If there was a Mount Rushmore for Spokane Shock players based on performance and fan popularity, the four faces might be Raul Vijil, Rob Keefe, Kyle Rowley and Kevin McCullough.
Two of those faces didn’t see eye to eye last year.
In a bold move, then first-year head coach Keefe traded McCullough to Oklahoma City last June and inserted arena football neophyte Antwan Marsh at “Jack” linebacker. With Marsh playing a key role, the Shock went on to claim the ArenaBowl championship.
McCullough, who had 15 interceptions as Spokane went 37-3 in 2008-09, finished the year with Oklahoma City before joining Arizona for the 2011 season. The top-ranked Rattlers, the AFL’s only unbeaten team, visit Spokane on Saturday.
“I’m definitely going to be excited,” McCullough said in a phone interview. “I’ve already got some texts from some fans that still have my number. That place gets loud, but it doesn’t really affect me. When it comes down to it, it comes down to the players.
“I had a long talk with (ex-Shock and current Rattlers quarterback) Nick (Davila). They struck out three times against Spokane last year and obviously all three were close games. Nick told me he might have been a little too energized for the first game in Spokane. He talked to me about not getting out of my comfort zone.”
Time and distance have probably dulled some of the hard feelings. To recap, Keefe wanted more athleticism and flexibility at the Jack position. Last year teams were allowed to suit 20 players, which Keefe felt left the Shock vulnerable if a defensive back was injured. That scenario unfolded in the ArenaBowl and Marsh moved to DB with Emery Sammons coming in at Jack.
With the schedule expanded from 16 to 18 games this season, teams are allowed to dress 21 players.
“Now you can go back to a Jack regardless of body type,” Keefe said. “That’s why you saw us transition Beau (Bell) into that spot. (The trade) was based on the now, it was totally to play within the rules of what the league was last year.”
McCullough maintains he was blind-sided by the trade, particularly after playing two of his better games. He said the Shock asked him to provide three teams he wanted to be traded to and he put Arizona at the top of the list.
“I guess that was never an option,” McCullough said. “They knew all along their plan for me, looking back on it now and hearing the things I’ve heard around the league. It’s a business.”
Trading McCullough to Arizona was out of the question, Keefe said. “You might as well have handed them the playbook.”
McCullough visited with coach Kevin Guy about joining Arizona before the 2010 season. Numerous teams expressed interest prior to this season, but McCullough said the decision was easy when he heard from Guy. McCullough and Davila played together at Cincinnati, and the Rattlers also have ex-Shock players John Booker and Virgil Gray.
“I’ve grown to really like it here,” McCullough said. “We’re on a little bit of a win streak, but it’s a long season. Starting last week (with an overtime win against visiting Utah), we’re playing three division games in a row and two of them are in hostile environments.”
The Rattlers are second in scoring defense (43.3 points per game). McCullough has three interceptions, one he returned for a touchdown.
“We’re a really resilient bunch, everybody gets along well in the locker room and we do a lot of things together,” McCullough said. “We know somebody’s going to make that play. That’s what great teams do, find a way to win close games.”
The 6-foot-2, 238-pound McCullough is 20 pounds lighter than last season. Known as “The Chainsaw” during his time with the Shock, McCullough said the nickname didn’t carry over to Arizona until recently.
“Nick and Booker, one of our offensive linemen, they’ve been picking up on it and running with it,” he said. “I’ve been hearing it all week.”
McCullough expects to hear a mixed reaction Saturday at the Arena. He said he won’t go out of his way to greet Keefe or any of his former teammates “because it’s a business trip and I have to stay focused.
“I still have a lot of close friends up there, some diehard Shock fans and I expect them to be rooting hard for the Shock,” he said. “Maybe they’ll send a couple boos my way, but most of it will be in good fun.”
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