You already know that former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel is about to debut with the Cleveland Browns. You may have heard that four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James is returning home to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But did you know that the longest-suffering metropolis in pro sports may be celebrating a championship before either Johnny Football or King James suits up for a regular-season game?
The ArenaBowl, the championship game for the Arena Football League, will take place on August 23rd and as of now the Cleveland Gladiators are the betting favorite – for the 13 people who wager on indoor football contests – to hoist the trophy. Last Saturday, the Gladiators pummeled the Jacksonville Sharks, 62-20, to improve to 16-1 and assure themselves of the league’s best record, with one game remaining. Cleveland will have home-field advantage at Quicken Loans Arena throughout the postseason, including the ArenaBowl, should it advance that far.
“Guys have been joking about the fact that we may be the ones to end the city’s championship drought,” says Gladiator kicker Aaron Pettrey, who played in two BCS national championship games while at Ohio State. “We would get a kick out of that.”
Fifty years have passed since the Browns won the NFL Championship Game in 1964, Cleveland’s last championship in professional baseball, basketball or football (nitpickers will note that the Cleveland Crunch, an indoor soccer franchise, won three titles in the 1990s). That’s the longest current drought for any city that has had at least two pro sports franchises in town since the Kennedy administration. Even Cleveland’s Lake Erie-bordering neighbor to the northeast have claimed a title more recently: the Buffalo Bills won the 1965 AFL Championship (and have an 0-4 record in the Super Bowl.)
That’s five decades of futility, but sports fans in Cleveland are suddenly buoyant. Manziel already has the NFL’s top-selling jersey even though he has yet to take a snap in a preseason game. The Cavaliers sold out their season-ticket allotment when James heralded his return, and his jersey will likely be the league’s top seller as soon as he decides on No. 6 or No. 23. The Gladiators do not have a top-selling player jersey, since the team only sells a “Blank Replica Jersey” without numerals.
The Arena Football League, where teams play eight to a side on a 50-yard field, is sort of a blank replica enterprise. Still, the Gladiators have seen their attendance swell from 10,255 in their home opener back in April to 13,064 last Saturday, a contest in which they held Jacksonville scoreless in the first half. In a league where the stingiest defense, that of the San Jose Sabercats, allows 40.0 points per game, a scoreless first half is almost as rare as a six-figure salary (most players earn less than $1,000 per game).
Despite that 16-1 record, emphatic wins are not the Gladiators’ style. Clevelanders of a certain age will recall the Kardiac Kids, the pseudonym for a 1980 Browns team that had four of its games decided in the final two minutes (two of them losses). The Gladiators, who have won three games on the final play and forced an overtime in a fourth, might make the folks at Alcoa rethink their “Fantastic Finishes” campaign.
On June 21, the Gladiators beat the Philadelphia Soul 69-68 on a Hail Mary from quarterback Shane Austin to Dominick Goodman (with a deflection) as time expired. Because this is the Arena League, let it be noted that 1) Philadelphia had just scored with :04 remaining 2) Austin hurled the ball from his own end zone to the opposite end zone and 3) it was his 11th touchdown pass of the game.
The only more Arena-ish finish of the season took place in Spokane on April 19. On that night Cleveland’s other quarterback, Chris Dieker, tossed the game-winning 29-yard TD pass on the final play into the arms of Thyrone Lewis--but not before the ball ricocheted off the back net, which is a legal play in Arena League. Gladiator football: Are you not entertained?
“We are having a fun year, and the camaraderie reminds me of college,” says Pettrey. The camaraderie, if not the time demands. Pettrey, who led the Big Ten in scoring as a senior in 2010, is a mortgage advisor in Columbus, Ohio, and does not attend practices. “I work a full-time job Monday through Friday and then suit up for games on the weekends,” says Pettrey, who practices at a high school near his home a couple of days per week. “People tell me I have a pretty good gig.”
The Gladiators may bring their long-forlorn Rust Belt city its first football championship since 1964, but they know their place in the pecking order. “We were boarding a connection flight from Houston to San Antonio when one of our offensive linemen, Chad Schofield, saw the news on his phone that LeBron was returning home,” recalls Pettrey of that landmark date in Cleveland sports history. “Chad’s from Cleveland. He was close to breaking down in tears.”