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In Cecil they trust

At the start of last season, Cecil Lester wasn’t in the Panthers’ plans after his dismal final outing in the team’s championship game loss in 2010. But Lester returned as a backup in 2011 and then came off the bench to lead Albany to its first arena title. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

At the start of last season, Cecil Lester wasn’t in the Panthers’ plans after his dismal final outing in the team’s championship game loss in 2010. But Lester returned as a backup in 2011 and then came off the bench to lead Albany to its first arena title. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY— He doesn’t like the word redemption.

No, Cecil Lester likes to call what happened to him last year “a journey.”

And as the Albany Panthers get ready to open their season Saturday night at home against the Richmond Raiders, Lester looks and feels like a well-traveled man — a man who has not only found his destination, but his place with this team, a team that has grown almost as much as its quarterback.

Both shared a run to the Southern Indoor Football League title last season, but no one appreciated that championship as much as Lester.

Looking Ahead

WHO: Richmond Raiders (0-0) at Albany Panthers (0-0).

WHAT: 2012 season opener for both teams.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Albany Civic Center.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

TICKETS: Call (229) 317-7201 or visit www.ticketmaster....>

“It was a journey,’’ he said after practice Tuesday. “It was fascinating looking back at it now. The way the season started and then the middle of the season and then what happened at the end of the season when we all starting clicking ...

“To go from the bench to starting, to winning a championship. It was fascinating,’’ he said, his voice trailing off at the end, his mind washing over the memory.

Today the man everyone had forgotten a year ago is now the face of the franchise, the quarterback who is coming off a championship season, a season that says more about the man who called the signals than anything.

Lester didn’t just win a title, he won the respect and admiration of everyone who watched him persevere, rising above all the doubts and fears and critics — above all the quiet, subtle whispers that surrounded him.

It was lonely and painful, and he could have easily walked away from the Panthers, but he didn’t. Lester took the heat for losing in the playoffs in 2010, and when the Panthers opened the season a year ago, he had lost his job.

After waiting six years to start, Lester was a backup again. This time to A.J. McKenna, a rookie quarterback from Albany State who had never played arena football. McKenna was a kid the Panthers believed would lead them to a title that had escaped a year before when — after posting the best record in the league — they were upset in the playoffs.

It seemed everyone blamed Lester for the loss, and he all but disappeared in the offseason.

“He changed his phone number, and I didn’t hear from him during the entire offseason,’’ Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “Then about two weeks before we started training camp, I got a text from him. He asked me how I was looking at quarterback. I responded and wrote, ‘Who is this?’ He wrote back, ‘This is Cecil.’ ”

Davis was blunt, and during a subsequent phone conversation he told Lester that McKenna was the team’s new quarterback.

“I told him if he came back he would have to be the backup,’’ Davis said. “I could hear it in his voice that it hurt him.’’

Lester simply took the bullet and showed up at camp.

“He could have folded up the tent,’’ Davis said. “But he didn’t. A lot of guys would have been mad, being a backup to a rookie.’’

Lester bit his tongue and didn’t say a word.

He worked hard as a backup.

“I did all the little things I could to help the team,’’ he said. “I was kind of like the team manager, the guy who gets the balls and does all the little things. That’s what I did.”

Lester than added: “I looked at it as a team player. When the light is not on you, you do what you can to be a team player. I was there to pump guys up, encouraging them and doing what I could do, doing the small things.’’

He was never alone.

“I prayed,’’ Lester said. “I just continued to pray, and I had support from my family and support from my friends and support from fans.’’

He also never complained.

“As a person, I grew a lot,’’ he said. “I humbled myself and accepted the backup role. As a person, I realized quickly that it wasn’t about me. Everybody had a role to play, and I played my role. You just do your job. I made the most of it.

“I never looked at it like it was redemption,’’ he said. “It was a challenge, and when you are challenged you have to grow. I grew a lot and the team grew a lot last year.’’

Lester didn’t have to wait long to get his chance. McKenna, who had been the conference MVP at Albany State, was unfamiliar with the indoor game and simply couldn’t adjust.

The Panthers were being beaten in their season opener when Davis sent Lester into the game in the second quarter. He then led an inspirational comeback and the Panthers won in the final seconds.

It was a rebirth for the man who had been left behind.

Lester came off the bench in the second game of the season and led Albany to another victory, and it was clear who the quarterback of the team was. Lester took over and led Albany to the SIFL title.

“I wasn’t nervous when they put me in the (opening game),’’ Lester said. “I had been a backup before, and I know that job. They put you in and no one expects you to win the game. But we came back and won in the last seconds. And the rest is history.’’

It was sweet history.

“I admire him for what he went through,’’ Panthers receiver John Harris said this week. “He’s our quarterback. He’s our leader. He’s the glue.’’

Lester is respected throughout the league.

Damian Daniels, who was the Defensive MVP of the league for four straight years with Columbus, is now a member of the Panthers and happy to be on the same team as Lester.

“He’s definitely the best quarterback in this league, hands down,’’ Daniels said this week. “He is such a student of the game. You know going in when you play against him that if you make a mistake he will make you pay for it.’’

Lester made Louisiana pay in the title game last year, throwing 10 touchdown passes in a 69-48 win that culminated a journey that began on the bench.

Now he is back for a new start and a new season. He’s 30 years old and ready for another run at the title.

“My approach is different from last year,’’ Lester said. “Last year my focus was to do my job. This year my focus is to be a leader. We all have the same goal: to win another title. I don’t care anything about (statistics). I’m not worried about throwing 100 touchdown passes or how many yards I throw this year. I have (two goals): to be a leader and win the title. That’s all I care about.’’

Then he stopped and started again, looking ahead a bit.

“Last year it was a journey,’’ he said. “I can’t wait to see how this journey is going to be this year.’’