Pride of Philadelphia
Arena Bowl XXII Champions
Author: Ed Barkowitz
When Jon Bon Jovi first brought an Arena Football League franchise to Philadelphia, he vowed to deliver a championship team. It took five years, four coaches and three practice facilities, but Bon Jovi delivered on that promise when the Soul captured Arena Bowl XXII in July.
There were cries of cynicism from critics of arena football that the Soul's championship meant nothing to a city starved for a winner.
The team understands Arena Football is not among the traditional four major sports, but don't dare try to diminish their accomplishment.
"I know that the players are happy. I know that our fans are happy. I know that the recipients of our philanthropy are happy," Bon Jovi said.
The acquisition of star wide receiver Chris Jackson added high-grade fuel to the Soul's offensive engine. The signing of free agent Matt D'Orazio gave it a capable driver when starter Tony Graziani was injured.
It appeared as if D'Orazio was going to start the season in the unemployment line. Instead, it ended with him hoisting the championship trophy and driving away with the Mitsubishi Eclipse awarded to the game MVP.
"If Matt D'Orazio doesn't define the word character, what does? He's the one you want to play on any team, from Little League to the NFL," Bon Jovi said. "The guy's a leader on and off the field. It's not a put-on. He looked at that car and said, 'When do I have to give it back?' "
D'Orazio led the Chicago Rush to the Arena Bowl Championship in 2006 and the conference final a year later. He needed back surgery after the 2007 season and that's when he unexpectedly found himself on the waiver wire. Like any professional sport, Arena Football can be a cruel business.
Getting D'Orazio was a necessary insurance policy given Graziani's age (34) and rough luck with injuries. The Soul were 1-7 when Graziani was out of the lineup, including 0-4 in 2007.
"Last year, we had (backups) that didn't have a lot of AFL experience and I'm not sure everybody in the huddle felt comfortable with them," Soul coach Bret Munsey said. "Now, we've got a guy that if he wanted to could wear a championship ring in the huddle and say, 'I've been there. Let's go. ' That makes a world of difference. "
D'Orazio's job was made much easier by Jackson, who set franchise records for receptions (140), receiving yards (1,719) and touchdowns (49).
The Soul had the game's best quarterback and best receiver, but they would not have won the championship without a bit of luck.
A week after dismantling New York to claim homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, the Dragons came to the Wachovia Center focused and angry. It took Larry Brackins' disputed touchdown on the last play of the game to allow the Soul, which had gone a league-best 13-3 during the regular season, to escape the upset.
The following week, Philadelphia cruised past Cleveland in the National Conference Championship game and seemed to be doing the same to San Jose in the league championship game before disaster again nearly struck.
The rules of Arena Football are slanted so heavily in the offense's favor, that even Philadelphia's 17-point lead with 39 seconds left wasn't safe.
San Jose, the league's defending champions, scored twice in 16 seconds to close to within 59-56. Philadelphia finally had control when Rod Davis recovered an on-side kick.
Soul president Ron Jaworski, who played 17 seasons in the NFL and took the Eagles to the Super Bowl following the 1980 season, was emotional following the game.
"It really is special," Jaworski said. "I'd never won a world championship. I played in a lot of big football games, watched a lot of them as an analyst, but never won it. This is just unreal. "
Four days after beating San Jose, Philadelphia held a celebratory rally for the Soul. There was concern over whether the crowd would be so sparse that it would only feed the cynics more ammunition.
The procession began at Sixth and Market and was lined with cheering crowds along the way to City Hall.
D'Orazio recalled that when he won the title with Chicago in 2006, team owner Mike Ditka threw a nice little party at his restaurant. But it paled in comparison to how Philadelphia embraced its champions. One unofficial police estimate put the total crowd around 10,000.
"I'm blown away. I'm choked up. I'm speechless," D'Orazio said that day. "This exceeded our expectations tenfold."
And rather than take offense at the cynics, Jaworski hoped the Soul's title would unite start a trend.
"I'm happy for the city of Philadelphia," he said. "We're going to keep this thing rolling. Go Phillies, go Eagles, go Sixers, go Flyers. The Soul got ours. You guys go get yours