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Portland Thunder pre-game with choppers

Portland Thunder pre-game with choppers

Arena Football?

Have you seen a game on television? Been to one in person? Saturday night I did both.

It started weeks earlier with an announcement. Free tickets for sports writers to the Portland Thunder. So far, so good.

Oregon Sports News anchor Brad Stein made it happen. He knows the team, the players, and his way around the Moda Center.

He’s not only a good sports fan, he understands what makes athletes tick. And he knows press row.

Any questions about arena football were answered right away. The crowd was up. Super fans showed up in costumes too wild for Halloween.

Kids were charged and cheering for their favorite players. The Moda was firing on all cylinders.

So what’s the problem? Some history.

This fan was inside the Rose Garden/Moda Center for the first Blazer game ever played, Portland vs Vancouver Grizzlies. Since then some names have changed.

I was inside for Michael Jordan’s last trip to Portland. Unfortunately I was in the parking lot near the end because the Blazers had the game in hand and I beat the drowd. That’s where I heard the radio broadcast from buses. Michael Jordan did a Jordan thing and beat the Blazers at the end.

Lesson to learn? Don’t leave until the final bell.

For new readers, the Portland Thunder are not world-beaters like the Bulls, and the AFL is a far cry from the NBA even though they share a building.

Portland Thunder Fun Time

Portland Thunder Fun Time

Saturday was fan appreciation night, the last game of the regular season. To celebrate, the Thunder invited a mini-police car from Tualatin and a squadron of Harley riders onto the floor.

The bikers ought to be headed for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, but they did a rev-up in the Moda instead.

What do twenty rapped out hogs sound like indoors? The better question is what do they smell like.

To recreate the experience, borrow lawn mowers from five neighbors, remove the mufflers, and start them in your living room. There’s the noise, the smell, and a sense of what the hell. No one enjoys being gassed, but it’s part of the game.

From Harleys, to a troop of cheerleaders, to the player intro set-up in a corner tunnel, the Thunder laid it all out Saturday.

Some players ran into the arena between cascading torrents of sparks you don’t see this side of a space launch. Others trotted out between the sort of flames reserved for a KISS concert, or Pink Floyd’s airplane crash in The Wall.

Thunder and lightning inside the Moda Center.

Thunder and lightning inside the Moda Center.

It was visual and visceral, though no one panicked and ran for the exits.

The thrill of the game, the end of the season, or a chance to lay a lick on the Spokane Shock, forced Portland to come out in their best Ray Lewis impersonations.

If Mr. Lewis could hear one thing it would be, “Ray, ask everyone not named Ray Lewis to stop coming out of the tunnel with a River Dance routine. That, and don’t stand around during a murder.”

Okay, two things.

From press row the intro-spectacle was a showstopper. It doesn’t get any better, whether it’s a Las Vegas show in the big room, or an All-Star game.

How would the team respond to their cheering crowd?

Darron Thomas, former Oregon Duck great, started for the Thunder while their #1 quarterback took the night off since they were already locked into the playoff picture.

The playoffs for a 5-13 team seems odd, but that’s the AFL.

Who else that night wondered why Thomas went undrafted by the NFL? Could it be his throwing motion? Shades of Tim Tebow showed up.

Seeing the next Kurt Warner would have been nice, but the greatest quarterback in AFL history isn’t walking through the Moda Center doors anytime soon.

Before you make a decision on the Thunder and the AFL, keep this in mind: they play for keeps.

The hits are very real, the injuries just as devastating. Knees bending against the joint are just as crippling here as they are with the Seahawks.

The NFL isn’t the only place to get a head injury.

Think of it like this: the Thunder are a pro team in a pro league, not semi-pro. These guys still have a chance to move up to the dream of bright lights, big city.

Since Portland isn’t an NFL city, Thunder players on the way up have to move from our little piece of heaven known as one of the world’s best cities.

With an NFL average salary around $2 million a year, and the AFL collective bargaining agreement paying under $1000 per game, moving up would be easy.

Some AFL players make ends meet by working other jobs during the season, and off-season, the way NFL guys did in the beginning of their league. They do what it takes to keep playing.

Sports sink a deep hook into both participants and fans. None of us can leave it alone, whether reliving our own glory days, betting on games, or just looking for something competitive.

Coaches have big dreams, so do players, and they stay strong to achieve them. Fans are the burden they carry on game day.

Our dreams are laden with the sort of weight that send others to therapy.

Instead, we have a team.

Do you have a team? You should.

About David Gillaspie
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