In 2003, the league entered something of uncharted territory. The schedule expanded from 14 to 16 games, and there was a new deal with weekly games on NBC, including the ArenaBowl.
Both the Tampa Bay Storm and Arizona Rattlers had reason to be in ArenaBowl XVII. Despite finishing just 6-8 the year prior, the Storm won a wild card game as the #12 seed and lost to the eventual champions in San Jose by a mere touchdown. On the other side, the Rattlers were trying to make it to their second straight ArenaBowl and shake memories of a 52-14 beatdown just twelve months prior.
Despite a 10-6 season, both the SaberCats and the Los Angeles Avengers made the Western division the toughest in the league. Arizona finished third, good enough for the #6 seed in the playoffs. After beating the Las Vegas Gladiators at home and LA at Staples Center, the Rattlers avenged the loss by winning in San Jose 66-49 in the semifinals.
Tampa Bay won a tough Southern division race on tiebreakers over their archrival Orlando Predators, and the 12-4 record was good enough for the #2 seed and a first-round bye. After a nailbiter against the Detroit Fury in the quarterfinals, the Storm won another War on I-4 in the semifinals to get to, and host, the big game.
A sold-out crowd of 20,496 at the St. Pete Times Forum saw a mostly tense game throughout the first half. Arizona struck first thanks to a Nelson Garner 36-yard field goal, but John Kaleo answered right back with a 33-yard pass to WR/LB Lawrence Samuels, giving Tampa Bay the lead. Sherdrick Bonner and Basil Proctor traded one-yard touchdown runs, and the Storm held a 14-10 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Tampa Bay controlled the second quarter, starting off with a Kelvin Kinney 23-yard fumble return for a touchdown. However, Kaleo went down with an injury, forcing Pat O’Hara, who had thrown only 14 passes all season, into action at the age of 34. O’Hara, who beat the Storm in ArenaBowl XII as the starter for the Predators, guided a scoring drive that ended with a Kenny Stucker 23-yard field goal at the siren to give his team a 23-16 halftime lead.
The two teams traded early blows to start the third quarter, but neither team got any points on the board. O’Hara found Samuels for a nine-yard touchdown pass, but Bonner answered right back with a three-yard score to Orshawonte Bryant to stay within arm’s reach. O’Hara accounted for two more touchdowns to start the fourth quarter (another pass to Samuels and a three-yard run), and a final pass from Bonner to Randy Gatewood was too little, too late. Tampa Bay held on to win 43-29.
The win gave the Storm their record fifth title, handing Danny White back-to-back ArenaBowl losses, and Bonner became only the third quarterback in league history to start and lose consecutive ArenaBowls. Lawrence Samuels entered rare company by winning both MVP and Ironman of the Game honors. Arizona would get one more shot, but it wouldn’t end very well the next year. For Tampa Bay, it would be the last big game appearance in the original Arena Football League era, as the team would wait seven years for a shot at another title.