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Graveyard Showdown

The Philadelphia Soul and the San Jose SaberCats square off this Sunday in ArenaBowl XXII — where else? — in the New Orleans Arena.

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Philadelphia sports fans — at times pugnacious but unflaggingly passionate — are legendary. The tales are part of the national sports tableau, and they exhibit both a devotion to the home teams and an antipathy toward the visitors.

Just to name a few: During a 1968 Eagles game, fans booed Santa Claus and pelted him with snowballs. In 1999, fans tossed batteries at Cardinals outfielder J.D. Drew, who was drafted by the Phillies but chose not to sign with the team. That same year, Eagles fans cheered Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin as he lay motionless on the turf with a neck injury.

Philadelphia fans are a lot of things, but apathetic isn't one of them. Which is why the city's fanatical masses are suffering. A pro sports team from the City of Brotherly Love hasn't won a championship since the 76ers claimed the 1983 NBA title.

The Arena Football League's Philadelphia Soul can end the drought when the team faces the San Jose SaberCats in ArenaBowl XXII this Sunday, July 27, in the New Orleans Arena. Kickoff is at 2 p.m. Tickets to the game are still available, but are going fast. Locals can buy tickets at www.arenabowl.com or by calling the Saints/VooDoo ticket office at 731-1700 or Ticketmaster at 522-5555. The game will be telecast on ABC-26.

While the Soul is making its first ArenaBowl appearance, the team is hardly channeling the Philly underdog spirit of filmdom's Rocky Balboa, "The Italian Stallion." During the regular season, the Soul finished with a league-best 13-3 record and earned the No. 1 seed in the National Conference playoffs.

Philadelphia is only a 5-year-old franchise but its public profile is greater than some of its more seasoned counterparts. For starters, the Soul has a rock star for an owner. No, really, a legitimate rock star — Jon Bon Jovi is a co-majority owner of the team.

Despite the Soul's impressive credentials this season, its opponent's body of work in recent years is more enviable. The San Jose SaberCats (11-5) are the defending ArenaBowl champions. They've won the ArenaBowl three times in franchise history with head coach Darren Arbet at the helm for all of them. Last season, the team trounced the Columbus Destroyers 55-33 in the New Orleans Arena.

In a league where it's common for last-place teams to become championship contenders the following year and vice versa, the SaberCats' consistency is exemplary. San Jose is in the title game for the fourth time in seven seasons. It has a chance to become the first back-to-back AFL champion since the Tampa Bay Storm accomplished the feat in 1995-96.

The AFL plays on a field that is 85 feet wide and 50 yards long, which means there's not always a lot of room to run, so a premium is put on the passing game, and ArenaBowl XXII will feature two of the best quarterbacks in the league.

Eleven-year veteran Mark Grieb is the SaberCats' record-setting quarterback. He's led San Jose to two AFL championships. In the American Conference Championship game, Grieb tossed eight touchdown passes to lead San Jose to an 81-55 victory over the Grand Rapids Rampage. If you're looking for a postseason-tested quarterback, Grieb is your guy. He's thrown 104 playoff touchdowns in his career.

Grieb has an array of receivers at his disposal, even if the most productive pass-catcher in the franchise's history won't be available for the ArenaBowl. Nine-year AFL veteran James Roe is one of three San Jose players with at least 1,000 yards receiving this season. He's also the SaberCats all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, scoring and touchdown catches. But he suffered a knee injury against Colorado in the divisional playoffs and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.

Fortunately for San Jose, second-year receiver Cleannord Saintil has proven he's a top-caliber playmaker. During the regular season, he caught 120 passes for a team-leading 35 touchdowns and 1,503 yards. He has game-breaking speed and elusiveness in the open field. In the conference championship game against Grand Rapids, the biggest game of his brief career, Saintil dazzled — catching 11 passes for 113 yards and five touchdowns.

Rodney Wright completes the SaberCats' troika of star receivers. He led the team with 134 receptions for 1,457 yards. Wright also is considered one of the top kick returners in the AFL.

With star receiver Roe on the sidelines for the conference championship, linebacker Jason Geathers entered the starting lineup at receiver and chipped in with four catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns. On the final play of the game, he also returned an interception for a touchdown.

'I knew I had to break out my cape," Geathers says. "I did whatever I had to do to help us get back to New Orleans. It doesn't stop here. We have one more game."

No Arena League quarterback, however, is playing better than the Soul's Matt D'Orazio, who seemed an unlikely candidate to lead his team to ArenaBowl XXII at the beginning of the season.

D'Orazio, who spent the last two years as the starting quarterback for the Chicago Rush, underwent back surgery at the conclusion of the 2007 season and was released. He entered 2008 as Philadelphia's backup to veteran Tony Graziani, who was once the AFL's highest-paid player.

Graziani suffered an injury in the third week of the season and D'Orazio stepped in, delivering stupendous results. He led the Soul to 12 victories as a starter, throwing a jaw-dropping 72 touchdowns and just four interceptions. D'Orazio led the AFL in completion percentage and quarterback rating.

In the indoor game, running the ball takes a distant back seat to throwing it, but D'Orazio is one of the more mobile quarterbacks in the league and he uses his scrambling ability wisely. He ranked fifth in the AFL with 227 yards rushing.

While D'Orazio's unexpected performance has played a central role in the Soul's ArenaBowl run, it would be hard to argue that any player has been more valuable than receiver Chris Jackson, whose statistics are, for lack of a better word, cartoonish.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Jackson racked up 140 receptions for 1,719 yards and a league-best 49 touchdowns. He was named the 2008 Arena League Offensive Player of the Year.

The Soul's No. 2 receiver is Larry Brackins, who sports enviable stats of his own with 107 catches for 1,395 yards and 29 touchdowns. Brackins is D'Orazio's preferred target in the red zone.

In the National Conference Championship game, Philadelphia trounced the Cleveland Gladiators 70-35. D'Orazio gushes about the play of his receivers.

'They did awesome," D'Orazio says. "First you have to talk about the offensive line. They were great. If you give Chris Jackson, Larry Brackins, and Brent Holmes any time at all you can't stay with them."

Playing defense in the Arena League is a bit like being a roadie on tour with a rock band. It's an important job but probably not what the fans pay their money to see.

ArenaBowl XXII does feature two of the better defensive teams in the AFL, and in the case of San Jose, one of the most opportunistic.

The strength of the SaberCats' defense is its secondary, led by Clevan Thomas, a three-time first-team All-AFL pick. Thomas is a physical defender who registered 84 tackles and nine interceptions.

Thomas' teammates in the defensive backfield are also elite players. Omarr Smith intercepted a SaberCats playoff-record three passes in the conference championship game. During the regular season, he led the SaberCats with 114 tackles.

Defensive back Marquis Floyd has caught nearly enough passes this season to qualify as a receiver. He leads San Jose with 10 interceptions, which he returned for 153 yards.

The SaberCats also led the Arena League with 45 takeaways and 30 sacks.

The Soul's defense is stout up front. The defensive line of Gabe Nyenhuis, Bryan Save and Kevin Carberry combined for 24 sacks during the regular season.

Defensive back Eddie Moten is a first-team All-AFL selection. He led the Soul with 93.5 tackles and six interceptions.

The Soul and SaberCats met once during the regular season. In April, San Jose squandered a 26-point first-half lead and Philadelphia roared back to win a 58-57 stunner.

If they can beat the Soul this Sunday, the SaberCats would enter rarified territory, becoming only the third Arena League franchise to win four ArenaBowls. Given the team's track record, it's entirely within the realm of possibility.

But Soul president and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski has other ideas. The most recent championship game in the Crescent City that he was associated with was Super Bowl XV. His Philadelphia Eagles lost to the Oakland Raiders 27-10 in the Superdome.

'Last time I came home from New Orleans I got beat." Jaworksi says. "This time I would like to have the trophy come back with us in our plane."

Is there a more appropriate venue than the New Orleans Arena, known to fans as "The Graveyard," for Philadelphia to finally put to rest the pro sports hex that has haunted it for a quarter century?

Quarterback Mark Grieb, an 11-year veteran, has led San Jose to two AFL championships and has thrown 104 playoff touchdowns in his career. - SAN JOSE SABERCATS
  • San Jose SaberCats
  • Quarterback Mark Grieb, an 11-year veteran, has led San Jose to two AFL championships and has thrown 104 playoff touchdowns in his career.
Philadelphia Soul receiver Chris Jackson (81) has racked up 140 receptions for 1,719 yards and a league-best 49 touchdowns. He was named the 2008 Arena League Offensive Player of the Year. - PHILADELPHIA SOUL
  • Philadelphia Soul
  • Philadelphia Soul receiver Chris Jackson (81) has racked up 140 receptions for 1,719 yards and a league-best 49 touchdowns. He was named the 2008 Arena League Offensive Player of the Year.

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