Two winters ago, Omarr Smith had four months to build a football team from nothing. When he got the call letting him know he’d been made head coach, the team had a location — Baltimore — but no name. Even so, Smith, a longtime player himself, was confident something sustainable was finally brewing in the Arena Football League.
“It was, quite honestly, overwhelming. Moving across the country — never spent any significant time on the East Coast, I’m a West Coast guy — I really had a lot of belief in who I was working for. … That’s what I was excited about,” he said. “Getting to paint my own canvas, from scratch. I knew it'd be a daunting task, but I’m so grateful for the opportunity,” the Brigade coach said.
From that flat ground, Smith has constructed a team with a ticket to next weekend’s ArenaBowl XXXI, earning the berth by bringing down the Philadelphia Soul, 53-41, in the second game of a home-and-home AFL semifinal series Friday night. After a 57-45 win Sunday over the two-time defending champion Soul in Philadelphia, the Brigade needed to win, or lose by fewer than 12 points, to move on. Baltimore prevailed in the aggregate, 109-86.
Now, if the visiting Washington Valor beat the Albany Empire on Saturday, the Brigade would host the ArenaBowl.
They will have gotten there by following their motto: “Brick by brick.”
After Friday night’s AFL semifinal clock ran down, as the robin-blue Brigade flag streamed across the field, it was as if last season’s flaws were those of another team. Baltimore’s defense smothered Philadelphia, highlighted by defensive back Joe Powell’s deflection of a potential Soul touchdown pass with three seconds left in the second quarter to keep the lead wide at 28-19, as well as an interception by Brigade defensive back Josh Victorian with 45 seconds left in the fourth that prevented a last-second Soul strike. Powell finished with a game-high eight tackles, all solo.
Just a year after its birth, the toddler Baltimore team rolled to seven regular-season wins and second place in the four-team league. It then kicked the Soul, an AFL team since 2004, out onto Howard Street with nothing but an offseason.
At the heart of it? Omarr Smith.
“Just to come out and give this city something to be proud of is really something that Coach [Smith] and his staff have preached all year,” Hippeard said. “And I think we’ve done a good job of it.”
Baltimore plucked its helmsman, 32-year-old Virginia native Hippeard, out of the debris of the now-defunct Tampa Bay Storm, where he had earned AFL Most Valuable Player honors last summer.
“I can’t say enough about Randy Hippeard,” Smith said. “He’s a great quarterback, but he’s a better human being. I’m really excited for him to have a chance to go back to the ArenaBowl. Guys like him who are really sacrificing, really taking that leadership role to get guys to buy into what we’re doing is extremely important.”
Hippeard was named the game’s MVP after his seven-touchdown, zero-interception performance.
Spring-footed receiver Brandon Collins was named Offensive Player of the Game after catching three touchdown passes. A former New York Giant who skipped off the tracks in the NFL after a substance abuse policy violation, he joined the Brigade after a trio of AFL teams he had connected with — the San Jose SaberCats, the Spokane Shock and Los Angeles KISS — all folded.
Receiver Brandon Thompkins, who moved through his own mix of dead and living AFL teams and led the Brigade with 67 yards and two touchdowns, put on Baltimore blue after arriving here as part of a trade package from the Cleveland Gladiators, who are on hiatus for the 2018 season.
But Smith, who also played for the SaberCats and Storm as a player, might just have the unique perspective needed to keep an AFL franchise breathing.
Baltimore went 4-10 in its inaugural season, not unlike the NFL Ravens’ first mark of 4-12 in 1996. The Brigade made it to the playoffs regardless, but lost to the Soul (13-1) in the first round.
“Having that first year under our belt, learned from our mistakes to put ourselves in a better situation to be successful this year,” Smith said.
In other words — Baltimore will not be joining the likes of Los Angeles, Spokane or the dozen other franchises in the graveyard anytime soon.
Stories of the AFL’s hardships have been written over and over again. Nothing from the paltry fan base compared to that of the NFL to the struggles to keep franchises afloat is a secret to the coaches and players standing on the ceiling-lit turf.
But to Smith, that story isn’t just old — it may soon be just a dark memory.
“The league has had better days, but we’re glad to be here,” he said. “Part of it’s at the ground level, trying to build this thing back up.”
Cleveland, after a year of renovations to Quicken Loans Arena, will start up again in 2019, raising the team count up to five — for now. Whispers of the league’s expansion have started to warm up the cold airspace with possibilities such as Tucson, , which agreed to pay $400,000 for arena improvements if it lands an AFL franchise. Even the Storm, after disbanding last season, are “pleased” to potentially return when the league is on better footing.
With the rapid rise of Baltimore, it’s not impossible to understand why there’s promise crackling for arena football. The torch is in their hands.
“The process is still going. We’re not where we need to be yet. But we’re taking positive strides,” Smith said. “We improved from last year to this year. We’re on the doorstep of doing something special, so we need to finish the job.”