Play this game between the Chicago Rush and the Milwaukee Mustangs 10 times, and each team would probably win five of them. The neck-and-neck April 21 border war between these two rivals in the Arena Football League came down to who had the ball last, with the Rush escaping, 62-61.
For great recaps of the game itself, check out the work of Matt Gabrielson of SportsPageMagazine.com and that of the Rush themselves. I, too, joined the 7,955 fans in attendance who enjoyed a classic rivalry game in which no team ever led by more than a touchdown and which was won by the Rush with just :04 left on the game clock.
These are my stories. (Insert dramatic "Law & Order" bump-bump sound.)
All Hail the New Guy
As I was snapping photos during pre-game warmups, it slowly dawned on me that the Rush's normal kicker, Mike Salerno, was not the guy warming up. Instead, it was someone wearing No. 18 on his jersey with no name on the back. I watched him kick several times, and he seemed to be doing just fine, but when I already had a suspicion that this was going to be a close game, it made me uneasy.
After the game started, I learned that the new guy's name was Nick Setta, a 6-foot-0 200-pounder out of Notre Dame, and that Salerno had suffered a hip injury of some sort. As the game wore on, Setta seemed to do just fine. His kickoffs were, for the most part, placed nicely (nine kickoffs, four touchbacks), and while he missed a 48-yard field goal attempt, it was a 48-yard field goal attempt. You try threading the needle of arena football goalposts from 48 yards out.
Most importantly, Setta was 8-of-9 on extra point attempts, and the kid was cool as a cucumber under tremendous pressure, drilling that eighth PAT with just four ticks left on the game clock to give the Rush their one-point victory.
All hail the new guy!
And new, he was. The reason he didn't have his name on the back of his jersey? He had just arrived in Chicago the day before, head coach Bob McMillen revealed in the post-game press conference, when Salerno determined that he was not going to be game-ready in time for kickoff.
High fives to Nick Setta.
I Am Ironman
I had "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath running through my head as I watched Kelvin Morris during the game. He started the game at his normal jack linebacker spot. Then, after DB Vic Hall crumpled into the wall on a play, folded himself in half backwards, and left the game with a lower back injury, the Rush had a problem. They had only dressed three defensive backs for the game, and one of them had just gotten hurt.
"No problem," said Morris (in my imagination). "I am Ironman."
Morris slid out to defensive back for several plays and did a fine job of covering Mustangs receivers. But he wasn't done. He also lined up at fullback, running the ball into the end zone from two yards out on one play.
Still not done, he lined up at wide receiver, too. Quarterback Russ Michna threw to him in the end zone, but it fell incomplete as Morris crashed into the boards. It took him a minute or two--most of which I spent sobbing uncontrollably, since Morris is one of my favorite players--to collect himself after the violent collision, but he was able to get back up, jog to the sideline, and return to the game. I saw him after the game, signing autographs for fans, so he appears no worse for wear. Whew!
I Am Also Ironman
Reggie Gray wasn't about to let Morris hog all the Ironman attention in Allstate Arena. He stepped up, too, after Hall's injury, and played some defensive back. For as tiny as Gray is (5-foot-10 and generously listed at 175 pounds on the Rush website), he had no issue with throwing his body at opposing receivers. His four tackles in the game ranked No. 2 on the team, and he even forced a fumble.
The only time I saw him bail on a play was when the Mustangs threw a little dump pass to OL Nick Torresso, 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds. As Torresso rumbled down the field with the ball, Gray--who was outweighed by at least 130 pounds--came across the field to meet him.
I was on the other end of the arena at the time, but I figure Gray must have heard me screaming, "NOOOOOOO!!!!" because he did his best impression of sliding into second base right in front of Torresso. Torresso simply hopped over him and scored on the play, but you know what? That's okay. I'd rather see the Mustangs put points on the board than watch Rosemont Police detectives draw a chalk outline around Gray's mangled body on the field.
Gray was also the team's kick returner, and afterwards, McMillen speculated that he had been on the field for about 90 percent of the game's plays. That sounds about right.
Three Can Play This Game
Gray and Morris weren't the only two Ironmen on the field for the Rush. Marquis Hamilton was actually named the Ironman of the Game. When Morris was playing defensive back, Hamilton slid into the jack linebacker position so seamlessly that I didn't even realize he had done so until McMillen mentioned it in the post-game presser. Sure enough, Hamilton registered 1.5 tackles on defense.
What I do remember is Hamilton's ridiculous touchdown reception late in the game. He caught a pass from Michna and was provided a one-way ticket over the wall by the defensive back. The turf is kind of bouncy and somewhat forgiving. The concrete on the other side of the wall? Not so much. Despite the crash landing, however, Hamilton held on to the ball, and it went up on the board as a touchdown. Fittingly, the play was named the Highlight of the Game.
Sounds of the Game: The Fans
In my never-ending quest to take some decent photos of game play (I failed, by the way), I tucked myself under the TV camera stand right on the goal line for most of the third quarter. The cameraman indicated to me that I wasn't in his way, and no one else seemed to care that I was there, so I just hunkered down for awhile to see what I could see.
It was actually what I heard while I was down there that I enjoyed the most. With nearly 8,000 fans in the house for a rivalry game, it was really loud down on the field. REALLY loud. I don't get the full sense of it from the press box--up top, higher than any seats--but when all 8,000 of those mouths are pointed at the field and hollering during a tight game between two fierce rivals ... wow! Very cool!
It was also interesting to watch the dynamics between fans, players, and referees. One fan in particular was just a few feet from me in his front row seats, and was doing his darndest to make the referees see all the penalties that were being committed against the Rush on any given play but that weren't being called. He wasn't being profane by any stretch of the imagination, but he had a set of lungs on him, that's for sure, and you'd have thought that he hated every fiber of those refs' beings.
But in between plays, one referee would occasionally come up to the fan and jokingly ask, "How did we do on that series?" The two would share a laugh as if they were on neighboring bar stools at the local watering hole. Then, when gameplay started back up, the fan was right back at it, screaming at the refs on every play. It was fun watching the dynamic play out.
The players could certainly hear him, too. As the defense took the field after a kickoff, the fan was screaming, "I want that ball, defense! You get me that ball!" A few of the Rush defenders promised the fan that they would do their best to grant his wish. It was a player-fan interaction that is unique to arena football, and I loved it.
Sounds of the Game: The Gameplay
One of the most memorable sounds of the game was when the Mustangs attempted an onside kick right in front of where I was perched. There was a crashing sound that gave me goosebumps as a bunch of guys weighing at least 250 pounds a piece ran full speed into each other, colliding head-on. I can't even describe it. It was more than just pads popping. It was a loud, violent, full-bodied crunching sound that you just have to be there to experience for yourself.
After the play, as most of the players jogged to the sideline as if nothing had just happened, one guy was left on the field, dragging himself up on his hands and knees, desperately trying to collect all of his smashed body parts, regain his senses, and limp off behind the boards. It was the 5-foot-9, 185-pound kicker for Milwaukee, Ryan Gates. He had somehow gotten himself positioned right at the point of impact, and he paid the price for it. He returned to the game, but I'm guessing he's going to be pretty sore for a few days.
Defensive back Brandon Freeman is quickly becoming one of my favorite players. In my preview of this game--which you can read here, if you so desire--I mentioned that Freeman is quietly putting together a very nice season so far. My opinion of him was only bolstered by his performance on Saturday night.
When Hall went down to injury, Freeman immediately stepped up as the leader of the defensive backs. He was all over the field, collecting a team-high 9.5 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss. Even on plays in which he didn't make the tackle, he was often about a step away, ready to lay the finishing blow if the tackler needed assistance.
He cracks me up with his humorous poses when he sees my camera pointed at him, and participating in the post-game press conference, he was very articulate, intelligent, and humble. I'm going to have to make a point of learning more about No. 9.
Acts Cleaned Up
One last quick observation. The Rush did themselves in against Georgia last week with five turnovers. Against Milwaukee, they had none.
The Mustangs did themselves in against Spokane last week with 18 penalties for 98 yards. This week, they had eight flags for a total of just 38 yards.
Both teams cleaned up their acts, and both teams proved that last week's meltdowns were just one-game anomalies.
The author is a Featured Contributor in Sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and holds media credentials with the Chicago Rush and the Arena Football League. You can follow him on Twitter at @RedZoneWriting and on Facebook.