ALBANY, NY – In front of a raucous home crowd numbering 12,000 plus, on the twentieth anniversary of the capital region’s last Arena Football League (AFL) Championship, the Albany Empire would not be denied.
Despite giving up the first touchdown of the game to the Philadelphia Soul, the Empire responded right back, as Defensive Back Maurice Leggett picked off a Dan Raudabaugh pass and ran it back to the house to even up the game in what would wind up being a 45-27 Empire win.
That pick was the longest interception in ArenaBowl history, and started a back and forth stretch that ended with the Empire and Soul tied at 21-all near the end of the first half.
For defensive player of the game Leggett, bringing a title to Albany was something that he said was priceless. When asked about what was said in the huddle before his pick, he said the message was simple.
“We gotta change the momentum,” Leggett said. “And that’s what we did. We had a defensive touchdown. D-line, endless pressure. Loved it.”
Empire Head Coach Rob Keefe had nothing but praise for Leggett in the post-game. Keefe had Leggett on his roster when he was the Defensive Coordinator of the Utah Blaze, and everything came full-circle again in Albany.
“[He’s] an unbelievable player and this business is all about relationships, right?” Keefe said. “The relationships you have with players, and so the last time I coached him was 2012.
“And so for him to be in the CFL for the last six years – at one time he was the Kansas City Chiefs’ Special Teams Player of the Year – that’s the impact that he has, so I knew that I had to get him back.”
Keefe noted that the CFL was going to ask Leggett to retire. But since he wanted to continue to play, Keefe was able to find a spot for him in Albany.
“Anything that was asked of him, he did, and tonight it paid off in dividends,” Keefe added.
As the game continued on, the Empire began to widen their lead. Empire Quarterback Tommy Grady, who had been voted as the league’s regular-season MVP continued to fire away, tossing touchdowns to Quentin Sims to widen the gap and put the Soul away.
He also dumped the ball off once on the goal line to Mykel “Boom Boom” Benson, who powered ahead for the score. Benson, who was with the Soul in 2017, also scored two touchdowns in ArenaBowl 30. This time, his score ended up being the final TD of the game for Albany.
For Grady, who also picked up ArenaBowl MVP honors, having the crowd behind them all night was an incredible feeling. The win was Grady’s first championship.
It’s huge,” Grady said. “We had a great crowd tonight. They were awesome all night. they helped us out with the win, but I mean, it was a total team effort tonight. Everyone played great.
“Quentin Sims was amazing, offensive line was amazing…so it was a complete team win”
Grady also talked about what it means for him to have won regular-season and ArenaBowl MVP honors in the same season.
“It’s awesome,” he added. “I’ll enjoy it more a few years from now. I’m just happy we got this win tonight. This is huge.”
Lastly, Grady reflected on what it meant to deliver the city’s first championship since the 1999 Albany Firebirds accomplished the same feat.
“It was amazing to do it at home,” Grady said. “We knew if we got home-field advantage in the championship, we had a good chance of winning, so it was great to get a win.”
Perhaps no player felt more relief after the win than Malachi Jones. The Empire wide-receiver is a dynamic playmaker and fan favorite. Finding himself out of a job after the Alliance of American Football folded, he returned to the place where he won Rookie of the Year in 2018 to help win a championship.
“So much excitement man,” Jones said. “So proud of my team, so proud of these coaches, the organization, the fanbase. All glory to the most high, there’s no better feeling.”
Jones also reflected on what it felt like to be accepted back by the fans and the joy he felt in that.
“It means the absolute world,” Jones said. “I never knew if I was gonna come back or not, just because of everything that was going on. But the Capital Region welcomed me back with open arms, and I’m just so glad I could bring an ArenaBowl Championship after 20 years.”
“Business officially finished,” Jones added.
Throughout the night, the fan support was discussed by everyone in the post-game. Coach Keefe summed it up best when talking about how the community has embraced the Empire since they started to play last season.
“The fans, I can not thank them enough,” Keefe added. “This is a place where it works. You go to the grocery store, you go to the gas station. You walk into any bar, restaurant around here and they know who you are. They care about you.
“There’s flags on every household, there’s banners on every car. it’s just [an] amazing experience. Even our colors [are] indicative of the New York state flag…For the fans to embrace us the way they have and to come out here and support us tonight, I’m so happy that they were a part of this. The fans are 100% just as much a part of this as I am.”
EMPIRE STATS OF MIND: Albany QB Grady was 16 for 25 in passing, good for 200 yards and five touchdowns…Quentin Sims was named offensive player of the game, catching four touchdown passes in the win…Kicker Adrian Trevino was a perfect six for six on PATs and also kicked the first made ArenaBowl field goal since 2013…Goal-line stands were key for the Empire, who limited Soul Running Back Adrian Ferns to five rushes for just one total yard.