tampabay.com

Storm QB takes licks, still ticks

Shane Stafford has convinced coaches of his talent and toughness throughout his career.

By FRANK PASTOR
Published March 20, 2005


TAMPA - Connecticut coach Skip Holtz wanted to test Shane Stafford's toughness, so he removed the red jersey from his freshman quarterback before his first college scrimmage, allowing defenders to hit him.

"He let me get the crap beat out of me by the starting defense," Stafford said. "I'd always run the option, and I'd just get annihilated."

For as long as he can remember, coaches have questioned Stafford's toughness.

Whether it was Holtz, Stafford's father, Dave, at Wilson (Pa.) High or Storm coach Tim Marcum, Stafford repeatedly has had to prove he has the physical and mental makeup to lead a team.

"I do want to have a reputation as a tough quarterback," Stafford said. "I pride myself on that. I pride myself in somebody hitting me and getting back up and just kind of smiling at them."

One by one, Stafford is winning over his critics, with Marcum the latest. All it took was Stafford throwing seven touchdowns and leading Tampa Bay to a winning field goal in the final minute of a 59-56 victory over Arizona after he had absorbed 13 hits March13.

"He's hanging in there pretty good," Marcum said. "He's maturing, and that's part of the maturation process, being able to get the dog knocked out of you and just step up and throw touchdowns."

Stafford has thrown 36 touchdowns entering today's game at Philadelphia, where he will be matched against Tony Graziani. Though not the more recognizable of the quarterbacks - Graziani was an All-Arena first-team selection a year ago - Stafford has been more effective this season.

He leads the league in passer rating (121.5) and fewest interceptions (one) while guiding the Storm to a 4-2 start.

Though Stafford has improved every aspect of his game - reading defenses, making decisions, passing touch - since entering the league in 2001, his ability to deliver under pressure stands out most.

It was evident in the final minute against Arizona, when the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder shook lineman Anthony Hutch from his shoulder pads, avoiding a safety, and threw out of bounds to keep Tampa Bay's final drive alive.

"That's the game right there," Marcum said. "If Shane doesn't pull loose of the safety, it's inside a minute, we've got to kick off. It's over."

Marcum didn't always trust Stafford with games on the line. Stafford played behind John Kaleo his first two seasons and was benched in favor of Pat O'Hara for two games last year. But in his second season as a full-time starter, Stafford knows he has the backing of his coach.

"I feel like I can recommend some things to coach, and he'll listen a little bit more," Stafford said. "Before, he'd shoot down a lot. I still have a lot of learning to do with calling plays and stuff like that, but coach is giving me a little more leeway. And I think that comes with the trust factor."

After playing in three other pro leagues, Stafford, 29, has found a fit with the Storm. His game is tailor-made for the Arena League, where the smaller field rewards timing, accuracy and smart decisions.

Stafford hoped to set himself up for a career in the NFL during stints with Tallahassee of arenafootball2, where he threw a league-leading 85 touchdowns in 2000; the Browns ('02), Bucs ('03) and Patriots ('03); and Scottish Claymores of NFL Europe in '03.

Back with the Storm, he said he feels settled for the first time in his career.

"I feel comfortable," Stafford said. "This is where I am. This is where I want to be. I'm all about the Tampa Bay Storm and what I can do to help us win a championship."

Because he played in NFL Europe in 2003, Stafford watched from the stands as the Storm won its fifth ArenaBowl. He's determined to make the most of his current opportunity.

"I think we have something special, and I hope we don't screw around by not showing up one day and being complacent," Stafford said.

"I really think we have that little "it' factor that takes those teams over the top."