Lions steer clear of troubled franchises in AIF

Columbus Lions' John Harris makes the pass reception and races past Michigan's Deonte'  for the touchdown during the AIF championship game on June 18.
Columbus Lions' John Harris makes the pass reception and races past Michigan's Deonte' for the touchdown during the AIF championship game on June 18.

A perfect 11-0 season.

The franchise’s second straight indoor football championship and third since 2010.

Numerous players called up to the Arena Football League.

For all of the Columbus Lions’ accomplishments in American Indoor Football this year, perhaps an even bigger one was their ability to successfully navigate the troubles other teams in the league faced.

Consider this: Columbus, which announced earlier this week that it was leaving the AIF next month, was the only Southern Conference team in the AIF not to have a forfeited game on its schedule, either as a result of an opponent forfeiting or a team’s own forfeiture.

The Atlanta Vultures were the cause of six of those forfeited games. They failed to play a single home game at the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park due to unsafe turf conditions. Photos that circulated of Atlanta’s home field prior to their first scheduled game on March 20 against Savannah showed a patchwork of turf with no padding between it and the concrete floor of the convention center and unforgiving sideline barriers made of plywood. The game was not played due to the unsafe field, giving Savannah a 2-0 forfeit win. They failed to rectify the situation prior to their next scheduled home game against the Florida Tarpons, giving them a forfeit victory as well.

The Vultures played two “official” games, a 40-38 victory in Albany against the Georgia Firebirds on March 26 and a 65-8 loss in Columbus on April 9. The Vultures defeated the Savannah Steam 32-19 on the road April 17, but the league deemed Atlanta to have used illegal players; rather than resetting the score to the universal forfeiture score of 2-0, the AIF elected to simply flip the score around, giving the Steam a 32-19 victory. The Vultures folded soon after that game, giving a forfeit win to Central Florida and two forfeit wins to Myrtle Beach.

The other two intrastate rivals had their share of issues as well.

The Georgia Firebirds, based in Albany, recovered from an 86-0 opening loss to Columbus to have a respectable remainder of the season under head coach Antwone Savage, who was hired after the team fired D.J. Daniels in light of the blowout loss to the Lions. However, the Firebirds forfeited their last game of the season at Savannah on May 14 due to transportation issues. The loss gave them a record of 3-5 and actually vaulted the Steam ahead of them as the final playoff participant. Savannah played the “LZ Falconz,” a local semi-pro team, in place of the Firebirds, defeating them 72-0 just one week after the Steam dropped a 100-21 decision in Columbus. The win over the Falconz was noted as a regular-season game on the AIF website.

Meanwhile, the Steam have left a mound of unpaid debt, according to an investigation launched by Savannah television station WSAV. The team still owes the Savannah Civic Center nearly $20,000 in rent for three of its home games and the graphic design company that printed its in-arena signage well over $6,000, according to WSAV.

General manager Jenny Dammarell, the wife of head coach and owner Bobby Dammarell, filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy last month, the third time she has done so in the past four years, according to WSAV. She appeared in court in Chatham County and was booked into the jail there earlier this month on charges of deposit account fraud for the numerous bad checks she wrote to players and game operations staff, according to the report.

Despite the troubled seasons in both Atlanta and Savannah, AIF commissioner John Morris assured that the league does its homework before granting franchise ownership to individuals or groups.

“We do have a vetting process,” Morris said by e-mail. “We did verify that Atlanta had an arena deal in place. I cannot disclose why they decided not to continue the relationship; that would be up to the owner to discuss with you.”

The AIF’s problems this season extended far beyond the Peach State, however.

Fellow Southern Division member Central Florida canceled its final home game of the season against semi-pro Palm Beach on May 28.

The Harrisburg, Pa.-based Central Penn Capitals out of the Northern Division folded prior to their first playoff game at West Michigan. In its place, the league elected to send the Southern Conference’s third seed, the Myrtle Beach Freedom, while Savannah was named the new fourth seed and traveled to Florida for the first round, where the Tarpons dispatched them 71-20.

The New Mexico Stars, the only surviving AIF team from the league’s troubled Western Division, gave the Lions their toughest test all season. Columbus defeated them 49-37 in the first round of the playoffs on June 4 in both the smallest point total and lowest margin of victory for the Lions all season. As many as eight other teams were to be the Stars’ divisional rivals in the West. Expansion teams announced in Abilene, Austin, Richland Hills, and Rusk County, Texas; and Baton Rouge and Slidell, La., never played a single game in the league. The Corpus Christi (Texas) Fury played only one game against a fellow AIF team, actually defeating New Mexico 59-53 on April 4, and two other games against semi-pro teams prior to folding. The Pueblo, Colo.-based Steel City Menace played two road games after not securing a home arena, then folded in mid-April.

Despite all the setbacks in 2016, Morris says the future for the AIF is bright.

“We will be making some very exciting announcements over the next couple of weeks,” Morris said by e-mail. “On a personal note, my goal is to give the players and coaches an opportunity to continue playing football and living out their dreams as well as giving the fans a great experience. I know that as a result of the AIF being in operation, a lot of players have moved up to the next level over the last 10 years.

“This is why I continue to provide the AIF as a platform for the players. We will continue to work hard to help them achieve their dreams.”

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