Baltimore Brigade invade Arena Football League with a vision 'to win it all'

What do you think of the Baltimore Arena Football League's team name? Will you go to a game?

Amid pomp and circumstance Wednesday inside Royal Farms Arena, where Baltimore's first Arena Football League franchise became the Brigade in a show of corporate-sponsor-speak, fog machines and preening in Penn State-looking uniforms, there was a proclamation from a player nicknamed "Big Play."

"I expect us," wide receiver Reggie Gray said, "to win it all."

In the AFL, this prediction is not so outrageous. The odds are not bad: There are only five teams in the league. Gray has won an ArenaBowl championship, and so has his coach, Omarr Smith. They know what it takes.

And what it takes, without exception, are enough players to field a team. Less than two months before 35 players convene for training camp and team officials decide on the 24 who will make the active roster, the Brigade have 10 players officially under contract. It's hard to imagine a championship when Gray doesn't yet know who'll be throwing him the ball.

But then, the franchise has come together at warp speed. In November, the team's ownership group, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, announced it had acquired a team to play in Baltimore this spring, and a month later, Smith, the former coach of the now-defunct Los Angeles Kiss, was introduced in Baltimore. Now the team has a name, a uniform and, if Wednesday's news conference was any indication, even cheerleaders.

Much of the Brigade's future beyond that point is guesswork. Smith likened his team-building to developing a home on an empty lot. There are no manicured lawns, no vaulted ceilings, he said, just a hope and a dream.

"All you have to go on is that builder saying, 'This is our vision of what it's going to look like,'" he said. "I think it takes a special individual to take the road less traveled to invest their football career in something that's unseen."

Even Brigade stars take especially less traveled roads to Baltimore. Gray, the 2015 Wide Receiver of the Year in the AFL, started his career in United Indoor Football (now defunct) in 2006, moved to the AFL briefly, joined the Continental Indoor Football League (now defunct), returned to the AFL, relocated with his AFL team to the Indoor Football League and came back for a third time to the AFL in 2011.

After Gray's former team, the Jacksonville Sharks, left the AFL in October for the National Arena League, he left the country. China had come calling. While playing for the Qingdao Clipper in the first-year China Arena Football League, he learned how to say, "Let's go!" in Mandarin, and that Chinese food in China is different than in America.

Gray had gotten to know Smith while playing for the San Jose SaberCats (now defunct), for whom Smith worked as an assistant coach in 2014-15. Their last season together ended with a championship.

"If we put the players around that we need to put around, that's not a far goal for us," Gray, 32, said.

Defensive lineman Khreem Smith's presence Wednesday in Baltimore was not a reunion but a return. The former Oklahoma State star was invited to Ravens training camp in 2004 but did not make the team. He said the cut felt like "your life is over with." Not true: He went on to play briefly in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs before playing in, among other leagues, the Canadian Football League and AFL.

He was starting to think about a career outside the lines, maybe in coaching or as a personal trainer, when the Brigade called.

"When I got into the league, there were 17 teams," Smith, 37, said. "Now it's down to five teams. That's why I was nervous last year."

Not everyone is a veteran. Travis Hawkins, a Gaithersburg native and former Maryland defensive back, spent parts of the past two seasons in the CFL. Out of football since August, he's been working at a senior-living facility in Bethesda as a driver and security officer.

In the AFL, he is a rookie again. He knows the field is smaller, that it's indoors, that receivers can get a running start toward the line of scrimmage before the snap. He knows he reports to camp March 15. What else he needs to know before then, he said he can learn on YouTube.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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