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Viva la Revolution!

by Ogi Overman

photos by Kyle Rhines

As of Saturday, March 25 all is forgiven, all is forgotten. The questions have been answered, the accusations rendered moot, the rumors proven false. Today the skeptics are strangely silent, the naysayers not to be found, the finger-pointers eating their words.

Against what many had led us to believe as fact, let it now be said that the town of Greensboro, North Carolina, can ‘— and apparently will, if the first game is to set a precedent ‘— support indoor football.

The official head count stood at 8,012 last Saturday night, all to watch a sport probably eight thousand of them had never seen before. Sure, collectively they’d seen a million football games and thousands of arena football games, but not this particular brand of football. With rules unique to this eight-man game, it resembles true outdoor football more than the junked-up arena game, with its odd assortment of substitution restrictions and two-way-player mandates. But all most fans knew was that Greensboro had a team called the Revolution, that they played in the Coliseum, that starting at five bucks a head the price was right, and that it was Saturday night and time to get off the couch and do something a little out of the norm.

Sure, more than a few of these players and coaches have local ties, and friends, family, coworkers, and old schoolmates and teammates obviously turned out to cheer them on.

And Duke, which would’ve been playing on TV early Saturday evening had they beaten LSU, did not pose a conflict. Nor did Carolina, NC State or any other ACC basketball team. For hardcore ACC hoops fans, the Final Four was a non-event, March Madness a bittersweet memory.

The buzz on the street was that there was no buzz. ‘“Tournament Town’” has lately dominated the headlines and the water-cooler conversations. If anyone was talking football it was in hushed tones.

The Revolution started quietly. The team lost its season opener on the road to Osceola (Fla.) 43-0. The first home game was a chance at redemption.

The owner

A few days before the opening home game owner Tony Pewonski knew that the buzz had yet to be created, that he was playing second fiddle to basketball in this burg, and that the Revolution was a war that would not be won in a day.

Perhaps being a Marine helicopter gunner in Vietnam for 13 months does that to you. It’s all small stuff.

‘“We’re going to have to get a game under our belt before the community really embraces us,’” said Pewonski from the team office across the street from the Coliseum. ‘“Once basketball is over with, we’ll come out of our shell, and I hope people will start getting excited. I think that if people pay attention to us they’ll like what they see.’”

Pewonski, who owned four NIFL franchises before this one, is no stranger to the game. Surely he had more than a hunch that this thing would fly in Greensboro, right?

‘“What sets us apart from most sports teams, all actually, is that we understand we have to be in the entertainment business first,’” he affirmed. ‘“Our company really is a marketing company. We go out and make our sponsors better as a business and help them understand how to be better stewards of the charitable community. And third is football. We bring a patent on how you play the game. We bring an affiliation with the NFL, plus we bring a patented ‘Sports for Education’ program that allows us to give as much as $500,000 to local charities, using our sponsors to do so. Our job is to show our sponsors how we can get together to make the city better.’”

It was that desire to do charitable work that provided Pewonski his entry into the world of sports entrepreneurship. Although a CPA by profession, until eight or nine years ago his career had consisted primarily of buying and selling businesses. It was then that he started a charitable company called the American Veterans Traveling Tribute, which was a 70 percent-sized replica of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, DC that toured the country. Traversing the nation, he happened upon the NIFL and, having been a lineman for the Quantico Marines (which plays a college schedule) for three years, football remained his first love and he began making inquiries.

‘“The first thing I noticed about this league,’” said the Mansfield, Ohio native who’s lived the last 30 years in Lakeland, Fla., ‘“was its ‘Sports for Education’ program. I realized that would give me the opportunity to do some charity work in the cities. Then I met League President Carolyn Shiver, who told me of the need for the league to attract good, quality owners as it expanded. So it was a natural fit for me.’”

Last year, even as he sat on the league’s board of directors, served as liaison with the NFL and became head of expansion for the East Coast, his business dealings with some partners and employees of the Kissimmee (Fla.) Kreatures franchise soured. He flatly denies any financial misconduct, claiming a partner absconded with $150,000, and that the player making the claim of non-payment did not suit up and was therefore not entitled to any pay.

‘“I don’t owe anybody a dime,’” he said. ‘“I’ll answer any question anytime. I don’t have an open-door policy, I have a no-door policy.’” His office, in fact, has no door.

Although some, particularly among the blogosphere, claim that Pewonski was run out of Florida, he scoffs at the notion.

‘“We were already looking at three or four cities in North and South Carolina,’” he remarked. ‘“We knew the Coliseum here was looking for a tenant and we approached Matt [Brown] and the Coliseum people. We wanted it to work and be good partners, and we worked out a very fair lease that is good for both sides. It’s a well-structured lease where everybody wins. They have a $5,000 all-inclusive base, and once we hit over $20,000 the arena makes 20 percent. Then, after 2,000 people come in, we get a dollar a head. I can’t imagine a league anywhere not being happy with it.’”

Whether Pewonski is someday vindicated remains to be seen ‘— one game does not a season make. But already a huge burden has been lifted off the 58-year-old owner’s back. It doesn’t get much sweeter that getting a down-to-the-wire win in the home opener in front of a packed house.

The coach

While the owner may have exuded an air of calm, four days before the home opener head coach Mark Saunders was sweating bullets.

‘“I’m excited and nervous,’” smiled the coach from the principal’s office at Grimsley, where he is the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. ‘“I’ve coached at every level, and this is my dream job, to come home and coach in my own back yard. But at the same time, you’ve got to win. I really do think we can be competitive, though. We have some real talent out there, some real quality athletes.’”

Saturday’s 34-26 win over West Palm Beach gave him some breathing room.

‘“It was an overall team win,’” he commented, ‘“that’s what’s important. Everybody did what they had to do. The guys really played their hearts out.’”

The 45-year-old Winston-Salem native’s résumé is both lengthy and diverse. He’s coached at he professional level (Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles), college (NC A&T for eight years, Winston-Salem State, Illinois State, and the University of Virginia), and af2 (Rochester, where was also general manager).

‘“This is not a new experience for me,’” he said. ‘“At Rochester I was wearing a lot of hats, and my job here is twofold: to generate as much excitement as possible about this team and then delivering on those promises. It’s like inviting a lot of folks to dinner and then having to cook the dinner too.’”

A lot of folks walked away from that metaphorical supper table with full stomachs Saturday.

‘“There’s no telling just how good this team can be,’” he noted after his team’s first win. ‘“It’s only going to get better from here. We’ve got four or five guys who could be playing at a higher level next year. I’ve got one day to celebrate this win and then it’s back to work preparing for next week’s game against Dayton.’”

The players

A quick perusal of the Revolution roster reveals that this is anything but, as one skeptic claimed, ‘“a step above a barstool league.’” And any doubt was removed Saturday night when the popping of the pads could be heard above the din of 8,000 hearty souls in close confinement. Many of these guys come with solid collegiate credentials, perhaps evenly split between those out there for love of the game and those still chasing the dream of playing at a higher level. Anyone thinking these are a bunch of out-of-shape slobs or over’–the-hill wannabes is not only doing the athletes a grave injustice but is clearly showing their ignorance.

At $200 a game, all obviously have day jobs. Wide receiver Luther Bowen works at Blockbuster; linebacker Mitchell Jenkins teaches health and PE at Smith High School; fullback Willie Harris works for a German packaging firm; quarterback Jarred Hall is a banker. There are truck drivers, salesmen, construction workers, grad students’… a veritable cross-section of Americana. But come Saturday night they are one thing and one thing only: professional football players.

Quite a few have local connections, either as native sons or college heroes. Grimsley fans may remember the exploits of Willie Harris, Class of ’88, then an All-Conference wide receiver, now a workhorse fullback. Likewise, lineman Marcus Hood made waves around Dudley a few years back. Three played for A&T: punishing lineman Nick Davis, rock solid linebacker Joey Lance, and man-mountain Desmond Long (6-4, 305). Offensive lineman Ian Kirwan (6-1, 275) was a third team Div. III All-American at Guilford College, while linebacker Mitchell Jenkins was a standout at Greensboro College.

Several bring to the table major college experience. Lineman Aaron Holloway (6-2, 300) played at NC State, defensive lineman Kelvin Jones at Wake Forest, wide receiver Braxton Williams at Clemson and QB Jarred Hall at UNC. Farther from home, wide receiver and defensive end Ryan King was an All-American tight end at Indiana State.

Then there’s Tito. Unlike his teammates, Tito Wooten doesn’t have a day job, but rather stays at home and plays with his son Jordan, 3, and daughter Tyler, 7. His status as a stay-at-home dad was earned because he just became eligible for his pension this year. But how, one might ask, is a retiree still able to play football?

Well, he retired from the NFL.

Tito Wooten had a very nice eight-year career at the highest level, six with the New York Giants and two with the Indianapolis Colts. He was a free safety in the NFL and plays what is called a ‘“jack back’” in NIFL parlance. He typically lines up as a middle linebacker, calls defensive signals and is expected to defend against both the run and the pass. He is clearly the centerpiece ‘— but not the only piece ‘— of this team and knows it.

‘“I relish that role,’” he said after the final practice before the home opener, ‘“because most of these guys see this as their opportunity to get to that next level, and I’ve been to the grand stage. Being around it as long as I was, I consider myself a player-coach, and those that I see who really want it, I’ll pull them to the side and work with them on their technique as a defensive back or wide receiver.’”

Then the 34-year-old athlete broke into a grin and added, ‘“Of course, a lot of these young guys think they can outrun me, so I have to show them that the old man’s still got some wheels.’”

The game

Saturday’s contest started out anything but smoothly for the home team. The West Palm Beach Phantoms put two touchdowns on the board before the Revolution was able to mount any kind of offense. That changed when QB Jarred Hall, who’d missed the first game, was replaced by Donald Clark, who immediately connected with Luther Bowen and then found Braxton Williams in the end zone at 6:20 of the second quarter. Three minutes later the defense accounted for another score off a blocked field goal that was run in by Michael Posey. The two extra points by PJ Hance made it 14-12.

The Phantoms retook the lead with a quick strike on the next possession and then took momentum into the locker room on a leaping catch over two defenders in the end zone with only 18 seconds left, going up 26-14 at the half.

The team that came out for the second stanza barely resembled the one that had started the game.

‘“Early on I thought we played a bit tentative, but once they got out there they knew they could play better,’” said a visibly relieved Coach Saunders after the game. ‘“We just had to execute. At halftime I told them to forget about the bad things that happened and make your mark doing good things; just start over. The bottom line is these guys worked too hard not to be successful. Hopefully they can see how the hard work pays off by our second-half performance tonight.’”

The Revolution got started in earnest, scoring two plays into the second half on another pass from Clark to Williams. They took the lead on their next possession, on a 4-yard run by Willie Harris, and went up for good on the next series, a busted play that Clark turned into a TD plunge.

Having watched their lead evaporate, Palm Beach frustrations turned into a near melee on the ensuing kickoff. James Johnson was tackled by Greensboro’s Justin Baum and got up swinging. Both benches began crawling over the wall but cooler heads prevailed after a few moments of pushing and shoving. Both Johnson and Baum were ejected.

The game was not decided until the Phantoms’ final possession. After a completed pass on the one, the receiver tried to reach over the goal line but fumbled and the Revolution recovered and ran out the final 1:47. A TD and two-point conversion would have tied the game.

A few days before the game Coach Saunders had stated, ‘“You’ve not only got to win but you’ve got to look good doing it.’” After Saturday’s come-from-behind nail-biter, mission accomplished.

To comment on this story contact Ogi Overman at ogi@yesweekly.com.

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