Once the deal was done, that’s when Rob Keefe’s phone started ringing.
It was no lazy, carefree Memorial Day for the Spokane Shock. Without a healthy, capable quarterback in a quarterback’s league, they were awash in desperation – losers of three of their last four games – and they hit upon the desperate measure: trading one of the Arena Football League’s premier defensive linemen to a division rival embroiled in the same playoff chase for its backup quarterback – and throwing in your center, to boot.
Explanations were in order – to the players Keefe would face in practice the next day.
Sure, it seems easy enough to grasp now, having seen Erik Meyer pilot the Shock to a 75-54 drubbing of the Philadelphia Soul on Friday night, in front of an NFL Network audience – and the smallest regular-season crowd in Shock history, 8,972.
But that night? Not so much.
“The biggest challenge,” Keefe acknowledged, “was getting the team to believe in him. We had Khreem Smith and Antonio Narcisse leaving us and I took a couple of phone calls late into the night from guys saying, ‘Coach, I trust you – but tell me why you did that. Do you know what you’re doing?’ And I owed them an answer.”
And then he owed Meyer some brutal candor.
“The very first day,” Keefe told him, “I need you to lead.”
Commanding the huddle. Winning them over like you have to “when you’re the new kid in class,” as Keefe put it.
“Then when you back it up with your play on the field, you’ve got them.”
Of course, that requires the backing-it-up part. Turns out that may have been the least of the challenge for Erik Meyer.
A few miles down the road at Eastern Washington University, he had been as good as a quarterback could be. But he had not played kickoff-to-horn in four years, since the dusk of NFL Europe. Before and after there were unrequited tryouts with Cincinnati, Seattle and Oakland of the NFL, Hamilton in Canada, a season on the bench in Spokane watching Kyle Rowley take the Shock to the AFL title, and more sitting this summer in Utah.
But apparently oxidation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Against the defending champs of the Jaworski Football League – Soul owner Ron Jaworski, the NFL mouthpiece, seems to think Spokane’s 2010 title doesn’t count – the 28-year-old Meyer was resourceful and efficient.
He completed 26 of 36 passes for 332 yards and seven touchdowns, with a single interception. With the help of back-to-back onside kicks, Meyer got the Shock off to a three-touchdown lead, completing 10 passes in a row.
Yes, there were hiccups. A deflection went for a pick, the Shock blew a red-zone opportunity just before halftime and surrendered all of that 20-point lead. But Meyer also came right back with the go-ahead-for-good drive, and it wasn’t just his arm working.
“The thing he did well enough is scramble,” said Soul coach Mike Hohensee. “That one fourth-down play where we ended up supposedly holding somebody was while he was scrambling around. That was a huge play.”
Onside kicks and playoff desperation are good. Playmakers are better.
Meyer gave the Shock one at the most important position. Soul quarterback Ryan Vena, who would look at home in the ball rack at Lilac Lanes, has been brutal in his four cracks at Spokane in this league and the old af2. It makes you wonder why Meyer didn’t get his chance with someone until now – or why the Shock didn’t pull the trigger on a trade two weeks earlier to avoid the unfortunate Casey Hansen interval.
“I’m not going to lie – it’s been tough,” said Meyer of his extended apprenticeship. “You get thoughts here and there – especially at my age – about, ‘Should I still be doing this?’ But I love this game way too much, and I was going to stick it out no matter what until I got an opportunity.
“I’m thankful for this one.”
Typical for this Shock season, however, one answer only prompts another question. This is the week Rowley and Bill Stull, who had replaced him in the starting lineup, are eligible to come off injured reserve. If either are available, who starts?
“I understand – if you’re only making $400, you don’t want to be sitting out,” Keefe said. “You don’t want to feel you’re wasting your time. It’s a delicate situation.
“There are egos and personalities to deal with – we’re very aware of that. But I think tonight, with this team, you can’t deny what just happened.”
Is that the phone ringing again?