Black and teal confetti litters the floor of America West Arena as the Arizona Rattlers are mobbed by the press, having just outlasted the Colorado Crush, 45-41, in the semifinals of the Arena Football League playoffs. After an afternoon-long war of attrition, you'd expect the boys to retreat to the locker room to celebrate, but not the Rattlers. They've got higher priorities: signing autographs for hundreds of fans hanging on the sidelines.
As the only Valley sports franchise likely to take home a trophy this year, the team gives props to the fans who've cheered them to 11 straight victories -- and who will provide home-field advantage against the San Jose SaberCats at ArenaBowl XVIII on Sunday, June 27.
"That's the thing about the AFL -- we acknowledge the fans, and we know, without them, we'd be unemployed. That's why we stay out here," says Ricky Parker as he signs the tee shirt of a wide-eyed youngster. "The NFL, they got endorsements, and they're gonna get paid regardless if anyone shows up at the game. With us, we need the fans; they keep us going."
The interaction gets even more personable as a young couple beckons Parker -- who pulls double duty as both wide receiver and defensive back for the team, a common role in the AFL -- to hold their newborn for a picture. He's hesitant, preferring to pocket the pigskin than coddle an infant and risk a potential lawsuit. "Don't wanna get any football sweat on your baby," he says. A second later, Parker's all smiles, pulling off his gloves and gingerly cradling the babe for a snapshot.
Things get a bit more extreme with superfan Richard Rodriguez, who dons cape and cowl as "Rattler Man" at every game, both home and away. Despite going all out with his Skeletor-with-snakes ensemble -- complete with face paint, rubber armor and rattlesnake scepter -- the 49-year-old airplane mechanic won't be duking it out with the motorcycle-riding Fang for the official mascot spot.
"I'm a nice 'Rattler Man,'" says Rodriguez, taking his false fangs out of his mouth for better articulation. "I come for the game and all the players know me, and I get them pumped up and get the crowd pumped up."
Randy Gatewood, wide receiver and defensive back, is down with Rodriguez, as the moniker "the ninth man" is more than just a marketing ploy.
"In the big games, like the semifinals and the ArenaBowl, I think the fans help out a lot. A lot of teams haven't won on the road in the ArenaBowls, but for the most part, it's a big deal when you get into the championship game," says Gatewood.
But is the third time the charm for the Snakes, now seeking their third title? After all, they've come up short two years straight, including getting pasted by the SaberCats in 2002. "We're gonna go out there and play like we've played the last 10 weeks," says Gatewood, "and if we do that, we like our chances."