Finally Ready for TakeoffMay 01, 2021 ● By Stephen Hunt
Last March, the Frisco Fighters completed pre-flight preparations, taxied down the runway and were ready to takeoff on the team’s inaugural Indoor Football League season at Frisco’s Comerica Center. However, like many sports nationwide, the Fighters saw its season opener – and entire season – scrubbed. But, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Fighters are back in 2021, set to open its inaugural season May 15 against the Spokane Shock. The team’s home opener is scheduled June 5 against the Duke City Gladiators from Albuquerque, New Mexico – a date the Frisco players have circled on their calendars.
“It’s amazing, especially when you take into consideration everything that’s taken place over the past 365 days. It’s just a great feeling,” said Jonathan Bane, the Fighters’ quarterback who is a holdover from 2020. “For a lot of us guys, that’s the longest break we’ve taken from football. We’re really juiced up and ready to get out there and put the product that we’ve been talking about for a year on the field for the community to enjoy.”
Looking back, Bane views 2020 with a glass-half-full mentality, an opportunity for him and his teammates to hone their skills and become extra familiar with the Fighters’ playbook. “I almost treated it as an extended off-season – just an opportunity of trying to put the best you on the field,” he said. “That’s how our whole team treated this pandemic and off-season. This was an opportunity to dive into our playbook, break it down to the smallest degree and when we hit camp, we hit the ground running. We’re not having to relearn the little things. We’re picking up where we left off.”
Fighters President and General Manager Stephen Evans, who has been with the organization from day one, is equally excited to see their inaugural season finally commence. “It’s certainly a range of things. You could say it’s a relief, a long time coming,” he said. “We have high expectations. We were ready last year though, and it didn’t happen. That was extremely disappointing, but we made it a positive and not a negative. We did a lot of things in the community to get our name out and let people know who we are. When we kick off this year, it’ll certainly be a lot of frustration, disappointment and excitement that all comes out at once.”
One reason the Fighters remain in existence in 2021 is because of how the team handled the cancellation of what was supposed to be its first season. Instead of lamenting their fate, team ownership and management opted for a different strategy. Radio advertisements on local ratings juggernaut SportsRadio 1310 The Ticket continued even after the season was called off, and the Fighters remained active in the community, meeting various requests submitted by local residents.
Fighters coaches, players and staff delivered meals for Meals on Wheels of Collin County and visited local elementary schools and senior-care facilities. They also built a deck for a local resident who had moved into a new house with his wife, only to receive a terminal cancer diagnosis. Since he had already purchased materials for the deck, the Fighters stepped up and built it.
“We drew on our values. Certainly, we knew that if our message went silent, we would be easily forgotten because we were brand new,” said Dave Whinham, president and CEO of The TEAM Management, LLC, the company that runs the Fighters as well as the Columbus (Ohio) Wild Dogs and the IFL’s business division. “But we also saw that problem as an opportunity to help out in the community. I think that was very well received. We responded to a lot of requests.”
Being able to continue getting out into the community was a big silver lining for players like Bane, a native of Temple, Texas. The lanky quarterback remembers visiting several elementary schools pre-pandemic to read to kids and present awards to them for books the students had written. He also fondly recalls the Fighters doing community events during the pandemic. “We’ve been a little bit everywhere … trying to make sure everybody (was) taken care of during those times,” he said. “Those of us that could get out during that time, it was a good feeling to be able to help out. It’s a good feeling to help when you can.”
The Fighters organization is one that knows the value of being active and making a difference in the community, but also recognizes that doing so will help the franchise solidify a dedicated following of fans in Frisco and surrounding areas.
“It’s all about giving back to the community and taking care of the people that take care of you. We do a good job here of getting out in the community, staying active and promoting our brand,” Bane said. “This is a new thing coming to Frisco. There hasn’t been anything like the Frisco Fighters in this area and we want to show that we’re different. We’re here to stay and we’re going to put a good product on the field that everybody’s going to be proud of and want to be a part of.”
Indoor Football 101
The Fighters aren’t the first indoor football team to call Comerica Center home. The Frisco Thunder, of the now-defunct Intense Football League, played there in 2007 and 2008 before folding. The Frisco Falcons, of the Lone Star Football League, were scheduled to play at Comerica in 2012 but also folded. Most recently, the Texas Revolution, of Champions Indoor Football, played there and was slated to play at the Ford Center in 2019 before canceling games and eventually ceasing operations. Prior to last season, the Fighters reached out to former Revolution season ticket holders and offered them season tickets.
What makes indoor football special? The game was invented in 1981 by a former National Football League executive. The Arena Football League, which began play in 1987, has since folded several times and been revived. The biggest difference is that the indoor game is played on a 50-yard field, half the size of a typical surface. The smaller field helps facilitate more high-scoring games and creates a more intimate atmosphere – one where fans can hear coaches and players call plays, and participants can hear every cheer or catcall from those in the stands. Also, the IFL has fewer rules than other indoor leagues about what defenses can do, making its rules closer to those of college football.
“Players are [still] going to be knocked into the first or second row. We’re still working on what we’re going to do postgame because usually we have all players on the field for autographs after the game,” Evans said. “We’re still working on that, but there will definitely be ways for fans to engage with our players both in the arena and in the community.”
Besides postgame autograph sessions with the players and community appearances, fans will also get to keep any stray footballs that sail into the stands – the ultimate keepsake from their trip to a Fighters game.
Frisco is set to play a 14-game regular season through mid-August. Tickets for any of the seven scheduled home games at Comerica Center start at $20, and season tickets start at $136.
The Fighters realize the other sports franchises in Frisco – including the Double-A Frisco Roughriders of the Central League, and FC Dallas of Major League Soccer, which also play during the summer months – already have their own fanbases. However, this team will offer something the others can’t: indoor entertainment during the hottest months of the year. Also, the Fighters will play home games with every seat available at Comerica Center. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty out there in the market. We’re a small business just like many of these Frisco businesses,” Evans said. “(People are) figuring out what to spend, at what time and going back into an arena.
“We’re playing full capacity this year – probably the only team that is playing at full capacity all year. It will take some people longer than others to adopt going back inside, but we’re in the middle of the summer, too. In Texas, it’s hard to stay outside all day and not want to come in. We’re the only sport in that arena this year. Some people just want to come inside. ... We can offer them opportunities to have family fun and watch a victory.”
A Few Familiar Faces
The Fighters organization has ensured local football fans know who they are through several high-profile people affiliated with the team. Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, is the Fighters’ chief relationship officer.
Evans and the coaches also made it a point to find as many players as possible with local ties – names that area football fans remember from either their time starring at a local high school, an area college or, in some cases, both. “We’ve gotten some local guys that people know. People know their names,” Evans said. Their player pool also includes players from the Xtreme Football League, which folded last spring, and the Canadian Football League, which is uncertain about whether it will play its 2021 season due to COVID-19 protocols north of the border.
No matter where they come from, or the fact that about half of his roster is new compared to 2020, Evans felt good about the roster that he and the organization had assembled heading into the start of the training camp and season. “We’ve definitely gotten better for sure. We’re not going to have (Devonte) Turpin (from Texas Christian University) back with us, but Johnathan Gray who was at Aledo, Jerrod Heard who was at Denton Guyer for three championships, (and) Charles Walker, who played defensive tackle at (the University of) Oklahoma (will be).” Gray “was running track recently professionally, and he’s training kids in Fort Worth, but he wants one more shot at trying to get back,” Evans said. “Heard was a receiver in the XFL. He just wants another shot to play quarterback. We’re giving him a shot, and we’ll see what happens.”
Evans said having recognizable players will help get new fans in the door for the first time because they remember them from their former stops and want to see them play again. After that, it’ll be up to the Fighters to rope them in and make them fans.
Besides talent, the other mitigating factor that Evans and the organization wants to see in its players is a strong love for the game – something that isn’t a problem for Bane and his teammates.
“We’re not millionaires out here. We do this for the love of the game, an opportunity to continue playing and use it as a platform to move up to a different level,” Bane said. “It just means a lot to guys like myself and this team to have this opportunity to be back because it was taken away from us” by the pandemic. “You don’t realize until it’s gone how much it means to you and how much work you put in. It’s a different feeling now, definitely.”
Both the Frisco Fighters’ first game in Spokane and first home contest against Duke City will be a long time coming for the organization, especially for the coaches and players. “It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Bane said. “I think everybody’s excited for it, and it’s going to make for a good year.”
Stephen Hunt is a Frisco-based freelance writer and fan of indoor football.