The Utah Blaze have done a little bit of everything this season.
The team reentered the Arena Football League after taking some time off; they endured hardships most teams can’t even fathom this season, and now, they have the best record in team history.
Yeah, Utah didn’t make the playoffs–two losses to Chicago and Spokane in previous weeks killed their chances–but so what?
It was still a great season, considering the odds the Blaze had to overcome, just to get to the point where they could still compete for that ever-elusive playoff berth.
And, in the team’s home finale Saturday night on Tim Dahle Field in the EnergySolutions Arena, the Blaze upended the woeful New Orleans VooDoo 62-58.
Utah (8-9) was down by as many as 18 points before they roared back in the final quarter.
44-year-old AFL veteran Todd Hummel took time off from work–he was just signed by Utah a few weeks ago–and acted like being back in the league was no big deal.
The Blaze quarterback coolly led his new team down the field in the final 38 seconds, capped by a 5-yard-toss to Chris Bocage in the back of the end zone with just eight seconds left.
At that point, Utah still had a shot at making some history by becoming the first Blaze team to make the AFL playoffs.
Things just didn’t work out in the Blaze‘s favor; one time zone away and about 45 minutes later, the Spokane Shock scored a 36-yard touchdown on a Hail Mary bomb with just three seconds left to win a thriller over San Jose, 63-61 and eliminate the Blaze from playoff contention.
Consider for a moment what the Blaze have been through, and you realize that sometimes, just missing out on something big may not necessarily be describing the big picture.
For the Blaze, Hummel threw for 366 yards and six touchdowns, a fine day at the office for any Arena League QB. Aaron Lesue, a Utah State product, had 116 yards receiving and Bocage added a kick return touchdown to his big night.
In all, it was one win on one night, but the victory also signified a complete triumph over many losses that the team went through during this 2011 season.
It surely has been a series of mishaps and injuries for Utah, who lost their starting quarterback, ex-Ute Tommy Grady, just as the team was becoming a force in the league.
Grady was just beginning to make a real name for himself in the AFL after spending two years in af2, Arena Football’s minor leagues.
Losing Grady was so great, so profound, that it took the Blaze weeks to get over not having their best player in the lineup, and focus enough to charge towards a possible first playoff berth.
But, it wasn’t just Grady whom the Blaze lost; Utah also watched a future AFL Hall of Fame wide receiver in Aaron Boone go down and not come back. Linebackers DeWayne Patterson and Ryan Blaszczyk and defensive lineman TJ Raymond–critical to the Blaze‘s success early–also went down with injuries.
By the time Utah played its final home game, eight players were on injured reserve, and all the injuries forced the Blaze to pick up the phone and call players like Hummel, a schoolteacher in his native Texas.
Couple that madness with having to play “arena football” on an outdoor field in Spokane earlier this summer, and this could be the wackiest, most unlikely professional sports story to hit Utah since who knows when.
And that’s not even the half of it.
Not one of these individuals actually plays football full-time; all work as teachers, personal trainers, accountants and then put in their blood, sweat and tears as part-time, pigskin warriors on weekends.
Sure, they play for money, but the AFL is not the NFL, nor is it even the XFL, the much ballyhooed, often ridiculed outdoor sister of the NFL that plays its games in the summertime.
No, this is real arena football at its finest, played in basketball palaces, on fields half as long as one you’d see at Invesco Field in Denver. A giant net at each end of the arena tells you this is AFL’s end zone, and cushy dash boards splattered with sponsor logos signify you went out of bounds.
It’s fast and it’s violent, and it’s a hit in basketball arenas, where hockey meets the hardwood, and joins at the hip with crazed fans pumping their fists in red, spiked hairdos that only Medusa would appreciate, and it all comes down to the artificial turf surface that would tear up most good knees.
And, on this night, and with so much to play for beyond the actual score, over 10,000 of these crazed, but pleased fans showed their appreciation to their team on this God-forsaken, unforgivable turf and welcomed back a Saturday night summer staple that hopefully doesn’t disappear anytime in the near future.