Richmond’s Pierre Lee breaks up a pass intended for Albany’s Antwon Cutts during a regular season game. The two PIFL teams will face off tonight in the league’s inaugural championship game. (Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch/Special to The Herald)
ALBANY — One by one, the Albany Panthers are talking about hanging up their cleats.
But before they go, they want to hang another banner in the Albany Civic Center.
Quarterback Cecil Lester and wide receiver Antwone Savage headline a group of veterans who are leaning toward retirement after tonight’s PIFL title game against the Richmond Raiders, and they plan on ending their football careers with one more championship.
“It’s going to be hard to let it go, but this day must come for all football players,” Lester said. “You always want to do it on a good note, and I think that’s where we are right now.”
The list of Panthers who have either decided to retire or are contemplating it sounds more like an All-Star roster: Lester, Savage, receiver Clenton Rafe, defensive lineman Tito Hannah, fullback Derrick Wimbush.
Lester, who will split time with backup QB Darnell Kennedy tonight, will play for the first time since reinjuring his MCL June 9 against Columbus. Lester spoke with confidence when talking about tonight’s game against the Raiders, who split with the Panthers in the regular season and enter the championship on a league-best six-game winning streak.
But when he was asked about retirement, he froze.
He took a long breath and a longer blink, fighting back the thought of walking away from the game of football.
“I’m speechless right now when it comes to that situation, when it comes to that subject,” he said. “There’s not much I want to say because my mind is saying, ‘Keep going,’ but my body is saying, ‘It’s time to hang up the cleats.’”
The trio of Lester, Savage and Rafe has been the cornerstone of an organization that has risen to the top of each league it’s been a member of. Savage, a Westover grad, and Rafe, a former Albany State star, were Lester’s go-to receivers during the Panthers’ run to a SIFL championship last season, and they have combined for 38 touchdowns this year to help Albany snag the league’s No. 1 seed.
They are Albany’s biggest weapons when they step on the field tonight against Richmond, but when they step off — win or lose — it will all be over.
And emotions will be overwhelming for both the players and their coach, Lucious Davis.
“I have built a relationship with these guys, all of them,” Davis said. “It goes beyond football. All of these guys who are talking about hanging it up, I can call them anytime. They can call me anytime. We can talk about life, our problems. It’s a really good relationship that I have with them.”
Davis continued: “I’ve seen Savage get married, and I have seen him have his first kid. I have seen Rafe have his third kid. I have seen Cecil grow as a coach and as a person. Those relationships I will have for the rest of my life.”
Davis has contemplated walking away after this season as well, but he told The Herald after practice on Wednesday that he is leaning toward returning to the team.
If he does return, it might be lonely without the players who helped build the franchise.
“That’s the hard thing about calling it quits,” Davis said. “When you develop those relationships, you don’t want to be apart from those guys.”
Lester, Savage, Rafe, Hannah and Wimbush have 27 years of arena league experience among them and have each had long — and sometimes bumpy — journeys along the way.
Those journeys come to an end tonight against the Raiders, who lost to the Panthers in the season opener, 40-28, but beat Albany in the season finale, 67-66. The Panthers haven’t lost at home all season and have only lost two games in the Albany Civic Center since becoming a franchise three years ago, but Richmond’s PIFL-best offense might give Albany its toughest challenge yet.
The Raiders average 60.2 point per game and only give up an average of 49.1 points per game, second only to the Panthers.
Richmond QB Antwon Young has thrown 55 touchdowns and just five interceptions and averages 219.7 yards per game, second to Columbus’ Randy Hippeard.
Davis said that the key to stopping the Raiders is shutting down Young.
“If we can contain him, tackle him and lessen the big plays he makes then we will be fine,” Davis said. “But he is tough. He brings a lot to the table that we don’t see on a consistent basis.”
The Raiders can light up the scoreboard, but so can the Panthers, who scored a season-high 66 points June 16 against Richmond.
“We have to put up some points ourselves,” Lester said. “We need to make sure we don’t turn the ball over, make sure we capitalize on their mistakes and make sure the defense gets off the field on third and fourth downs.”
Lester and the rest of the Panthers are ready to go out on top, and they are ready to do so with a smile.
“The key to it all is to have fun,” Lester said. “I think that is something we are going to focus on. We haven’t had a lot of games this season where we have had a lot of fun. I think this journey that we are on is different than we are used to, so we didn’t have a lot of fun. We are going to try to get back to having fun (tonight).”