QB Cecil Lester is one of several Panthers who say they are retiring from arena football with Monday’s season-ending loss. Along with Lester, receivers Clenton Rafe and Antwone Savage, defensive back Demetrie McCray and fullback Derrick Wimbush likely won’t return. (Eric Schultz/Huntsville (Ala.) Times)
ALBANY — Monday night’s 61-46 loss to Alabama in the semifinals of the PIFL playoffs wasn’t just the end of the season for the Albany Panthers.
It was the end of an era.
“It’s the end,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said on Tuesday. “Now it’s a new chapter in our organization.”
Davis will be returning for the 2014 season, but many of his players won’t, including quarterback Cecil Lester, receivers Clenton Rafe and Antwone Savage, defensive back Demetrie McCray and fullback Derrick Wimbush.
The group that made the playoffs four straight years, won back-to-back league championships in 2011 and 2012 and became the most successful PIFL franchise is closing the door on a remarkable era.
“I had a bunch of different emotions going through my head on the trip back to Albany (after the loss),” Davis said. “I knew that for most of these guys it would be the last time we would all be together. The relationships I created with those guys were far beyond player-coach. It was hurting and disappointing to me to go out that way.”
It was the first time in three years that the Panthers ended their season without raising a championship trophy.
It will be the first summer the team won’t parade through downtown Albany during the 4th of July weekend, brandishing the trophy and championship smiles.
And it was the final time Lester and many of his teammates unlaced their cleats and slipped off their Panthers jersey.
And it hurt.
“We let one slip away,” said Lester, referring to the season-ending game where they trailed by 18 points at halftime but stormed back only to see their comeback fall agonizingly short. “It was just one of those seasons where things don’t go as planned. That deficit wasn’t impossible, but we dug ourselves a hole that was too deep to get out of.”
It would have been a comeback fitting for a franchise that dominated the league the previous two seasons. On their way to raising back-to-back banners, they put together a 15-game winning streak at home and became local football icons.
Nobody was more crucial to the franchise’s success than Lester, whose career took one turn after another in a Panthers uniform until he ultimately became the “cornerstone” of the team.
“I would definitely consider him the cornerstone of our franchise the last four years,” Davis said. “I have so much respect for him because of the ups and downs he has been through the last four years he has been here. I have heard fans heckle him. There was a game where the fans booed him. He has been lashed at a lot, but he never quit.”
Davis continued: “I think some of the words (Lester) received after games and during games, I think any other human being probably wouldn’t be able to take that. But he just overlooked that and kept playing.”
Lester, who had the best season of his career with 61 passing touchdowns and 3,274 yards, was the voice of reason to his coach after Monday’s loss.
“I was at a low (Monday) night,” Davis said. “I was about to break down, and to hear what Cecil said to me meant everything.”
They were the perfect words at the perfect time.
“He said, ‘Coach, you put this city on the map,’ ” Davis said. “He said, ‘You took a bunch of second-tier guys — guys that no other team wanted — and made champions out of us.’ ”
Lester was the foundation of that success, winning 17 straight games as a starter during a stretch that spanned the 2011-13 seasons.
He was once ridiculed by the team and its fans after the top-seeded Panthers were upset in the opening round of the playoffs in 2010.
But he came back, not only winning back-to-back championships but winning the respect and admiration of the city.
“I have been the back-up. I have been the reliever. I have been the starter. I have been the guy who holds it all together. I have done all of those roles in the four years I have been here,” Lester said. “I have experienced the backlash from the fans, and I have experienced them putting me on a pedestal and praising me. I have been a quarterback all of my life, and my mom used to tell me that you get all of the glory when you win and all of the blame when you lose.”
The glory that goes hand-in-hand with the Panthers franchise might have never come to the Good Life City if it wasn’t for Lester, who is the offensive coordinator at Dooly County and a public school teacher.
“But it’s time to move on,” said Lester, a former QB at Fort Valley State. “I played the game long enough, and I gave it my all. It’s time to go and do other things. It’s time to start a family and become a better coach. My playing journey is over.”
Lester and many of his teammates said they were going to retire after last season, too. But there was no hesitation in Lester’s voice Tuesday when he talked about the end of his playing days.
He really meant it this time.
“This time, it’s really, really over,” he said. “To experience some of things I experienced this year lets me know I can walk away from it while I can still walk.”
Not only did he watch Savage, his longtime teammate and friend, break his tibia and fibula in a gruesome game-day injury, but Lester said the structure and intensity of the team just wasn’t the same as it was the previous two seasons.
“The difference in this year wasn’t an age thing,” he said. “I think it was that the other teams were getting better and we were stagnant. I think it was tough for us to keep that drive to win three in a row. I don’t think night-in and night-out we had that same drive that we did the last two years. I felt like there were times that we thought being two-time champs that our opponents would just lay down for us.”
The Panthers ended the year with a 7-6 record — a far cry from the previous two years when they were nearly unbeatable.
But defensive back Damian Daniels, who joined the Panthers last season, doesn’t believe the 2013 season takes away from the success the team forged the last four years.
“Even with the rough season we had I still think this franchise will be recognized as one of the best with one of best runs in arena history,” Daniels said. “The two titles and the 15 straight home wins, that’s something that will always be remembered.”
Daniels, like many of his veteran teammates, is considering retirement. But Daniels, however, is just three interceptions away from breaking the all-time career record in all levels of arena football and said he might have one more season under his belt.
He just doesn’t know if that season will be with the Panthers.
“That is still to be determined,” he said. “It depends on what the rest of the core guys’ decisions are. If the right people come back it’s definitely a possibility.”
Even if Daniels returns, Davis expects the next few seasons to be rebuilding years.
“The birth of our organization was with our core guys, but now that they are gone we have to come back with more core guys,” Davis said. “I’m not expecting to struggle, but we will have a bunch of new guys next year. We are rebuilding. The good thing with this type of football is that you can rebuild with guys who have experience and still be a contender.”
And as long as the Panthers are a contender, Davis, who flirted with retirement after last season, expects to remain the head coach.
“I expressed to (general manager Will Carter) last year that as long as they would have me I would be here,” Davis said. “I feel like as long as my performance is acceptable that I believe they will keep me here.”
Carter wouldn’t comment on the coaching situation, saying it was too early in the offseason to talk about personnel issues, but he didn’t rule out Davis’ return to the sideline.
If he returns, Davis will be forging on without many of the players who made Albany a powerhouse in arena football, but he has an idea of whom he would like to take the reins next season: current Louisiana quarterback and former Panthers backup Chris Mitchell.
Mitchell was on the Panthers’ roster last season and was instrumental in securing the team’s No. 1 seed heading into the 2012 playoffs by relieving an injured Lester off the bench and coming from behind to beat rival Columbus.
Davis would like to see the Alabama State grad back in a Panthers uniform.
“If I had it my way, I would want Chris Mitchell back,” Davis said. “He has young legs, and there are some things that we can do with him that we couldn’t do with Cecil. He has had a year as a starter now and has that experience of playing week-in and week-out. I have the confidence that if he comes in with us that we will be better.”
Lester is confident that Davis will be able to continue the team’s success regardless of the roster.
“He has done a lot for the city,” Lester said. “A lot of guys on our team were players that other coaches didn’t want. But (Davis) took us in. My four years were a hell of a lot of fun. To lose like we did doesn’t make us losers. It was just the end of an era.”
But another era is just around the corner.
“We will be back and better next season,” Davis said. “We learned this year that you have to accept the bitter with the sweet. I am proud of my team. If you look at the accomplishments I had with these guys for the last four years, that’s a lot to be thankful for.”