The 1994 season brought expansion to the Arena Football League, with three new teams (the Fort Worth Cavalry, Las Vegas Sting, and Milwaukee Mustangs) entering the league, while the Cincinnati Rockers and Dallas Texans folded, plus, the Detroit Drive, the first powerhouse of the league, moved to Worcester to become the Massachusetts Marauders.
With two uneven conferences, there were some scheduling logistics to work through. Nevertheless, it was a fairly competitive league. Seven of the 11 teams finished within three games of each other, and it was a close race for the top two spots. The Orlando Predators easily won the National Conference with an 11-1 record, and the Albany Firebirds fought off the Arizona Rattlers by two games to win the American Conference at 10-2.
However, like any good postseason, funny things happen. Orlando, as the top seed, only allowed 14 points to debutante Fort Worth in the quarterfinals, before fighting off newly-relocated Massachusetts 51-42 in the semifinals. While Albany was favored to play for the title, it was actually Arizona who was Orlando-bound thanks to a 52-24 win over the Charlotte Rage and a 40-33 upset over the Firebirds in Albany.
The game started with notoriety for two firsts: the first ArenaBowl to use a Roman numeral (VIII vs. ’94) and the Rattlers’ first appearance. But, the Predators, still looking for their first title, struck first. Quarterback Ben Bennett found WR/LB Alex Shell for a five-yard touchdown. Hall-of-Fame quarterback Sherdrick Bonner answered right back when he found WR/DB Cedric Tillman for 33 yards and the tying score. Jorge Cimadevilla kicked a 24-yard field goal late in the quarter, and the first 15 minutes ended 10-7 Orlando.
Arizona controlled most of the second quarter, starting out with a six-yard pass from Bonner to OS Calvin “Shakes” Schexnayder to retake the lead. Ben Bennett found Alex Shell on a 42-yard scoring bomb to answer, but that was the Predators’ only scoring of the quarter. The Rattlers had a chance to open up the game, but only managed two Luis Zendejas field goals (23 and 40 yards) to give Arizona a 20-17 halftime lead.
The third quarter was just as back and forth, just with much less scoring. After over twelve minutes without either team making a dent, the Rattlers finally extended their lead thanks to Bonner finding WR/DB Milton Vaughn for a two-yard pass and a ten-point lead. The Predators answered on their next drive, but Bennett found WR/DB McCurey “Herkie” Walls on a 38-yard deep score to cut the deficit to 27-24 going into the fourth quarter.
Zendejas made his third field goal of the game to start the final frame, but just less than five minutes later, WR/DB Barry Wagner scored on a three-yard run to give Orlando their first lead since early in the second quarter, 31-30.
The Predators held that lead at the one-minute warning, until Sed Bonner engineered another big drive. With 31 seconds left, Bonner found Schexnayder for a 24-yard touchdown and a five-point lead. Zendejas tried a dropkick to make it a seven-point game, but he missed, giving Orlando one last chance.
Ben Bennett had enough time and one last deep pass in him, but it fell incomplete, giving the Rattlers their first ever ArenaBowl title.
Sed Bonner, who completed 25 of 38 passes for 267 yards, four touchdowns and an interception, won MVP honors. Barry Wagner, thanks to six catches for 111 yards, two carries for three yards and his touchdown, and four tackles, was named Ironman of the Game.
Arizona would win their second title just three short years later, while Orlando would rack up two more losses before finally breaking through the year after the Rattlers’ second win.