -- and the AFL -- are light years from that time, but on Saturday the team recaptured something from that era, and another sellout crowd loudly and gleefully voiced its approval.

With even more options these days than there were 20 or so years ago, the Empire face some obstacles in gaining a foothold in the world of sports and entertainment.

And the AFL is on shaky ground, with just four teams for the 2018 season and an outdoor pro league spearheaded by longtime NFL bigwig Bill Polian and movie producer Charlie Ebersol poised to begin around this time next season. If nothing else, their Alliance of American Football should put a serious dent in the Arena Football League's talent pool, while playing in big markets concurrent to the AFL season.

But that's all a long time from now, certainly for the 13,500 who showed up for Saturday's game, which started with a packed block party in front of the arena. They were firmly rooted in the moment.

Many of them, like LaPorte, surely were familiar with the rhythms of an AFL game, which is played indoors on a 50-yard field blocked in by sidewalls and has huge rebound nets and narrow goalpoasts in each end zone.

It's an acquired taste, and by no means for football purists: the visiting Philadelphia Soul went  up 21-14 with just over 2 minutes left in the first half, and funky, head-scratching mayhem ensued within the tiny window of time left before intermission.

In a span of 1:28, we saw an extra point kick, failed onside kick, 5-yard TD pass, failed onside kick, three defensive pass interference penalties, two stuffed runs and a 1-yard dive for a TD/PAT.

It's arena football, no big deal.

It was all coming back to me.

I covered that ArenaBowl in 1999, and that team was a blast to be around if for no other reason than Eddie Brown was part of it. He was an exciting player on the field and a go-to interview, the charismatic leader of a wacky-but-serious bunch that included quarterback Mike Pawlawski, Chad Dukes, Darryl Stingley's son Derek, and Joe Jacobs and his brother Andy, who once sacked a quarterback so hard that Joe deadpanned "You vomited him" in the locker room afterward.

"Yeah, I vomited him."

I once got Eddie fined $500 by head coach Mike Dailey for using a quote -- I gave him a chance to take it back, he refused -- complaining about not getting enough plays called for him. No, really.

Mark Valvo and Greg Hopkins, two other stars on that team, showed up for the halftime ceremony on Saturday, when the Empire unfurled banners commemorating Eddie Brown's retired No. 17 and the 1999 championship, as fans chanted "ED-DIE, ED-DIE," just like they used to do.

With Philadelphia leading 56-35 with just over five minutes left, many of the fans started heading for the exits. That's an eternity in arena football, but Philadelphia isn't the defending champ for nothing, and closed it out without any more scoring. Final: 56-35.

We'll see what sort of longevity this team can sustain, in the face of the various forces that affect a minor pro league with just four teams, one of which is in a city that has been a revolving door for the last 30 years.

For one night, anyway, one old shirt among thousands of new ones was enough.

"I wasn't sure if it would still fit," LaPorte said at halftime, tugging at his orange No. 17, with a chuckle. "We just need a star player, to make it come full circle."

It fit just fine.

Philadelphia Soul 14 21 14 7 -- 56
Albany Empire       7 14 14 0 -- 35

First quarter
PHI -- KAULEINAMOKU 7 pass from RAUDABAUGH (WASCHA kick), 3:48
ALB - CARR 10 pass from GRADY (SPENCER kick), 2:23
PHI - PRINCE 15 pass from RAUDABAUGH (TREVINO kick), 4:16
Second quarter
ALB - TAYLOR 27 pass from GRADY (SPENCER kick), 3:11
PHI - PRINCE 3 pass from RAUDABAUGH (TREVINO kick), 5:26
ALB - CARR 6 pass from GRADY (SPENCER kick), 0:39
PHI - RICHARDSON 1 run (TREVINO kick), 0:27
PHI - PRINCE 6 pass from RAUDABAUGH (TREVINO kick), 0:12
Third quarter
PHI - REYNOLDS 9 pass from RAUDABAUGH (TREVINO kick), 1:36
ALB - MCNEILIII 6 pass from GRADY (SPENCER kick), 3:09
PHI - TIVIS 2 net recovery (TREVINO kick)
ALB - JONES 48 pass from GRADY (SPENCER kick), 0:39
Fourth quarter
PHI - KAULEINAMOKU 28 yd pass from RAUDABAUGH (TREVINO kick), 1:35
A -- 13,648. T -- 2:45.

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

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