PANTHERS FACE RIVAL COLUMBUS ON SATURDAY
By Eric Tabor
The music that moves linebacker Larry Edwards is played in so many sports venues around the globe that it has almost lapsed into cliché.
But to one of the emotional leaders of Albany’s defense, the sound is a call to arms.
The distant screech of an electric guitar. The deliberate rhythm from a drum machine. The slow, eerie hum of a synthesizer. The echoing voice of an English pop singer.
I can feel it coming in the air tonight; oh, Lord …
“In The Air Tonight” echoes throughout stadia near and far. For the Panthers, it is the music that heralds their first appearance as a team before every home game. They break a pre-game huddle in the northeast end zone and emerge, one by one, running along the touchline, turning a corner and heading into position for pregame warm-ups.
The haunting sound echoes throughout the stadium, pierced only by the accompaniment of Edwards, who sings along as he stretches, his eyes scanning the teammates and fans that surround him, his lips mouthing every syllable in perfect time with Phil Collins’ voice.
Players have their rituals that remain unbroken — sometimes because of superstition; others because of routine. This is Edwards’, and it has been ever since he was a high-schooler in Orlando, Fla.
“When you just listen to the words, the feeling you get, it’s like a calm before the storm,” he said. “It gets you pumped, man. The drums drop, the music starts going, and you just feel amped up and ready to go.”
But just over 12 months ago, Edwards didn’t know where he was headed.
… The hurt doesn’t show
But the pain still grows
It’s no stranger to you and me …
July 10, 2010 was going to be just another day at the office for Edwards, in the midst of his first Southern Indoor Football League season and with a franchise that didn’t exist six months prior. They were the No. 1 seed and apparently headed for the league championship game. Quarterback Cecil Lester had restored stability and confidence in their offense. They had the best record (8-3) in the league. Life for the Panthers, and Edwards, was splendid.
Then, the final play of the 2010 season, Lester came up short on a QB scramble to the end zone. The mighty Panthers championship hopes were dashed.
Who was to know what light would emerge from the darkness of that day? Edwards signed a contract to become a Panther once again, and has been with the team for all but eight days in the 12 months since.
Given the divergent fortune of the team since, it seems the fate did him a favor. The Panthers have won 11 of their last 13 games and are primed for a showdown Saturday with the dreaded 2010 SIFL champions, the Columbus Lions, in the Eastern Conference championship, the fourth meeting of the two organizations this season.
The Lions … well, 12-1 says it all. Their only defeat was to this Panther team. And Edwards knows that were it not for what seemed to be a crushing, career-threatening loss a year ago, he may not have been a part of this 2011 Albany team.
“I think about it,” he said. “But you never know. God always has something better in store for you. And it’s here. I’m just blessed to be here and be a part of this organization.”
… How can I ever forget,
It’s the first time — the last time — we ever met …
Edwards hadn’t even enjoyed a winning season when he arrived in Albany midway through the 2010 campaign.
In the SIFL, teams aren’t that different. Their overall talent level is often indistinguishable from one another, when viewed from a distance. It is often in the intangibles where winners separate from losers, where one club’s meltdown is another’s affirmation.
Even as the Panthers struggled in the 2010 playoffs — with a 10-3 finish mirroring this season — Edwards sees differences.
“When I came in, I didn’t know many of the guys; I kind of felt my way around. But when I came in, I got that vibe that this is not a bad group,” Edwards said. “Coming from North Carolina, we had good guys up there, too, but we were still missing one piece of the puzzle. Here, you have that.”
That was …
“The camaraderie,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable. Great character. This is just a great, awesome group. When you’ve got 20 plus guys on the squad, it’s hard for a lot of guys to get along; one guy has a problem with another, there’s guys calling others out. With this squad, it’s almost like a family; a brotherhood. Everybody gets along and everyone works well with each other.”
… And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all of my life; oh, Lord …
Some say the song is an allegory about the emotions Collins felt during an ongoing, bitter divorce in the early 1980s. Others theorize that it is a vignette about a deranged lifeguard.
Edwards, however, sees his current standing in the last line of the refrain.
“Right now, that’s exactly what I’m feeling,” he said.
No Panther has waited so long to play in the postseason — through 12 games.
Each weekend since March brought something new to Edwards’s football life:
Week 7, against the Richmond Raiders: Second winning season … Week 13, against the Alabama Hammers: First 10-win season … Week 14, against the Erie Explosion: First playoff win clinched …
“Just the thought of the playoffs, you look at our schedule, and we’ve got two more games and we win the whole thing,” he said. “A three-game winning streak, you just get that feeling. It’s unbelievable.
“You’ve been in the league two years. You work hard year and year out, trying to make it. Now, it’s finally happening.”
And the moment Saturday night wouldn’t be perfect until he hears the song, until he sings along.
The emotional tapestry of this week and this game is not merely woven by savvy playoff veterans with names like Savage, Richmond, McCray and Lester. Nor is it solely about the young stars who this June take their first postseason bows, standouts including the names Rue, Wheeler, Boyer and Bibbins.
It belongs just as much to players like Edwards, for whom this game is the culmination of years of work on the field, work that goes largely unappreciated and unheralded, work that defines the rank and file of the league.
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight?
Edwards certainly can.
Catch Larry “The Bull” Edwards and the Albany Panthers Saturday, June 25 at 7:30 p.m. in Columbus, as they take on the Columbus Lions in the Eastern Conference final. If you can’t make it to Columbus, tune in to 98.1 WMRZ on the radio or online at www.KISSAlbany.com.