Panthers holder Demetrie McCray, left, had the steady hand all night Saturday for kicker Ryan Gates, who ended the game perfect on point-after attempts, unos and he nailed the game-winning FG from 28 yards out with 1.9 seconds left.
ALBANY — Big game, big night and so much on the line so early, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story of the Panthers’ 40-37 win against Columbus in their home opener Saturday night at the Civic Center.
They won so much more.
“This game was about character,’’ Panthers linebacker Larry Edwards said. “These are the kind of games that do nothing but build character. It showed we have character and it’s the kind of game we can build on for the rest of the season.’’
It’s hard to believe those words are coming from a team that has won back-to-back arena football titles and is just starting a new season.
Two-time champs don’t talk about building. But these Panthers are different, and that’s what Saturday night’s last-second win was all about — about finding a way to win. And about defining who and what this team is.
It’s an old cliché in sports, the one about how good teams win on bad nights, and the Panthers could have done a commercial for that theme Saturday.
On a night when little felt right, they came back and beat their biggest rival with a 28-yard field goal with 1.9 seconds left to play.
That didn’t even go smoothly. Moments before kicking the game winner, Panthers kicker Ryan Gates slipped and fell while warming up for the kick.
Lots of laughs, and lots of drama.
The kick was good and so were the Panthers, well, good enough. In the end, there was lots of hugging from a team that couldn’t be closer.
“We’re a family,’’ said Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester, who admitted after the game he had one of his worst nights. “We’re a family and we stay together, win or lose. We just kept pushing and found a way to win.’’
That was the theme at halftime. It wasn’t panic or about what was going wrong. The Panthers had scored just twice in the first half and Lester struggled through the first two quarters, completing just nine passes.
And if that wasn’t enough, the half ended with Columbus stopping Derrick Wimbush at the 1-yard line on a goal-line stand that should have given Columbus momentum going into the second half.
But Albany led 14-13, and that’s what Panthers coach Lucious Davis emphasized at halftime.
“At halftime, I told them as bad as we had played we were still up by one,’’ Davis said.
They talked about something else, too.
“We talked about family and staying together,’’ said John Harris, who caught a 25-yard pass that set up the game-winning field goal. “That’s what we talked about. Nobody was pointing fingers at anyone. Teams get down when things go bad and point fingers. This team doesn’t do that. We’re close. Nobody was getting down. We just said we would stay together and find a way to win. As bad as we played, we still won.’’
That’s what they took from Saturday’s game — a sense of no-quit and togetherness that is at the heart of everything they do.
They shouldn’t even be here, but they are — this 30-something bunch of veterans who could have walked away so easily. Seven members on this team, including Wimbush, Lester and Harris, are all over the age of 30 playing in a league that doesn’t pay much and demands so much more.
They have full-time jobs, families and a life away from arena football, but no one wanted to walk away from the bumps, bruises and everything else that comes in this league. Nobody wanted to walk away from the Panthers.
So they are here in this league, where rosters — and even franchises — change at the drop of a hat, coming back for one more run at a title. They all say they came back for the three-peat (and they have), but they also came back for each other.
“I knew they would come back,’’ Davis said. “Yes, they really care for each other. This is a close team.’’
That’s what Saturday’s victory was all about, staying together one more time and adding a little more glue to a bond that was already unbreakable.
“We believe in each other,’’ Harris said.
No one doubts that after Saturday night.