When Brigade quarterback Randy Hippeard charges onto the field Saturday at Royal Farms Arena, past a pair of pyrotechnic flames and his team’s banner, he’ll be playing for an ArenaBowl victory for the city of Baltimore.
Lying underneath the slate-blue uniform of his current team is a former Tampa Bay Storm player whose team scored just four points fewer than the Philadelphia Soul to lose in ArenaBowl XXX last August.
“You learn it sucks when another team’s confetti is falling on your head,” Hippeard said.
Hippeard knew he had to do two things — beat Philadelphia and put a championship ring on his finger.
“I expected to be [back],” he said. “Anytime you get into a championship game, especially coming off a year where you got there and didn’t finish the job, you expect to get back, you want to get back.”
That dream lived on even when the Storm did not.
Just a few months after ArenaBowl XXX, the Storm — the winningest team in AFL history — folded. Citing rising league costs and shriveling revenues, Steve Griggs, chief executive officer of Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment, made the announcement on Dec. 21.
Hippeard had heard rumblings before then, but hoped the worst-case scenario wasn’t the correct one.
“We found out pretty much the day before that [team co-owner Derrick Brooks] and the Storm were going to make an announcement. We didn’t know if that announcement was going to be good, or bad, or different,” he said. “We pretty much found out when everyone else did.”
When the Storm died, Hippeard winced. The 2017 AFL MVP who had played five seasons with two teams wasn’t sure the stability in the league was there for him to continue.
“From that, coming from before Tampa, I was in Orlando and [the Predators] had folded,” he said. “When Tampa had decided to cease operations, it was really a question of, how solid is the AFL, whether or not the AFL was even going to exist anymore, whether it was going to have another season or not.”
But Hippeard couldn’t shake the desire to play for a championship.
He felt that the Washington Valor and Soul already had their quarterbacks locked up, not to mention that playing for Philadelphia would throw a wrench in his comeback scheme.
That left the Albany Empire and the Brigade — but coach Omarr Smith wasn’t in New York.
“Part of the reason I chose Baltimore is Coach O comes from programs like Arizona and San Jose, who had always played Philly tough and had beaten Philly,” Hippeard said.
As a coach and player, Smith has seven ArenaBowl titles to his name. When the now-defunct Arizona Rattlers bested Philadelphia, 48-39, in 2013, Smith was their defensive coordinator.
“That’s one of the things we had to get over, us guys from Tampa, learning how to beat Philly,” Hippeard said.
When the Brigade brought down Philadelphia, 53-41, on July 20 at Royal Farms Arena, Hippeard was jubilant, and he wasn’t the only one.
“Anytime you can play with guys for multiple years in this league, there’s a chemistry that you build and it doesn’t take as long to bond,” Hippeard said.
Several former Tampa Bay players — Mark Lewis, Dexter Jackson, Monte Lewis, LaMark Brown, Kendrick Ings, Raymond McNeil, Kendall Montgomery and Jeremiah Warren — all joined their quarterback in Baltimore.
When the Storm folded, kicker Mark Lewis, a 13-year AFL veteran, mulled options with his family before deciding to play this season.
“First guy I called was Randy, talked to him to see who to talk to with Baltimore,” Lewis said. “I wanted to follow him, see where he was playing, to make my decision.”
For wide receiver Ings, there was no hesitation.
“100 percent, Randy has a big influence on me. Wherever he was going, I was going,” Ings said. “If he was going to Albany, I was going to Albany; if he had went to Washington, I’d be in Washington.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to go where you go.’ He’s like a big brother to me. Why not go with your brother?”
Ings, on injured reserve, watched his teammates march to their first ArenaBowl without him. But like Hippeard, every atom in his body wanted to beat Philadelphia and leave the championship game with a ring.
“It’s a bittersweet moment, being on IR, because I can’t play, I’m not contributing to any of the wins on the field,” Ings said. “But off the field, it feels good to win. … Just like Randy and LaMark last year, we have that bitter taste in our mouths because we feel like we should have been working on ring No. 2 this year. The fact that we did come on top and beat Philly four times this year? That’s still a great feeling.”
As much as Hippeard recognizes he’s leading every player donning the Brigade helmet Saturday, it’s those men who followed him north, without knowing what would happen, that he’s playing for.
“To have them put their faith in you and to believe in you that much to follow you from city to city … these guys have followed me over from Tampa to Baltimore. Anytime you have guys follow you, you can’t take that for granted,” Hippeard said. “And to have the ability to possibly put a ring on their finger, guys who have been playing in this league for 10 years, that means more than putting one on myself.”