Georgia Fire quarterback Cecil Lester is one of 10 former Albany Panthers who are now playing for the Rome-based PIFL franchise after the Panthers folded earlier this year. (Special Photo: Georgia Fire)
ROME — Clenton Rafe still catches passes from friend and quarterback Cecil Lester, still calls the Columbus Lions his biggest rival and is still fighting for a PIFL championship.
These days he’s doing all of that about 225 miles from the Albany Civic Center.
Rafe was one of 10 former Albany Panthers who took their talents to Rome to play for the Georgia Fire when Albany’s PIFL franchise folded earlier this year — and the ex-Albany State receiver said he misses playing in the comfortable environment of the Good Life City.
“We miss playing in Albany because it felt like home,” Rafe said. “We built something that was really special and something that hadn’t been done down there. We put our imprint on Albany, and for it to end the way it did really hurt a lot of the players.”
Rafe and the Panthers won league championships in 2011 and 2012 and became one of indoor football’s most competitive franchises, but the ride abruptly ended in February when the city of Albany terminated its lease with the Panthers because of a breached contract due to a lack of payments.
Many of the team’s stars, who had became local celebrities around Albany and attracted an average home attendance of 5,286 from 2011-13, became members of the Fire, a first-year franchise that inherited the Panthers’ schedule and plays in the PIFL’s American Conference.
In the Fire’s two home games this season, the average attendance is a mere 325.
“There was nothing like playing in Albany. The fans, the arena,” Lester said. “That was our dream to play in front of a great group of fans who supported us and loved us. We loved them back. To come and play somewhere different, where they don’t know you by name or even know who you are is a huge transition.”
The memories of the league’s best hometown support and a booming Civic Center with championship banners hanging from the rafters are fading.
It’s been painful to let go for many of the Panthers.
“It’s different when you don’t have that fan base and the same community involvement,” said Rafe, who is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury. “That’s a struggle in itself. In Albany, you are in that comfort zone and everybody trusts everybody. It’s different here.”
Lester and Rafe are joined in Rome by eight former Panther teammates: receivers Johnny Lester, John Harris and Antwontis Cutts, quarterback Chris Mitchell, defensive back Demetrie McCray, linebacker Larry Edwards, kicker Ryan Gates and lineman Aaron Wheeler.
Harris said he and his teammates still talk about the sudden exit from Albany and how much they miss the fan support.
“We hated the way things happened, but our hearts will always be in Albany,” Harris said. “I would just like to tell the fans that we miss them and wish we could be there.
“The atmosphere on game day is totally different. We had so much support in Albany, but here not as many people know you.”
Many of the players left Albany with unpleasant feelings toward the Panthers’ front office, but Cecil Lester said he and his teammates have nothing but admiration for their fans they had to leave behind.
“The fans aren’t the reason we felt that way,” said Cecil Lester, whose decision to retire after the 2013 season — a move that he ultimately elected against — was largely because he felt the franchise “wasn’t taking care” of him.
Lester continued: “We have no ill feelings towards the fans. We wish we were back in there playing in front of them in the Civic Center. You go somewhere else and have to build that reputation back up, and it’s hard to do when you don’t get fan support like we had in Albany.”
The Fire (3-4) have lost two straight games and have fallen into a three-way tie for second place in the American Conference with Columbus and Alabama.
The Fire are still trying to develop chemistry with a revamped roster playing under first-year coach Cosmo DeMatteo, but many of the elements that made the Panthers so successful in Albany are beginning to surface.
In a 72-64 loss to the Harrisburg Stampede on May 17, Cecil Lester completed 31-of-47 passes for nine touchdowns and 386 yards. Lester leads the PIFL in passing yards per game with 271.6, and Harris leads the league with 121.2 all-purpose yards per game and 7.5 catches per game. Johnny Lester is No. 2 in the PIFL in points per game (13.3) and receiving yards per game (91.2).
The Panthers had their two-year championship streak snapped in 2013 when they lost in the semifinals to Alabama, and in the wake of the season-ending loss several players announced their intentions to retire.
Harris, a fifth-year veteran of the PIFL, was one of the Panthers who entertained the idea of stepping away, but he said once the 2014 season rolled around the close-knit Panthers made the decision to return to the field. When the team split from the city of Albany, franchises from the PIFL and the Texas-based Lone Star Football League pursued ex-Panthers who were suddenly without a team — but the emergence of the Fire gave the longtime friends and teammates a chance to suit up together.
“Once the season started to come back around we got that itch again,” Harris said. “We talked every day and all decided to play again because we missed each other and missed hanging out with each other. We are making memories right now.”
They are also making a playoff run. The top two teams from each conference qualify for the PIFL postseason, and they are locked in a three-way tie for the final spot and are just two games behind front-runner Nashville.
They have five games remaining in the regular season, and four will be played at home, including Sunday’s game against the Richmond Raiders. The Fire wrap up the regular season with a June 27 game against the Lions, a team that Rafe said the Fire are still bitter rivals with.
“Oh yeah, that’s still there,” Rafe said about the rivalry with Columbus. “Everybody still knows that we are the Panthers.”