After a 27-year hiatus, the Arena Football League returned to Washington, D.C. in high-octane fashion Friday night.
Those accustomed to seeing John Wall and Alex Ovechkin light up Verizon Center were introduced to new stars such as former AFL MVP Erik Meyer, 40-year-old TT Toliver, the league’s all-time leading receiver, and Mike Washington, who caught three first-half touchdowns in the Washington Valor’s 51-38 win over the Baltimore Brigade.
With every touchdown, kick return and body toppling over the padded walls, the crowd reacted accordingly, as if arena football had been a decades-long staple in Washington.
With the league in a state of uncertainty, there appears to be enough hope for sustainability.
“This was our plan to come out of the gate and present a product of what this league can be. We’re the model. I tell you what, this was playoff atmosphere in our league,” Valor Coach Dean Cokinos said of the reported 15,579 fans in attendance. “It was pretty exciting.”
Meyer, who tossed four touchdowns in his Valor debut, said he couldn’t hear himself calling plays at one point because of the crowd noise.
“We expected a good crowd but nothing like this, though,” Meyer said. “They came out and they supported us and they were loud. They got into it. They were just as much a part of the victory as we were.”
Defensive back Tracy Belton, an Upper Marlboro, Md., native and 2016 league defensive player of the year, had about 75 family members in attendance. Count him among those pleased with Friday’s atmosphere.
“When the crowd’s into the game, it helps us out a lot,” Belton said. “As long as we know the crowd’s got our back, we’re gonna have their back. They’re the ninth man. We need them to play.”
Kareem Buchanan, a Washington native and devoted D.C. sports fan, plans on getting a Valor tattoo in the near future to add to his collection of other D.C. pro sports teams.
Matt Poole, 34, of Centreville, Va., is a Washington Capitals season ticket holder who is also now a Valor season ticket holder. He sported a No. 17 jersey issued to season ticket holders that reads “Founding Fan” on the back.
Poole, an Ohio native whose AFL experience includes a Cleveland Gladiators game, was impressed with the fan turnout.
“I’m surprised this many people [are] here,” Poole said. “It’s like a Tuesday night Caps game. It’s not sold out but definitely more people [than I expected]. The guys we’re sitting next to are great. They’re a lot of fun. The crowd seems pretty energetic so I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Clayton Weimers, 26, of Washington, D.C., enjoyed his first experience at an arena football game, even collecting a game ball in the process.
“It’s been fun. I got hit in the face with the ball. It’s a pretty good start. And they’re killing Baltimore,” Weimers said, holding the offending football.
Cameron Garner, 8, of Bowie, Md., was sporting face paint and a smile when he explained his favorite aspect of the sport.
“It’s not outside and bugs aren’t flying around me,” he said.