John Blanchette: Shock turn adversity into victory
In a corner near the exit, away from the championship confetti drifting at midfield, Emery Sammons shook his head and drank in the contradiction of how something so absurd could be so absolutely right.
“Linebacker!” he said. “I haven’t played linebacker since Pop Warner League!”
Linebacker? Sammons had barely played anything all year for the Spokane Shock. Friday night’s ArenaBowl XXIII was just the fifth game he’d suited up for this season, the first since July 10.
Yet come the most important game and there he was on the field – at an alien position, yes, but somehow not a stopgap. Perhaps even the residue of some grand design.
A championship design.
This is, in fact, pretty much what the management of the Spokane Shock had in mind when they took the faithful leap up into the Arena Football League this season and left behind the humble-but-lovable days of the JV league behind. They imagined the Spokane Arena packed to the tin walls – 11,017 – and the Orange Ocean in full tsunami and the confetti raining down after something like the 69-57 shellacking the upstarts put on the Tampa Bay Storm, the closest thing to AFL royalty there is.
Chutzpah 1, Pedigree 0.
OK, so the majority owner didn’t envision missing the denouement and having to spend the evening in the hospital after an appendectomy.
OK, so the Shock didn’t see losing two of their top defensive players to injury in the first five minutes and yet still having their way.
OK, so the organization didn’t realize its choice of pre-game coin flipper – U.S. Senate candidate Dino Rossi – would rile up the tribal sponsor whose name is on the home turf.
As for Dino, he was probably happy to get any sort of football endorsement, since the NFL player he beat in the primary is withholding his.
Still, the whole Shock vision seems to be based on something going wrong – and then turning it into something right.
“For the first time, you see the domino effect of arena football,” said Shock coach Rob Keefe, whose own ascension to his position was one of those odd-note events that turned to gold. “We had guys who understand what arena football is: getting in where you fit in.”
Here’s what he means: In midseason, Keefe made a wholly unpopular move to cut linebacker Kevin McCullough – a face-of-the-franchise player – and replace him with Antwan Marsh, who in fact not only had a better skill set at that position but could be used in a pinch at defensive back.
Pinch came to shove Friday night.
His move meant that Sammons, nominally a receiver but mostly an insurance policy, had to become the Jack linebacker – and you’ve already heard his résumé at that spot.
“You don’t want to believe that people will get hurt,” Keefe said, “but he was chosen as 20th man (on the roster) for his ability to play Jack and help on special teams. Things happen – whether in Week 4, Week 7, Week 9 – all because of that one game where you need him.”
How the Shock won their first AFL title was no mystery. Quarterback Kyle Rowley was nails – an ArenaBowl- record nine touchdown passes, and a so-there to those who passed him over in the all-league vote. Receivers Markee White and Huey Whittaker couldn’t be handled. And the defense, despite the fire-drill changes, was magnificent.
But there was also Emery Sammons, who had more tackles than anyone and blocked a field-goal attempt – and who just hung in.
“An athlete is an athlete no matter where you get put in,” he said. “It was tough sometimes this year, not playing, but it made me realize it’s not about me – it’s about the team.”
Pretty fair team, you’d have to say.
“They proved they were the best,” acknowledged Storm coach Tim Marcum, who has won seven of these things himself.
Funny thing about that: The day before owner Brady Nelson found himself in a hospital bed, he was recalling the meeting that brought this league together – a few aspirants from the old af2 like the Shock, and some holdovers from the bankrupt AFL.
“I kind of looked around the table at all these other clubs and thought, ‘We can win this thing,’” Nelson remembered. “I think they thought having Spokane in would make for some easy W’s and that our crowd would let us sustain some losses.
“But I knew we were as capable as these guys of putting together a team – and that we were the best at adapting to change from our experience in the af2.
“Now, of course, everybody is more tuned in to what it will take to succeed. Now it will get more fun.”
Maybe. Hard to believe it can be much more fun than this.