2008 was the end of an era. Players’ salaries were skyrocketing, but the league itself struggled to maintain, and a deal at the end of the season fell through. No one quite knew it yet back in July, but teams, players, and fans knew they would be lucky if they saw another season. But before that, there was ArenaBowl XXII, and if it was over, the league would go out with a bang.
The San Jose SaberCats expected to return and defend their title in New Orleans. Although they started the season 5-5, they had an easy path to the big game thanks to an 11-5 record and a Western Division title. After a 64-51 win over Colorado in the divisional round, the path became even easier thanks to a Grand Rapids upset over top-seeded Chicago. the SaberCats dispatched the Rampage handily, punching their ticket.
The Philadelphia Soul were a good team in a surprisingly tough division. After an 8-8 finish in 2007, the Soul beat that win total by starting 9-0, including a win against their rivals, the Dallas Desperados. After surviving a rough month of May (1-3 record), Philadelphia regrouped and won their final three games to finish 13-3 and edge Dallas for the Eastern division crown and the #1 seed.
The Soul’s path nearly ended before it started. in their Divisional round game against the New York Dragons, Larry Brackins appeared to score the game-winning touchdown as the horn sounded. Upon review, his knee appeared to be down before the ball crossed the goal line. However, the call stood and the Soul survived and advanced. After a 70-35 win against Cleveland, Philadelphia earned the right to play for their first title.
In front of a crowd of 17,244 at the Smoothie King center, Mark Grieb and Matt D’Orazio matched each other pass for pass to start the game. San Jose struck first thanks to a Rodney Wright, Jr. touchdown, but Philly came right back thanks to a Brent Holmes score.
The two teams combined to score on the first six possessions of the game, and with nine minutes left in the second quarter, the Soul began to take charge. Larry Brackins caught a 20-yard pass from D’Orazio, and after a stop, D’Orazio ran eight yards for a score to extend the lead to 34-20. Jason Geathers answered back thanks to a 23-yard pass from Grieb, but a Connor Hughes field goal at the gun gave Philly a 37-27 lead at the half.
Picking up where they left off, the Soul scored the first nine points of the third quarter thanks to a Chris Jackson scoring catch and a safety. Geathers scored again for the SaberCats, but the game reverted to both teams holding serve on each possession, leaving San Jose at bay through most of the second half.
Down 59-42 with just 39 seconds left, the SaberCats were determined to go down fighting. A quick drive ended with a 26-yard pass from Grieb to Wright, Jr. Then the SaberCats recovered the onside kick, setting up a 17-yard pass from Grieb to Geathers. However, lightning didn’t strike twice, and the Soul recovered the second onside kick and ran out the clock.
Philadelphia swept the game’s awards, as MVP went to D’Orazio (26/43, 302 yards, 7 TD, 0 Int, TD run), Chris Jackson (11 rec, 146 yards, 3 TD) won Offensive Player of the Game, Gabe Nyenhuis (sack, pass breakup, forced fumble) was named Defensive Player of the Game, and Mike Brown (five kick returns, 72 yards, six tackles, two pass breakups, forced fumble) won Ironman of the Game honors.
It was indeed the end, as the league decided to cancel the 2009 season to form a better financial strategy, and returned in 2010 under the management of Jerry Kurz. While it was a summer to remember for the city of Philadelphia (where the Phillies won the World Series just a few short months later), the league as a whole would sadly never be the same again.