September 22, 2014

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A dazzling Arena Football League debut: Cleveland Gladiators’ offensive onslaught wows fans, slays Dragons

CLEVELAND — The game began with a bang. Then there was another, and yet another.
The Arena Football League has brought its high-scoring product to Cleveland and the Gladiators kicked off their inaugural season at Quicken Loans Arena with a 61-48 victory over the New York Dragons.
“We came in and got a win in our opener in Cleveland,” Gladiators coach Mike Wilpolt said. “That was big for us … very important.”
The excitement began immediately as Gladiators quarterback Raymond Philyaw brought the near-sellout crowd to its feet by lofting a 37-yard bomb down the right sideline to a wide-open Andy McCullough, who simply spun around and walked into the end zone.
“It was nice to start the game off with a big play like that,” Philyaw said. “I went over to the sideline after the touchdown and I was still shaking.”
Philyaw, an offseason free-agent signee, had a strong Cleveland debut, completing 18 of 23 passes for 240 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
His favorite target was another offseason signee, second-year receiver Otis Amey, who finished with seven catches for 101 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“He’s my go-to guy,” Philyaw said. “We made him my go-to guy in training camp. We have a lot of plays in our book that run through him.”
Things didn’t go so smoothly during pregame festivities, as U.S. Army Sgt. Christopher Allen had to switch microphones when the first kept shorting out during his singing of the national anthem.
But the act actually proved to be a positive for the Cleveland players as 17,391 fans began to belt out the lyrics.
“When the mic was messing up and the crowd started singing it … that was unbelievable,” Philyaw said. “A lot of guys got amped up just because of that.”
One of those “amped guys” was veteran fullback Marlion Jackson, who rushed seven times for 62 yards, including a rare-for-the-AFL 32-yard touchdown to help the Gladiators take the lead for good in the third quarter. Jackson also caught one pass and turned it into a 6-yard touchdown.
“I try to do things that are unexpected, but in a good way,” Jackson said when asked about the long TD. “Yeah, it’s nice to get a touchdown in the first game, but I really just want to do my part in helping the team get a victory.”
Not that the Gladiators simply blew the Dragons off the field. New York managed seven touchdowns of its own, and even took a short-lived 35-33 lead early in the third quarter.
“There are some things we need to clean up still,” Wilpolt said. “But it’s a win in our first game ever in Cleveland, so we’ll take it.”
The overwhelming theme of the postgame interview sessions was the thunderous crowd, which exploded when minority owner, president and CEO Bernie Kosar gave a thank you at midfield before the game began.
“I’ve never played a home game in the AFL where the crowd was like that,” Jackson said. “I looked up to the very top and I don’t think there was an empty seat. All I can say is — thank you, Cleveland.”

Notes

Former Ohio State fullback Jamar Martin (1998-2001) is a member of the Dragons, but failed to report to the team after being traded during the offseason by the New Orleans Voodoo. The former Buckeye played three seasons in the NFL for Dallas, Miami, New Orleans and the New York Jets.
Dragons quarterback Aaron Garcia, the AFL’s all-time passing touchdown leader, missed the end of last season due to a leg injury, and he didn’t make it through the first half Monday night after spraining his right knee.
There were a few representatives from Cleveland’s other football team on hand for the Gladiators’ debut. Browns linemen Joe Thomas and Shaun Smith took part in an on-field promotion, and return specialist Josh Cribbs was seated in the front row.
The Gladiators lead the all-time series with the Dragons, 5-3.
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or sbennett@chroniclet.com.