Monday, February 20, 2017

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Back to the future

2/1/2017

With a new coach and some key returners, the Iowa Barnstormers hope a return to the glory days is just around the corner

 

1DX_468395Iowa Barnstormers quarterback Travis Partridge knows his football. Inside and out, upside and down. To listen to him, one might get the impression it’s the ONLY thing he knows.

But for long-time indoor gridiron fans from Des Moines who are starving for a return to the glory days, hearing your quarterback talk about his Hall of Fame football lineage that goes back two generations and his hope — make that his NEED — to be the next Kurt Warner, he is music to capitol city ears.

The second-year signal-caller hailing from Kansas City came to Des Moines with five games left in an already-disastrous 2016 season, which saw the Barnstormers post a 4-12 record. Partridge’s trial by fire didn’t bring any victories, but it sent him into the off-season with enough familiarity with his surroundings to give him confidence entering the 2017 campaign.

“There’s something to be said about coming into a situation that you know,” Partridge said. “There’s so much bouncing around, that if you come into a situation you know, and the coaching staff believes in you, that’s an exciting thing.”

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And even though he’s had very brief taste of the National Football League for a few short weeks on a handful of teams, being a Barnstormer is nothing to be taken lightly.

“Professional football is a tough business. Even with the Barnstormers, it’s very competitive,” he said. “I think every professional football player understands that this is a privilege. And that doesn’t change from level to level.

“Once you simplify it, football is football, and playing quarterback is playing quarterback. There are still grown men trying to assault you.”

Changes at the top

IMG_3359One of the causes of Partridge’s optimism is the arrival of new head coach Dixie Wooten. Wooten, who previously coached for the Cedar Rapids Titans, took over in October 2016 in place of former coach Joe Brannen and hit the ground running.

The head coaching job for the Iowa Barnstormers was a coveted one, Wooten said. So he did his homework, and by the time he arrived at the team’s office in Wells Fargo Arena, he was ready to go.

“I knew everything about the franchise. That’s one of the reasons why I took the job — the tradition,” he said. “When I walked in, everything was in place. The big thing was getting the right players in so we can win. Back in the day when they were winning, there were 11,000 people in the stands. We’re trying to get back there.”

Getting defensive

After beginning last season with a 3-1 record following victories over Colorado, Green Bay and Billings, the Barnstormers went into a tailspin, losing 11 of its next 12 games.

1DX_467785Third-year starting linebacker Javicz Jones said there were “a lot of things going on,” both on the field and off in 2016, but inevitably, it was on them, the players. Jones had left the squad early in the season to give the Canadian Football League (CFL) a shot, and when he came back, things were in various forms of disarray.

“We had some injuries and other things, but when I came back, I think it might have been too late to get things turned around,” he said. “There were no excuses out there. I put that on me. That’s my responsibility, and I don’t take it lightly.”

His foray and subsequent return from the CFL left a sour taste in his mouth. Jones went in believing that he had as good of a shot as any. He left knowing that football, like life, is sometimes simply about the numbers. In Canada, only a certain amount of American players are allowed on a squad. Because of his nationality, Jones wasn’t going to be one of them. The numbers didn’t add up. Jones was upset, but it was a lesson learned.

“It was a cool experience, but had I known that, I would have just stayed here,” he said. “That’s the way it goes. I’ve got a good feeling about this season, though. Watch us.”

Back in the barn

Wooten said he will lean on Jones and Partridge to bring the team leadership on both sides of the ball that it needs. While he will be tough, he said he’ll also be fair.

A good quarterback/coach relationship is a big first step toward turning the franchise around. Partridge said his approach will be the same — do whatever it takes to win, beginning with knowing what Wooten wants and expects.

“I want to help coach bring a winning attitude back here,” he said. “I’ve played against him (Wooten) in the past, and I know what he can do. I’m looking forward to rebuilding the Barnstormer culture.”

Winning is a big part of that culture, Wooten and Partridge agreed. And not just winning here and there; they want to win Kurt Warner-style.

Warner is the ex-Iowa Barnstormer quarterback from 1995-1997 who went on to a storied career in the NFL, including leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl championship in 2000.

“His story is one I’m trying to emulate,” Partridge said. “I’m playing because Kurt Warner came here, was successful and went on to have a Hall of Fame career. That’s what my goal is.

“He went to two mini-camps, I went to two mini-camps. He went to the CFL, and I went to the CFL. He went to the Iowa Barnstormers, and I went to the Iowa Barnstormers. I want to be him. Whether or not that will happen or not, by God’s grace, who knows?”

Partridge will have the luxury of having returning wide receiver Brady Roland back on team in 2017 after having led the IFL in receptions with 95 for 1,085 yards and 22 touchdowns.

In his two-year career in the IFL, Roland has caught 148 passes for 1,749 yards and 36 touchdowns. He was named as an All-IFL selection, including a First Team selection in 2016.

Things didn’t go as planned last year, he said, but the positive part of finishing at the bottom is that there’s nowhere to go but up.

“Last year, we had some things happen, had some injuries at the quarterback position and some new guys coming in, and it was hard to come back from,” he said. “We just really couldn’t buy a win.

“This year is a fresh start — and hopefully more victories. I want to win. We all do.”

Behind the scenes

1DX_467093The Barnstomers kick off the season on March 26 with a Family Night game against the Cedar Rapids Titans. Marketing and social media coordinator Juli Pettit said the franchise’s goal is to make each game an event.

“Indoor Football is such a fast paced, physical sport,” Pettit said. “We really strive to keep that energy up throughout the game with our in-game and concourse activities as well.”

Other fan-favorite theme nights from the past will return as well, she said. One of the largest events will be the Motorcycle Ride on Saturday, May 13. In it, fans will be able to purchase packages that include their place in the ride, a pre-game tailgate and a ticket to the game. The ride will begin in the afternoon, and the last stop will be at Wells Fargo Arena for a tailgate before heading into the game.

The Annual Military Night will held be on May 26 in which military personnel, veterans and their families are given a ticket to the game. Specialty jerseys that are worn by the team during the game are auctioned off in a silent auction. The jerseys are then awarded to the auction winners off the players’ backs at the end of the night.

“We are in a league that really supports fan engagement and interaction,” Pettit said. “Fans will have the opportunity to join our coaches club, where they will meet with the coaches and get to review film and even help call the first play of a game. We also have packages for fans to warm up the quarterbacks pre-game, help kick off the game by delivering the game ball or participating in the coin toss. We even have a package where fans can be on the bench with the team for the entire game helping out as water boy. “ 

The fans

Nancy Bougher and her husband, Travis, have been season ticket holders since 2008 and attended many games prior to that when the team was in the Arena Football League. From the glory days to the current, they’ve seen the good, the bad and everything in between. If there’s a “golden circle” of Barnstormer fandom, they’re in it.

A lifelong football fan of both the outdoor and indoor game, Bougher knows her stuff. Fans don’t travel to away games in Wichita, Colorado, Sioux Falls and Nebraska, as she and her husband have, without having a deep love of the game.

Arena football, though, is something special.

“I’ve always loved football, but arena football has everything I like about the sport, and it’s in a convenient venue,” Bougher said. “I enjoy the faster pace and that the players are welcoming and interact with the fans and kids.”

Bougher doesn’t shy away from admitting there’s another element of the game she especially enjoys — the smack talk. They “bring it,” she admits, and have no problem getting into a jawing match with the “enemy.” So much so that they intentionally chose seats near the opposing team’s bench.

But Bougher is quick to point out that there’s a big difference in “arena smack” and other sports. The ability to be close enough to the field for opposing players allows for some classic back and forths. Normally, players ignore opposing fans. In arena football, that’s not the case. Interaction between the two is the norm, not the exception.

Bougher said that although things can get “heated,” it’s all in good fun.

“It’s the funnest when we can get to them (the opposing players) during the game, but the nice thing is that, after the game, it’s over,” she said. “There’s no animosity. It’s all fun.”

The Boughers and some season ticket-holding friends upped that ante on the fun factor last year when they all pitched in to help buy a short bus, one that will be used to transport the group to games, home or away.

And although the franchise hasn’t had a winning record since 2009, their loyalty has not — and will not — wane. Win or lose, they’re Barnstormer football fans.

“It would be nice to have a good record, but that’s not what it’s all about for me,” Bougher said. “They always give you a great show, no matter what, and that’s what we enjoy the most.” ♦

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