Arena ball gets Maryland flavor Local group helps Albany into playoffs

August 06, 1993|By Tim Leonard | Tim Leonard,Contributing Writer

ALBANY, N.Y. -- A few minutes after the Albany Firebirds had beaten the Cincinnati Rockers, 50-9, three players gathered in the trainer's room at Knickerbocker Arena, joined hands and began to sing their fight song, the one that ends, "M-A-R-Y-L-A-N-D, Maryland will win."

It wasn't an immediate hit with their teammates.

The protestations grew loud well before the trio of Terrapins had finished the refrain.

Mitch Suplee, John Kaleo and Marcus Badgett aren't at the University of Maryland anymore, though some of their teammates on the Arena Football League team probably had heard the song before. The Firebirds' state of Maryland connection includes Rodney Smith, a Poly graduate who finished second in career tackles at Towson State; lineman Don Thompson, a native of Freeland; offensive coordinator Mike Hohensee, former head coach of the AFL's Washington Commandos in 1990; and defensive coordinator Mike Dailey, an assistant with the Commandos. Hohensee and Dailey had coached at Montgomery College-Rockville, where Hohensee was Kaleo's quarterback coach.

"We have things in common and we know the same places," Smith said.

Another common bond between the players is none wanted to be in the AFL. To a man, each believes he could play in the NFL or at least the CFL. The indoor league affords them the chance to keep playing and maybe get noticed.

Kaleo was cut in preseason by the CFL's Sacramento Gold Miners. Suplee, an offensive lineman, said he expected to be a mid- to late-round selection in the 1992 NFL draft, but the phone never rang. Badgett didn't get much of a look in NFL scouting combines because he still was recovering from an ankle sprain and didn't test well. The wide receiver wasn't willing to give up the game, especially when he heard a couple of old friends were in town.

"When they called and said John was here, I could hear it in the back of my mind -- 'Kaleo to Badgett.' That was a reason for coming here," Badgett said. "I felt kind of at home when I walked in and saw John and Mitch."

Kaleo is the focal point of the group, having known all but Smith

and Thompson before coming to Albany.

Suplee already was a member of the Firebirds when Kaleo and Badgett teamed to smash Maryland's passing and receiving records last season. Kaleo completed 286 of 482 passes for 3,392 yards and 17 touchdowns. Badgett caught 75 passes for 1,240 yards and nine touchdowns in the run-and-shoot offense.

This season, Kaleo's first AFL start was the lopsided victory over Cincinnati. The rookie started Albany's final three regular-season games, and will start tonight when the Firebirds play the Tampa Bay Storm in the first round of the playoffs. Kaleo has completed 67 of 132 passes for 690 yards and eight touchdowns. Badgett has 19 catches for 272 yards and four touchdowns.

Smith, a running back/defensive lineman, began his AFL career while the others were in college. After finishing his career at Towson State in 1989, he tried out for the Commandos.

"I did it as a joke," he said. "I figured it was a half-hour away from home and it could be a summer job. And I'm still doing it. A lot of people are doing something they don't like. I'm doing something I like."

Smith likes it so much, he has moved to Albany and found a full-time job as a child care worker at the Parsons Center, a group home for emotionally handicapped children. He just completed his best regular season, leading the Firebirds in rushing (108 yards) and sacks (5).

"Rodney is the ideal Arena Football player; he can play every position on the field," said Firebirds head coach Rick Buffington.

The AFL began in 1987. The eight-a-side game is played on a 50-yard artificial turf field that covers a hockey rink.

"I always get crazy questions," Smith said. "People ask, 'Is it semipro?' 'Do you wear shoulder pads?' All I know is I'm getting paid to play."

Not much, though. AFL players receive a standard $500 per week, with a $150 bonus for each victory.

"A lot of people think this is a joke," Suplee said. "I thought it was a joke until I got here. If this was a joke and easy, why isn't everybody doing it?"

Not everybody is. It just seems like everybody from Maryland is.

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