Grit, Guts and Glory

Sam Sez

Sam Wolfson
Contributing Editor

August 12, 1996

DURHAM, N.C. - Practice. That's what all the close games the Tampa Bay Storm played this season were. Practice for the biggest game of the year. Once again, the Storm played in a game that came down to what happened inside the last minute of the game. This was the fifth game of the season that was decided in the last minute. It all began on July 6 when Jorge Cimadevilla kicked a field goal as time expired to beat Florida 39-36. Next week, the Storm tied the game with 6 seconds left, and then beat Albany 65-52 in overtime. The fowollowing week, Orlando defeated the Storm on a controversial touchdown and two point conversion with no time left on the clock. Then, in the league semifinals, the Storm's defense stopped Arizona on a two point conversion inside the last minute to win 56-55. All of these games gave the Storm valuable experience in this final game.

The Tampa Bay Storm got five touchdown passes from quarterback Jay Gruden and clutch defense to win their fourth Arena Football championship in six seasons, in what was the closest Arenabowl in history. Tampa Bay demonstrated it's defensive prowess early on, with a Tracey Perkins interception at the Tampa Bay 4 yard line that ended the Barnstormers' opening drive. The Storm followed up with a 15 yard pass from Gruden to the eligible tackle, Lynn Rowland, to take a 7-0 lead. Iowa responded with two touchdowns, taking a 14-7 lead, and setting up a critical phase of the game.

Just when it looke like the Storm might be phased by the boisterous crowd, Gruden hooked up with offensive specialist George LaFrance for a 30 yard touchdown. The Storm, however, still trailed 14-13 after Cimadevilla missed the extra point. After Iowa took a 21-13 lead, the defense stepped up for the Storm. The defense held Iowa for the first time in three posessions, forcing a 30 yard field goal attempt that was missed by kicker Mike Black. Then, Gruden connected with Stevie Thomas on the first play after the one minute warning for a 35 yard score. The two point conversion to LaFrance tied the game. Then, on the first play of Iowa's posession, the pass rush force a bad pass that was intercepted by Thomas and returned for a touchdown in a play very similar to the one in last week's game against Arizona.

Going into the fourth quarter, the Storm found themselves clinging to a slim 4 point lead. But once again the combination of Gruden to Thomas hooked up for a critical score. Gruden found Thomas open in the corner of the endzone for a seven yard touchdown. After Iowa answered with a touchdown, the spotlight shifted to the defense.

Twice already the Storm's defense had come up with big interceptions, killing Barnstormer drives inside the Storm 10 yard line. Leading by 4, Iowa took control of the ball with about 3 minutes to go in the game. Iowa quarterback Kurt Warner evaded a heavy rush and found Lamart Cooper who turned a short pass into a big gain, getting down to the goal line. While replays showed that the ball might have crossed the line, he was spotted just at about the one inch line. On first and goal, Iowa attempted a run, but fullback Andy Chilcote fumbled. The ball bounced through Johnnie Harris' arms and back to Warner who fell on it at the 3. While Iowa retained posession, it was a key play because it effectively took away the option to run the ball for the score. On the next play, Warner, who is well known for his scrambling ability, seemed to have an open lane to the endzone. Instead, he tried to force a ball into coverage, and it was incomplete. After another incompletion, it came down to fourth and goal from the 3. Warner eluded the rush, but had his arm hit at the line of scrimmage. His pass was batted away by Lawrence Samuels, and the Storm took control of the ball, and were able to run out the clock to win the game.

Before it could claim its fourth championship in its six year existance, the Storm had to overcome Iowa's huge home field advantage. Playing in "the Barn," one of the loudest arenas in the league, Iowa took crowd participation to an entirely new level. Throughout the game, the Storm had to deal with more than just dangerously high decibel levels. In the first half Tampa Bay Storm coach Tim Marcum complained to officials that Iowa fans were reaching out and grabbing Storm players as they ran by. Nothing was ever called. Also in the half, Storm defensive specialist Johnnie Harris got into an altercation with a fan after being beaten on a touchdown pass. Late in the fourth quarter, on a crucial third down play, Gruden tried to pass to LaFrance who had broken open near the sideline. The ball was tipped away by a fan before it reached LaFrance, setting up the critical goal line stand.

In the end, it was the Storm that stood atop the Arena Football League once again. For Jay Gruden, Stevie Thomas, and Tracy Perkins, it is their fourth championship with this team, the only players left on the roster from the first season. For George LaFrance, it is a fifth career championship, most of any player in Arena Football history. Coach Tim Marcum gets his sixth championship ring, and once again shows why he is the best this game has ever seen. This is the first back-to-back championships for the Storm, as well as their first win in an even numbered year (and without new uniforms). So, it was a perfect ending for a season that provided more drama and as much excitement of any in the past. As the team moves on to a new arena in a new city, it can look forward to raising another championship banner and once again starting the defense of a World Championship.

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