The smiles were out Monday at Arizona Rattlers media day, punctuating another start to an Arena Football League season. Gone were the bad feelings from an ArenaBowl whipping at the hands of Tampa Bay.
Gone were the bad feelings, period, from a 2003 season that had a tumultuous undercurrent.
“We did have some issues going into camp and we don’t seem to have any of that this year,” coach Danny White said. “We’ll see how that works.”
Receiver/linebacker Hunkie Cooper was more blunt. “(Last year) was chaos. Like (the movie) ‘Castaway,’ once you got on that plane, you had a funny feeling.”
The team’s second straight drive to a championship game was almost swallowed up by tension between the franchise and two players, Cooper and quarterback Sherdrick Bonner. The veteran stars played out the last year of their contracts unsure of the future.
The Rattlers even approached Cooper about retiring before the season, something that bothered him all season. Bonner, close friends with Cooper, wasn’t going to stay if Cooper didn’t. There were serious overtures from San Jose and Las Vegas.
In the end, the Rattlers brought back the duo over the summer with a final two-year contract for each. The core of the team that has made the Rattlers one of the winningest franchises in the AFL remains intact.
Perhaps that’s why a certain calm now permeates the team.
“There was always a little doubt,” said wide receiver/defensive back Randy Gatewood, the AFL’s reigning Ironman of the Year. “When Bonner and Hunkie finally signed, there was a little sense of relief.”
The core may be older — Bonner, Cooper, Gatewood, fullback Bo Kelly and lineman Mark Tucker are among a group of veterans who will have an average age of 33 1/2 by the time of the 2004 ArenaBowl — but Bonner is coming off a season in which he was first-team All-AFL, Gatewood won his Ironman honor and Cooper had his best season statistically in years.
“Hunkie and I talked about what legacy we would leave here,” Bonner said. “This is home. We wanted to finish what we started.”
Besides, it wasn’t the veterans fading that cost the Rattlers last season. It was a slow start that put Arizona at 4-5 at one point, before a strong finish led to a playoff run.
While the Rattlers won two of three playoff games on the road, the poor ArenaBowl performance in Tampa has White determined to keep the Rattlers in the Valley if they reach a third straight title game.
“The number one objective is to get off to a better start,” White said. “We have to try and control home field.”
It helps not having to completely reshape the team. There are still unknowns: Siaha Burley comes from Los Angeles to take over as offensive specialist, and Hamin Milligan will be around all year as defensive specialist after a sparkling late-season showing. The Rattlers still have to find more consistent line play, especially in the pass rush.
But there is a comfort level going into 2004 that wasn’t there in 2003.
“As bad as it was,” Cooper said, “right now, it’s as good as it can be.”
EXTRA POINTS: After two straight blowout losses on the road in title games, White said he talked to the league about making home-field advantage in that game a little less of one.
“I understand, where the league is, we need to be on a home field (for the ArenaBowl),” White said. “But I think everything else should be neutral,” including the game operations, such as the public address announcer. White figures right now, a home field in the ArenaBowl is worth as many as 10 to 14 points. . . .
The Rattlers will not hold a scrimmage against another team, meaning their first game of any kind will be the regular season opener Feb. 8 at America West Arena against Los Angeles. . . .
There is a distinct East Valley flavor to the Rattlers’ training camp roster, with Burley (Westwood High School), wide receiver/linebacker Tom Pace (Mesa High), wide receiver/defensive back Justin Taplin (Tempe) and quarterback Joe Germaine (Mountain View) all looking to make the team.