Like Carolina, Huntington is under new ownership this season and a new coaching staff. Both teams have started strong under the new regimes, and both teams are hoping to improve on seasons of 10-5 for the Heroes and 8-8 for the Speed. Both teams fell in the first round of the 2007 American Indoor Football League playoffs in 2007.
"This is not last year," Robinson likes to say to his players. In a story in Friday's Concord Independent, the former quarterback and first-time head coach feels like the team last season left a sour taste for fans in the area. He wants to change that. "Everything we bring to the table is all new," he said.
Last season, AIFA owners John Morris and Michael Mink started the team and then sold it to Baltimore businessman Richard Baker over the summer. Morris and Mink have since started another team in Baltimore with the plans to sell it as well, Baker said. Baker purchased the Speed with his wife, Linda, after Morris brought him in to gauge his interest in the investment. Baker was never a die-hard football fan, but was ready for a different type of business opportunity. He then brought in Cabarrus County resident Eddie Littlefield as a co-owner. For Baker, it's all business. He said the Charlotte region is a prime market for arena football and he wants to grow a team from 2,000 fans per game to sold-out seasons. "Hopefully, we'll grow to the point where we need to enhance this arena or, hopefully, look for a bigger arena," Baker said in the interview.
Huntington had a similar change after back to back ten win seasons, first at the Cabell County Memorial Field House then year two and three at the Big Sandy Superstores Arena in downtown Huntington. Former head coach Gary McPeek, citing responsibilities as a principal of a Kentucky high school, told former owner Greg Ramey he would not return in 2008. McPeek is working part-time for the Lexington (Ky.) Horsemen of the AF2, joining head coach Mike Harmon's staff on weekends only. Harmon is a former Marshall linemen, with players like John Cooper and Jamus Martin on the team in the secondary league of the Arena Football League.
While remaining in the AIFL as an executive, Ramey sold his interest in the Heroes just two weeks before the opener to Barbie Wood, the owner of Moe's Southwest Grill in Pullman Square in downtown Huntington. Keaton has pushed forward with the change affecting the on-field Heroes very little. Keaton won the AIFL title last season with Lakeland Florida and brought a number of those players to Huntington this year. Also, there are a number of players from the NIFL championship team, the Fayetteville (N.C.) Guard, who moved from the Heroes former league to the AIFL as well for 2008.
So far, so good for the Heroes. Wilmont Perry, a former Livingston College player and third-round selection of the New Orleans Saints who played in the "Big Easy" for the Saints for two seasons, then for Columbus in the AFL, Cape Fear (N.C.) in the AF2 and for Fayetteville in the NIFL for three years, has been an immediate success. Perry leads the league with 63.5 yards rushing per game and leads the league in scoring with six touchdowns in the two games. He rushed for over 3,000 yards and 78 touchdowns with the Guard in the NIFL.
Other instant "Heroes" have been Larry Thompson, who has three interceptions in two games including a 50-yard return for a touchdown last week to spark the Heroes 47-32 win over the Florence (S.C.) Phantoms. Thompson played for Lakeland last season and was an AIFL All-Star in 2007. Odell Willis, from the University of West Georgia and who played for the Spokane Shock in AF2, is averaging 7.5 tackles per game to lead the Heroes. He is second in the AIFL in sacks and third in tackles for loss with an average of 3.5 per game through two played.
Former members of the Thundering Herd on this year's Heroes includes starting offensive lineman Chris Barnes, defensive linemen Floyd Wright and Jamaal Whyce (who each started and played one game), and they are coached by defensive line coach Kevin Bruce, who played at Cabell Midland and Marshall. Dionte Wilson is also on the roster as a linebacker, but has not dressed in the first two games, and two-year linebacker for the Heroes from MU, Michael "Kool-Aid" Owens, is rumored to be joining the team in an administrative roll.
Game time on March 29 for the Heroes at the Speed is 7 p.m., or following the end of the Marshall-Memphis baseball doubleheader (which starts at Noon Saturday) from Appalachian Power Park, and all of that action will be heard on ESPN 930-AM in Huntington. A podcast of each game is available at www.wrvc.am on the web, as the first two games featured Jason Toy and then Eliot Parker on the play-by-play action. ESPN 930 is also the spot for the NCAA Tournament, the NIT semi-finals (with Ohio State and Florida both playing Tuesday night) and finals and the opening game of the 2008 Major League Baseball season on Sunday night at 7:35 p.m. The Atlanta Braves will travel to the new Washington Nationals ball park in Washington, D.C., and President Bush will throw out the first pitch. Monday, it's the final opener for Yankee Stadium when the Toronto Blue Jays visit the "House That Ruth Built," which will be replaced with a new Yankee Stadium next season. Game tiem is 1 p.m. on Monday on ESPN 930-AM in Huntington.