Albany May Never Want to Come BackSam Sez
July 12, 1996
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Ask any Albany Firebird fan and you will probably get the same answer.
They hate the Tampa Bay Storm. They hate the ThunderDome. Most of all, they hate Stevie Thomas. Last season the Firebirds rallied from 19 points down in the fourth quarter to take a 1 point lead against the Storm in the league semifinal game. Only Stevie Thomas' miraculous kickoff return with 7 seconds remaining kept the Firebirds from going to their first Arenabowl. While the stakes were lower, Friday night's game matched last season's in both miracles and excitement as the Storm defeated the Firebirds in an overtime thriller that probably ranks as the most exciting regular season game in franchise history.
Early on in the game, the Storm was opportunistic, capitalizing on Albany mistakes to take a 10 point lead early in the third quarter. But it is nearly impossible to keep Albany's high powered offense out of the end zone. Motivated by memories of last season's heart-breaking loss, the Firebirds scored 17 straight points, taking a 45-38 lead at the end of the third quarter. The Storm did its best to help. Poor tackling plagued the Storm all night. Albany recievers often broke tackles and gained additional yards.
After the two teams traded fourth quarter touchdowns, the Storm took possession of the ball at their own 11 yard line with 3:29 ro go in the game and trailing by seven points. Tampa Bay calmly marched down to the Firebird 9 yard line, setting up a first and goal situation. But, first and goal became a fourth and goal with 15 seconds to go. And that is when the ghost of that semifinal game came back to haunt the Firebirds.
Jay Gruden found Thomas for the apparent tying score, but it was called back on a holding penalty. So, the Storm regrouped and went to work for one play that would decide the game. Gruden one again looked to Thomas, his teammate for all six seasons with the Storm. He hit Thomas with a bullet just before Thomas was hit by two Albany defenders. Thomas flipped around in the air, but managed to hold on for the tying TD to send the game into overtime.
"I knew it was fourth down. I knew it was a play we had to have," Thomas said. " I saw the ball in the air and the defenders. I said to myself, 'I'm going to get hit anyway, so I might as well catch the ball'."
But Thomas' heroics were far from over. After winning the coin toss and choosing to recieve, the Storm faced another fourth down at the Albany 11 yard line. In Arena football, each team is guaranteed one possession in overtime. Storm coach Tim Marcum knew that a field goal would not do very much against Albany. Once again Gruden found Thomas in the endzone for the go-ahead score. "That's just good clean living," Marcum said about converting the two fourth downs.
The Firebirds were not out of the game by a long shot. They brought their number one ranked offense onto the field. A touchdown and two point conversion could still salvage the game they once appeared to have wrapped up. An extra point would send the game into sudden death. But on the first play, Albany QB Mike Perez was rushed by Ivan Caesar in his own endzone. The hurried pass was intercepted by Lawrence Samuels, sealing the victory. As an added bonus, Samuels returned it 7 yards for a touchdown, giving the Storm and amazing 13 point overtime victory, 65-52. Only in the AFL.
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