On the road with the Heroes
CANTON — The marquee on the Big Sandy Arena advertised an Aug. 25 concert featuring Willie Nelson. It couldn’t have been more appropriate for the Huntington Heroes.
The American Indoor Football Association team was loading its bus early Thursday in preparation for a long playoff road trip to Canton to face the defending champion Legends. You could almost hear Nelson singing, “On The Road Again.”
Several players such as Shane Holsinger had class at Marshall and left later in the day by car. Michael Owens was working and also drove on his own.
But the other players, coaching staff, trainers and support staff boarded the Trailways bus for the four-hour trip. Ride along and see how the team spent its long day.
Players and coaching begin arriving. They load their travel bags, eat breakfast and talk.
Offensive lineman Nate McPeek loads his travel bag and laments about center Luke Salmons not making the trip due to a graduate class he can not miss if he wants to pass the course.
“I’m going to be missing my buddy Luke,” says McPeek.
Coach Garry McPeek stops to talk with quarterback and assistant coach Dane Damron. Owner Greg Ramey arrives to see the players off. He’ll drive to the game later.
The bus begins its trip, driving out Hal Greer Boulevard to I-64.
“This could be a good bus ride with (linebacker) Charlie (Tynes) riding with (wide receiver) Shane (Holsinger). It’ll be quiet,” said coach McPeek with a chuckle. “I thought it was the Montel Williams Show last week. He talked non-stop for five hours.”
“Any more biscuits?” Nate McPeek asks.
Offensive lineman Chris Barnes smacks one of the three video screens trying to get the picture to stop rolling.
“This TV is awful,” said Barnes.
“This is an every week occurrence,” said Nate McPeek.
The bus heads to Charleston. Defensive back Daveoin Smith gets out his iPod and leans over to Ryan Walker who covers the team for The Ironton Tribune.
“You ought to see this picture right here. It’s a really nice picture,” said Smith who smiles because it is a picture of him in action with the Heroes.
The movie “300” plays on the video screens. Injured quarterback Ramon Robinson talks on his cell phone. Barnes lays down in the aisle and sleeps.
Robinson leans back in a seat repaired by duct tape, but the tape is no match and breaks again. Robinson tries to re-tape the seat, then begins talking about all the great athletes like Stephen Smith and Tim Montgomery who came from South Carolina.
“He’s always telling us about South Carolina,” said assistant coach T.J. Maynard.
“I have to brag. It’s my home state. And besides, you can’t argue the facts,” said Robinson.
Rest stop in Marietta. Barnes wakes up to leave the bus.
“I like the floor better than the seats,” said Barnes.
Everyone is back on the bus and it starts back up I-77.
As the bus gets closer to Canton, Robinson borrows a pen and some paper to fill out a pass list. Although there are not many names, the list does include Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James and the members of the Dukes of Hazzard: Luke, Bo, Jesse, and Daisy.
The bus crosses the Canton city limits sign. Highway construction slows traffic. The bus gets off a ramp and winds through the streets to the Canton Civic Center. A courier truck is parked in the way and makes for a tight squeeze as the bus enters the parking lot.
Players and coaches help unload the bus. Next is lunch in the locker room. Pasta is the main course with cookies, Gatorade, water, and diet soda available.
Players begin to lay around on the field and talk until it is time to dress.
Trainer Gary McIlvain, a teacher at Marshall University, and Jennifer Bayes of the Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital Vitality Center begin taping players.
Legends begin to arrive in the arena. They dress early for a team photo.
“I guess they’re all ready taking their championship team photo,” said coach McPeek.
Owens arrives and gets taped. The trainer asks him how his ankles feel.
“It’s healed up now, but the first time I don’t do it …” said Owens.
Players begin to make their way to the field to stretch and throw.
Players return to the locker room to prepare for the team warm-up.
“It’s all about blocking and tackling now,” said coach McPeek.
Alton Blizzard and Robinson meet on the stairways to the locker room.
After a brief exchange, Robinson tells Blizzard, “Seriously, I need some productivity.”
“All right,” Blizzard assures Robinson.
The Heroes got back to the field to start the game. After taking a 4-0 lead, they fall back 15-4, then regroup and trail 29-21 at the half.
“We’re right there. We’ve got to get three stops and we win the football game,” coach Maynard said. “Four or five would be great. Refuse to be blocked.”
On the other side of the locker room, coach McPeek tells the offense a similar story.
“We’re fine. We’re right in it. There’s 30 minutes left. Lay it all on the line,” said coach McPeek.
The Heroes kick off to start the second half. Down just 50-43 late in the third quarter, turnovers begin to take their toll and the Legends pull away.
The Heroes lose 76-43. The season is over.
Players begin to load the bus, but defensive lineman Chris Terrell is looking for coach McPeek.
“Find coach. Don’t lose him. He’s got our checks,” said Terrell.
Coach McPeek stands outside the bus and passes out checks to the players, then boards the bus for the final time.
The bus leaves the Canton Civic Center parking lot and heads home. “Cinderlla Man” plays on the video screen. Most players are asleep. There is no rest stop.
The bus stops outside the Big Sandy Superstore Arena. Everyone starts to leave the bus.
“If you see any trash around you, pick it up, please,” said coach McPeek.
Everyone begins to disperse to their cars. All is dark and quiet.