The 1996 season was a year of a bit of transition for the Arena Football League. The Texas Terror came in as an expansion team (and finished 1-13), the Fort Worth Cavalry moved to become the Minnesota Fighting Pike (they finished 4-10), the Las Vegas Sting moved to become the Anaheim Piranhas (who finished 9-5 and made the playoffs), and the Denver Dynamite went on hiatus to move to Nashville to become the Kats.
In the meantime, two of the early cornerstone franchises, the Tampa Bay Storm and Iowa Barnstormers, were slowly heading on a collision course to ArenaBowl X. For the Storm, they were looking to defend their title and finish off a dynasty with a 4th title in six years since moving from Pittsburgh. For Iowa, it was an opportunity to win the franchise’s first title.
Both teams finished the regular season 12-2, with Iowa earning the #1 overall seed based on tiebreakers. Both teams had somewhat of a tough time in the playoffs, with the Barnstormers beating St. Louis and Albany by a touchdown or less, and while the Storm dispatched Anaheim 30-16 in the quarterfinals, they squeaked by Arizona 55-54 to get to the big game.
From the opening whistle, the two hall of fame quarterbacks (Kurt Warner and Jay Gruden) went to work controlling the game. Gruden started the show with a 16-yard pass to OL/DL Lynn Rowland, then Warner threw two (a 16-yarder to WR/LB Chris Spencer and one for 30 yards to OS Lamont Cooper). On the last play of the quarter, Tampa Bay responded with a pass from Gruden to OS George LaFrance, but the extra point went wide, and it was a 14-13 Iowa lead.
The second quarter started fairly uneventfully aside from a Warner pass to WR/DB Willis Jacox to extend the lead. Then, in the final minute, the fireworks finally began. WR/LB Stevie Williams caught a touchdown pass, then an interception 23 seconds later that he returned for a touchdown. Like the first quarter, there was one last score to end the half, a FB/LB Ron Moran one-yard touchdown run.
Defense dominated the third quarter, with both teams only scoring once. Tampa Bay took the lead with a 21-yard pass from Jay Gruden to FB/LB Ivan Caesar, and kept it when Iowa could only answer with a Mike Black 32-yard field goal, again within the last ten seconds.
The fourth quarter was more of the same, with Kurt Warner finding Chris Spencer from four yards out to take their first lead of the second half, and Gruden answering right back with a seven-yard pass to Stevie Thomas. Warner led one last miracle drive, getting down to the Storm one-yard line on a first-and-goal. However, Tampa Bay’s defense prevailed with a goalline stand, denying a touchdown and cementing a championship.
Stevie Williams earned MVP honors thanks to his performance (seven catches, 103 yards, two touchdowns, and a pass breakup), and WR/LB Leonard Conley (10 catches, 91 yards, 3.5 total tackles) won the Ironman of the Game award.
The dynasty was complete, and Tampa Bay would get another shot just two years later to win their fifth title. For Iowa, Warner and crew returned the next year for another crack at a title, but after another loss, never reached the ArenaBowl again. The team moved to New York to become the Dragons in 2001, and the Barnstormers spent time in af2, a second stint in the AFL, and finally moved to the IFL, where they currently reside.