Panthers owner Rod Chappell, left, and QB Cecil Lester address the crowd after Wednesday’s parade. (email@example.com)
ALBANY — Corey Rue and Antwon Cutts sat side-by-side in the back of a convertible, leading Wednesday’s parade and holding a pair of championship trophies.
Rue, the Panthers’ leading tackler, held the 2011 SIFL hardware that the team won last season, while Cutts, a former Americus-Sumter star, held the 2012 PIFL trophy, which the team won Saturday.
There was something about that new trophy that shined a little brighter.
“It feels way better than last year,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said after Wednesday’s celebratory parade. “We had some adversity throughout the season, off the field. This was a tough year. To be standing here holding this trophy is more gratifying to me.”
After the short parade, the Panthers received a certificate of congressional recognition from U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop, commemorating a season that took more twists and turns than Cutts’ 50-yard kickoff return in Saturday’s title game against Richmond that helped Albany build a huge first-half lead.
The Panthers held on to the lead, and on Wednesday they were holding on to their new trophy even tighter.
“There are only an elite few who can repeat as champions, let alone win one,” QB Cecil Lester said. “It’s indescribable to win a second year, knowing that everybody knows who you are. This was an interesting journey to take.”
After their parade and the presentation by Bishop, a few of the Panthers broke away from the crowd to talk about a season none of them will soon forget.
It began with a season-opening victory against Richmond, but before the Panthers would close the season with a win against those same Raiders in the championship game, they had to overcome a series of obstacles.
Three key players left the team — defensive back Levance Richmond because of disciplinary problems, receiver John Harris because of family issues and kicker Geoff Boyer, who joined the AFL’s Pittsburgh Power.
Then there were the injuries to key players, including an MCL strain that nearly ended Lester’s season.
“It was just tough. It was tough trying to find a way to persevere throughout all of that and trying to find a way to overcome different obstacles that we were facing,” Davis said. “That was the tough thing for me to do, to try to keep the team together when everything was against us.”
Albany’s season started off with six straight wins, but that’s about the time the first road block game — and it was a big one.
Davis kicked Richmond off the team following a 58-56 loss to Columbus on May 6. Richmond, who was a key defender for both the South Georgia Wildcats and the Panthers, was ejected from the game for throwing a punch, but Davis said his suspension from the team was about more than that.
“It was just a decision that had to be made,” said Davis, who wouldn’t elaborate on what exactly the off-the-field issues were. “That was the biggest and toughest decision I have had to make in my short coaching career. That’s a guy who has played for me for four straight years. He has been one of the cornerstone guys of my defense. We have a pretty good relationship. To release him midway through the season was the toughest decision and toughest spot of the year for me.”
That loss against Columbus was also tough for Lester, who had to sit on the sidelines after suffering a knee injury the previous week. Newly-signed backup Darnell Kennedy was under center during the loss.
It was clear that Albany’s offense was missing its leader.
Lester returned the following week and played four more games before re-injuring his knee — and this time the injury kept him out until the final quarter of the championship game.
That left backups Kennedy and Chris Mitchell filling in at QB, while Cutts had to play both sides of the ball to replace Richmond, and place kicker Ryan Gates was added to the roster when Boyer left.
“You look at Cecil, Levance and John, those guys were with me from Day 1 in 2010,” Davis said. “They fought for me last year. We started this year with all of them and we had the same goal in mind.
“If somebody would have told me before the season that I would lose those guys, I would have said we wouldn’t have a chance at all.”
Antwone Savage, the team’s leading receiver, said all of the confusion and turnover made the team work even harder.
“We had longer weeks, it felt like,” said Savage, a former Westover star who said he is now retired from football. “It felt like the season was longer even though we played less games. With the injuries and problems within the team ... we kept it all within ourselves and stayed tight, but at the same time those problems did bother people.”
But one by one, the team was able to clear all of the hurdles.
Sure, they missed the most accurate kicker in the league and two of their biggest offensive stars.
They took a couple of blows to the chin with losses to Columbus and Richmond on last-second field goals.
But the 2012 Albany Panthers never got knocked out.
“We were on a mission, and our mission was to win another championship,” Savage said.
The team ended the season with a 12-2 record that included playoff wins against Columbus and Richmond.
The Panthers had the league’s best defense (46.2 points per game) and the third-best offense (57.8 ppg). They also had the league’s third-leading receiver (Savage: 20 TD, 896 yards), the second-leading tackler (Rue: 60.5 tackles), the top three leaders in sacks (Tito Hannah: 10; Chauncey Debose: 8; Larry Edwards: 7) and the second-leading defensive back (Damian Daniels: 9 INT).
Savage was one of several players who announced during the team’s playoff run that he would be retiring after the season was over.
Davis reportedly said he was leaving after the season, too, though he recently told The Herald that he might be back next year.
At times, the players and coaches were fielding more questions from the media about their future with the team than their upcoming playoff games.
However, that didn’t distract them from their goal.
“It was something that all of us had talked about at some point during the year, saying, ‘We were gonna leave’ or ‘This will be the last year,’ ” Davis said. “We have all talked about that throughout the year, so it wasn’t distracting at all when the news reported it. It didn’t take our focus away from our goal at all.”
Veterans Lester, Hannah, fullback Derrick Wimbush and former Albany State wideout Clenton Rafe are all likely done — though none would confirm that on Wednesday.
Lester, who told The Herald last week that he is leaning toward not coming back but didn’t want to comment on a possible retirement Wednesday, said if he and his teammates do walk away from the game that they left Albany with some great memories.
“We played hard. We played together,” Lester said. “We were ‘The League’s Rebels.’ They really didn’t call games in our favor a lot. We had to fight through that and continue to play ball. Just remember that we gave it everything we had in those two years. Night in and night out, we played championship football.”