Backup QB Shane Stafford has a history of entering a game and taking charge.
By JOHN C. COTEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 13, 2001
TAMPA -- After navigating his way through a host of local television appearances, a few radio spots and a handful of tape recorders, notebooks and pens, Shane Stafford is ready to prove he is worth all the attention.
After a stirring performance against Houston last week -- eight completions, five for touchdowns -- the rookie quarterback leads the Storm into the season's most important game tonight at Nashville, one of the league's hottest teams.
Outstanding in the preseason, solid in mop-up duty during the season, and brilliant in relief of starter John Kaleo on Saturday, Stafford's challenge tonight will be special. Nashville leads the league in sacks and last week put two quarterbacks on the injured list.
Is Stafford as good as he looked or merely a rookie getting lucky against one of the league's weaker defenses?
"We'll know a little bit more after this game, won't we?" said a smiling Storm coach Tim Marcum.
That Stafford is in the starring role on a team where he was a backup should be of no surprise to anyone familiar with his story. Stafford was a backup his freshman year in high school, until he beat the starter out three games into the season.
He was a backup his redshirt freshman season at Connecticut for two games, until he took over the starting job for good.
And last year in arenafootball2, he was behind Chris Ryan when the Tallahassee Thunder broke camp. In Game 2, after Ryan was hurt, Stafford became the starter.
"That's the way it has gone for me," Stafford said. "There's a little bit of luck involved. But when you get that opportunity, you have to take advantage of it."
At all three stops, Stafford starred. He was one of the best to play at his high school, and at UConn became the career leader in passing efficiency and touchdowns.
In the af2's inaugural season, he threw for a record 459 yards in a game and finished with a league-best 85 touchdown passes.
When scouting for a backup quarterback, Marcum looked at film of af2 Most Valuable Player Aaron Sparrow, af2 passing efficiency leader and second-team all-leaguer Billy Dicken, and local product Oscar Davenport.
Oh, and Stafford.
It was an easy choice.
"We looked at the other guys but Shane's got a live arm and we liked that," Marcum said. "He's also got a good clock in his head, he's developed a nice touch, and he's got a little mobility."
The strong right arm already has earned Stafford a nickname from fans writing on the team's Web site: "The UConn Cannon."
Stafford graduated from college in 1998 and did not play in 1999. He worked out at home in Sinking Spring, Pa., and got a part-time job waiting for his shot.
He talked to Toronto of the Canadian Football League but wasn't offered a contract. He almost signed with the AFL's New England Seawolves before a short strike spiked the deal. He went to an XFL combine in Texas and didn't make it. He returned home and on the advice of Los Angeles Xtreme general manager Tom Luginbill, Stafford and his family started calling af2 teams.
"We probably called at least 15 of the teams, from Arkansas to Quad Cities to Richmond," Stafford said. "Then I called Tallahassee, on a Wednesday night, and they told me to come down for a tryout on Sunday."
Stafford called his favorite target at UConn, wide receiver Carl Bond, and on Friday at 2 a.m. they began the 18-hour drive south, staying with friends of friends when they arrived. After his workout, the Thunder offered him a contract -- $200 a game, league standard, a figure that forced Stafford to lay sod with some landscaping friends for extra money.
By the end of the season, he was shredding the league's defenses, and Bond, now with Carolina in the AFL, was the leading receiver.
Rarely does a backup for a quarterback like Kaleo, among the league's all-time leaders in every passing category, create the kind of excitement and anticipation that Stafford has. The Storm's passing offense had been sputtering. Before his entry into the Houston game, Tampa Bay had just four touchdown passes in its previous seven quarters. Stafford had five in 18 minutes.
Excitement aside, however, this is the reality: It was Houston.
"I understand that," said Stafford. "I don't think I've proven anything yet. Trust me, I don't expect anyone to have confidence in me until I do it against a team the caliber of Nashville, and do it for the whole game."
Stafford appears undaunted by the task at hand. Beating Nashville clinches a first-round playoff bye and wins the Southern Division. If Kaleo is not recovered from his separated shoulder by playoff time, it will be up to Stafford to try to guide the Storm to the ArenaBowl.
Off the bench. As usual.
WHEN/WHERE: 8:30; Gaylord Entertainment Center, Nashville, Tenn.
TV/RADIO: Sunshine; WDAE-AM 620.
RECORDS: Kats 9-4, Storm 9-3.
COACHES: Kats -- Pat Sperduto (26-15, third season). Storm -- Tim Marcum (135-40, 13th season).
SERIES: Storm leads 7-2.
OUTLOOK: This game will decide the Southern Division champion, but more important, a Storm win will earn a first-round playoff bye as one of the league's top-four seeds. The Storm still could earn a first-round bye with a loss if it wins next week against New Jersey and either Indiana or Grand Rapids loses. The Storm has beaten Nashville five straight times, but all of the games have been close. Kats QB Andy Kelly is the league's all-time leading touchdown passer, but suffered a dislocated index finger on his throwing hand. He had to leave last week's win over Los Angeles in the second quarter after two fumbled exchanges from center. The Kats are No. 1 in the league in fewest points allowed (39.4), turnover margin (+21) and sacks (21), but rank last in passing yardage per game (202.1). Storm QB Shane Stafford will make his first start after replacing injured John Kaleo last week and leading Tampa Bay to a 70-47 win. Stafford is just the sixth quarterback to start in the Storm's 160 games. James Bowden will return to give Stafford one of the league's top targets. Lineman Willie Wyatt also returns from injury, and lineman Sylvester Bembery has signed and will see significant playing time.