Roughriders head coach Mook Zimmerman was on the ground at the 50-yard-line for more than a minute. He hardly moved.
Earlier in the game, he had huffed his way down the field and thrown a pad off the side wall. He lay there in pure elation, as the Roughriders won the Arena Pro Football championship in the league’s first season.
On the last play of the game, the Florida Tarpons quarterback rolled to his left, looking for a last-second heave to win the game. Two Roughriders converged on him as he threw the ball down the field, making the pass come out awkwardly. It fluttered to the goal line, where linebacker Malique Johnson intercepted the pass and ran it back for a touchdown.
He launched the ball into the crowd, and with it, he launched the Roughriders’ frustrations from a back-and-forth game.
Richmond (8-0) had run through its season undefeated, smashing nearly every opponent it played. It had won games by 76, 80 and 92 points. Its final game, however, ended 74-61. The Tarpons (5-2), who had just one loss in the regular season, had fallen to the Roughriders in Richmond earlier this season, 55-34.
In the prior matchup, Richmond starting quarterback Jimmy Laughrea suffered a hematoma on his right leg. Doctors told him rehab would take at least three weeks, but he returned to play in the championship.
The game turned when, at the beginning of the second half, Roughriders starting kicker Ricky Seger went down with a leg injury. On a kickoff, he had bumped into a teammate and landed awkwardly on his leg. He couldn’t put any weight on the leg and came off the field. The Roughriders don’t have a listed backup kicker, so receiver Daniel Lee had to kick for Richmond.
Because Seger couldn’t play, the Roughriders were forced to go for two on every possession. Instead of scoring a potential 42 points on six touchdowns, they scored 46. The score gave the Roughriders a seven-point advantage as the game clock wound down and provided a cushion, if the Tarpons were to score on their final drive.
For only the second time all season, the Roughriders had trailed at halftime, 27-22. The frustration poured out as Johnson and Tarpons receiver Matt Emans stared each other down. They reached for each other’s facemasks before being separated.
Slowly, the Roughriders worked their way back, scoring eight points for every seven the Tarpons scored.
On the Roughriders’ final drive, with the game tied at 61, they asked their fans to quiet down for the first time. Laughrea, receiver Justin Burke and receiver Herb Brooks fluttered their arms up and down. The fans obliged. After the Roughriders snapped the ball, the 44 seconds on the clock ticked down.
Burke beat his cornerback down the right side of the field, looked back at Laughrea, and reached out for his pass. He hit the wall and stood up and celebrated as he had on each of his prior touchdowns by throwing the ball into the stands. The interception sealed it.
After the game and after Zimmerman had gotten to his feet, players moved around the field, carrying their kids on their shoulders, raising their arms and donning hats with tags still on them, commemorating the team’s first championship while “All we do is win” by DJ Khaled blared in the background.
By CHRIS LIBONATI Richmond Times-Dispatch