Spokane Shock quarterback Charles McCullum won’t believe he’s playing until a referee’s coin bounces off the Spokane Arena turf.
Heads or tails, the Indoor Football League team is slated to begin its 2021 campaign on Saturday night against the Frisco Fighters, a 7:05 kickoff at the fanless venue.
McCullum, who is just 1,022 yards away from breaking in the IFL’s all-time passing record, hasn’t taken a snap in nearly 20 months because of the coronavirus pandemic. He’s still cautiously optimistic.
“I am still in shock that we’re actually playing this week,” said McCullum, a two-time IFL Most Valuable Player. “When we do, that’s when all the emotions are going to come out.”
McCullum, defensive back Mike Green, first-year Shock head coach Billy Back and several other players on the Shock’s roster haven’t felt the game day experience since August 2019 as members of the Carolina Cobras, a National Arena League power during their tenure.
But when the Shock announced their rebirth, decorated arena players from around the country made the move to the Northwest to try and capture the spirit and success the Lilac City franchise cultivated in a 10-year stretch, years before changing brands and ultimately folding in 2017.
After the Shock’s return 2020 season was canceled and its 2021 season delayed, it appears a level of professional football is finally returning to Spokane after nearly a four-year absence.
“We don’t have to worry about anybody stopping us this time,” Green said. “We finally have something to look forward to and get to play against someone that isn’t us. We’ve been waiting a long time and are ready to take out that frustration.”
The Shock’s roster is littered with players with Power 5 college experience, including several players – many former four and five-star recruits – who prepped in the Southeastern Conference. Others from small schools have earned their stripes in the IFL and other leagues and had brief stints in the NFL.
After playing the waiting game for more than a year, they’re ready to see how they stack up.
“Last year, it felt like going to prom, then your date cancels on you,” Back said. “This year it’s like Christmas. You’ve been looking at the presents for over a year.
“We’re holding our breath to see if it’s the gifts we asked for.”
The Arena is a COVID-19 vaccination site and won’t allow fans for Saturday’s home opener.
The Shock’s following home games, beginning in June, will allow fans.
The Shock had long prided themselves for having some of the loudest and rowdiest fans in a section dubbed “Deaf Valley,” but that will have to wait.
Frisco, a first-year IFL franchise featuring former University of Texas quarterback and running back Jerrod Heard and running back Johnathan Gray, won’t have to deal with those orange-clad fans on Saturday.
“It’s going to feel like a practice,” said new Shock owner Sam Adams, a former All-Pro NFL defensive lineman. “Frisco is lucky, because when our fans come back, the rest of the league is going to be in trouble.”
McCullum is ready to create his own energy for the game.
“I would love to have some fans there, but that will come,” McCullum said. “If you’re not excited right now, I don’t know when you’re going to be excited.”
McCullum, 35, is an indoor football fixture behind center, but he has company in Blake Sims, the former starting quarterback at Alabama.
Sims, 29, had brief stints in the NFL, Canadian Football League and Alliance of American Football before going the IFL route. He also plays running back.
They’ll be joined in the backfield by running back Davonte Sapp-Lynch – brother of former Seahawks great Marshawn Lynch – who had previously garnered All-IFL honors with the Nebraska Danger.
“For us, it’s about protecting (McCullum),” Back said. “If our offensive line gives him time, we will do good things. We want to find and beat our (opponents) in man coverages.”
On the outside, the Shock have a variety of receivers, like Speedy Noil, who started as a true freshman at Texas A&M, and former five-star recruit and Ohio State quarterback and receiver Torrance Gibson.
Jordan Jolly, who starred as a member of the Carolina Cobras, is expected to have a big season.
“We should be pretty good,” McCullum said. “Everybody is still learning. A lot of players haven’t played this game before.”
Green is one of the most experienced defensive backs in the IFL and ranks ninth in career interceptions (23).
Without playing an in-game snap with the Shock, he’s already given this team lofty praise.
“The talent has been crazy,” Green said.
“I have been playing this arena game for a long time. This is probably the most talented I have been around in arena football.”
The Shock have size and experience up front in Walter Thomas, a 6-foot-5, 340-pound nose guard who played at Oklahoma State before earning All-IFL distinction.
The Shock defense also has young talent like Willie Hibbler, who was one of the of the University of Mississippi’s top tacklers before exhausting his eligibility in 2019 and former Georgia defensive back Dominick Sanders, who had more than 54 career starts for the Bulldogs and appeared in the 2018 national title game.
“In practice you could already tell it our offense was going up against one of the defenses in the league,” Back said.
Nick Woodman, a former standout defensive end with the Jacksonville Sharks, is expected to give teams fits on the edge.
A pair of Cougs
Former Washington State receivers Tavares Martin Jr. and Kyrin Priester survived cuts this week.
Martin hauled in 70 passes for 831 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior, but did not play his senior year after stating former head coach Mike Leach cut him from the team .
Martin totaled 150 catches for 1,683 yards and 17 TDs in three seasons in Pullman and played one season with the NAL’s Massachusetts Pirates in 2019.
Priester played as a freshman at WSU in 2015, had 33 catches for 241 yards and a touchdown.
He was also a kick and punt returner for the Cougars.
About the Indoor Football League
When the Arena Football League folded in 2019 after more than 30 years of business, the growing Indoor Football League was still standing.
The IFL, which features several former longtime AFL teams like the Arizona Rattlers and Iowa Barnstormers, has expanded to 18 teams.
Just 12 are playing this year, including the Green Bay Blizzard, Louisville Extreme and Bismarck (North Dakota) Bucks.
The Spokane Shock won af2 championships in 2006 – the team’s inaugural season – and 2009 before bumping up to the Arena Football League.
The Shock claimed an AFL title at ArenaBowl XXIII in their first season in 2010 before making the playoffs the next four years.
In 2015, the Shock and its former ownership group changed its brand to the Spokane Empire and joined the IFL. The Empire ceased operations in 2017 after two seasons.
In the Shock’s 10 previous seasons (2006-2015) the franchise claimed three AFL/af2 titles, five division championships and reached the postseason nine teams.