After seven years away from the game, Gorrie returned to professional football this past Saturday.
Editorial Feature by John Archibald
Life can be crazy. We are all faced with decisions in life where there is no way we can know the eventual outcome, nor do we know how we will react when we are forced to deal with some uncertain circumstances. However, taking risks is the only way we can truly grow as people, and it is most likely the only way we can become the ultimate self we are capable of being.
Ever since I can remember, sports were going to be my path. Not being blessed with the talents to become a professional athlete, I knew I had to find another way. The world of sports communications and the idea of becoming a front office executive always intrigued me, and I knew that would be the road I was going to take after college. Around that time, I had become turned onto the game of arena football when two close hometown friends, Cos DeMatteo and Nate Bandy, signed deals to play with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Pioneers of arenafootball2 (af2), a feeder to the Arena Football League (AFL). So after I got my degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, I shipped off my resume to every team in the AFL and af2. Just one team responded, an af2 club based between Fort Myers and Naples that was known as the Florida Firecats. After a quick phone conversation one day, I headed down I-75 to interview with team executives Chris Vallozzi and Joe Morgado, and I soon found myself moving to Southwestern Florida three weeks later.
The year was 2004 when I relocated to Florida and met some of the most talented football players and charismatic people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. One of those players was Steve Gorrie, a six-foot, 240-pound tank who steamrolled would-be defenders with the impact of a runaway freight train. At the time, Steve was giving football one last run at the age of 30-years-old, looking to correctly close the book on a career that had multiple stops in NFL camps after he emerged from Presbyterian College in South Carolina as one of the top fullbacks in the 1996 NFL Draft.
While a hamstring injury would cause problems during his time in NFL camps, Steve refused to quit. He spent some time with the Mobile Admirals of the short-lived Regional Football League (RFL) in 1999 and then landed himself a starting role for the Florida Bobcats of the AFL the following year after a chance encounter at the gym with a Bobcats executive. Taking his game indoors, he was soon back to his imposing ways on the gridiron. After collecting six touchdowns during his rookie season in the pass-happy AFL, Steve entered his sophomore campaign with high ambitions. He picked up where he left off the previous year, and he quickly turned the heads of the Miami Dolphins, which invited him into camp for the 2001 season. All the hard work was finally going to pay off. Then June 1, 2001, happened. Just 21 days before the start of Dolphins training camp, Steve found himself in a Nashville hospital after blowing out his knee against the hometown Kats in an AFL game.
Once again, everything he had worked so hard to achieve had been taken away. Still, he did not quit.
While it may have taken some persuasion from AFL Hall of Fame quarterback and then Firecats head coach Ben Bennett (who was also Steve’s offensive coordinator with the Bobcats), Steve found himself putting the pads on one more time three years later to finally end his career on his own terms.
So this is where two paths met at a crossroads. One was me, a clueless kid from Tennessee looking to get his career going while another was Steve, one of the best at what he does just looking to shut down a playing career like he wanted it to be concluded. The two of us immediately hit it off, and Steve took me under his wing like a big brother who had my back no matter the circumstance.
As that 2004 season got started, I was amazed at the talent we had on this team. We had two of the best quarterbacks in the league with Kenny Mastrole and Chris Wallace. We had the best fullback tandem on the planet with Steve and his running mate, Chris Morant. Cainon Lamb was one of the most talented receivers I have ever seen, catching most passes with one hand like it was too easy for him to use both hands. There was Magic Benton, whose hands were truly magical. In the defensive backfield, we had it covered with players like Quincy Sorrell, Roy Stabler, Desmond Washington and Brent Burnside. Up front, we had people like former NFL player Victor Hall and my man, Comone Fisher, who once was classically quoted in the local newspaper as saying ‘I don’t mean to smell myself, but I was a tight end in high school’ after rumbling for a touchdown on a misdirection pass from Mastrole. There was talent everywhere, and they were all characters.
None of us could have had a clue as to what we were about to endure that season. We had our hearts ripped out on Memorial Day Weekend with the death of one of our players, Dunstan Anderson, a former Super Bowl winner with the Dallas Cowboys who was also looking to end a playing career on his own terms. While riding to a barbeque, DA was involved in an automobile accident on the interstate that saw his car overturn and roll a few times. Next thing we knew, we were all sitting in a memorial service fighting back tears and trying to figure out what had just happened.
Playing on as one that season in memory of DA, there was an indescribable unity amongst our team that I cannot even put into words. While he may have been gone, DA was still with us. A rangey 6-2 defensive end, he had an unbelievable knack of blocking field goals and extra points. He knew how to read an opposing lineman, and he knew how to get his hand where it needed to be to deflect a kick. We definitely could have used him in our first round playoff game that year when the Memphis Xplorers lined up for a chip shot field goal to win a game they were trailing at the time by a count of 35-33. As the ball got snapped, the Memphis kicker put a foot on it, and we looked to the posts as we were sure our season was over. While no one got a hand on the ball, it looked as it was deflected and went wide left. No one could put into words what happened better than Comone did that day when he said ‘DA reached down from Heaven and blocked one more kick for us.’
With the relief of that win under our belts, we headed to Huntsville for the second round of the playoffs. Unfortunately for us, tragedy was about to strike again. Hurricane Charley, which was the strongest hurricane to hit the United States in 12 years, hit our area and absolutely destroyed the entire region. The arena we called home would become a shelter for a massive amount of people who now found themselves homeless, and yet we had to find a way to play football. Along with DA, we now had an entire region looking to us for inspiration, as crazy as that sounds. The only escape from reality those who had lost their homes had was when we got in our daily practice on the turf that housed medical tents and food lines when we were not on the field.
We had to keep winning, and win we did. In that game in Huntsville, we knocked off the Tennessee Valley Vipers after we again won on the last play of the game. Holding onto a lead of 62-58, Tennessee Valley handed off to their fullback on the goal line with a yard to go. Reading the play to perfection and absolutely demolishing the opposing back was my man, Steve, and we again emerged victorious after a dramatic last play.
The next stop for us that year was in Wilkes-Barre for the American Conference Championship and a right to host the 2004 ArenaCup. After all we had endured that season, there was no way we were losing that game. 41-31 would be the final score, and we were headed back to Florida to host the Super Bowl of af2. The Peoria Pirates never stood a chance. That game literally felt like it was over right after it started. After rolling past Peoria, 39-26, we were champions.
“We came together as a team, and we put everything else aside. We had some great players and a great coach in Ben Bennett. We just seemed to gel,” Steve said to me when I asked him to reflect back upon that championship season. “Unfortunately, we had to deal with the death of a teammate that year. When you are forced to deal with something like that, you just look to the Heavens. God has the ultimate plan, and we’re all just part of it. After that happened, I knew I was part of something special. It’s hard when you’re in the moment to enjoy every piece of it. Looking back, that was a special year, special moment and special memory. I met some great people, like yourself, and built some great relationships. Now I get to wear a nice piece of hardware on my finger to celebrate that championship season.”
A championship ring was not the only thing that Steve accomplished that season. He pulled off one of the most astonishing achievements I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. For those of you who do not understand the hybrid game of arena football, it is a game that sees the ball in the air nearly throughout its entirety. During that 2004 season, Steve ran for an astounding 500 yards, more than doubling what the previous rushing record was for the league. To put that in NFL terms, it would be like a back running for 3000 yards. Yeah, he was that good.
After that championship season concluded, I headed to the Northeast to continue chasing my sports dream. While our paths may have gone in different directions, I am proud to say I remain close to Steve and other players who were on that Firecats team that year. The special moment in history we all shared is something that can never be taken away.
Steve decided to return in 2005 to defend that championship, as did many other players on that Firecats roster, and the team dominated from opening weekend of the af2 season. He again put up eye-popping numbers on the ground, compiling 385 yards in 12 games to again lead af2 in rushing. However, the team came up short in the postseason, and a severe neck injury that involved his spinal cord would force Steve to surgery and into months of rehab. Unfortunately, it also cost him a ticket back into the AFL when those injuries made him unable to report to camp for the Orlando Predators in 2006.
Again, everything he had worked so hard for had been taken away. And yet again, he did not quit.
Seven years after that final game with the Florida Firecats, Steve suited up for the Florida Tarpons of the United Indoor Football League this past weekend, a team that now calls the same venue where the defunct Firecats played its home. Besides the home arena, he found another sense of familiarity in former teammates and current Tarpon coaches, Brent Burnside and Victor Hall. The decision for Steve did not seem to be too difficult because he had a score to settle. No matter how many times football tried to dictate the last chapter, the now 38-year-old fullback again picked up his pen to write the finale to his football story.
“I didn’t end my career on my terms,” Steve told me. “I got injured, and you always want to have a final chapter with a happy ending. I’ve been working out and getting in shape, and I always want to give back to the community. It’s not about Steve Gorrie anymore. There’s a bigger picture. I can remember when I was a young kid, I had football players and other athletes to look up to – I remember those days. I remember how it had an impact on my career and my life. Now that I have a son in my life, I know how important it is when you are a young adult to have role models to look up to for positive influences in your life.”
It must have been a surreal feeling for Steve to again be playing in front of the hometown Florida fans in the first game in Tarpons history, a 58-35 drubbing of the Mississippi Hound Dogs.
“It felt unbelievable,” he said of returning to the game of football. “I’m a little sore, obviously, but just to compete with guys who are 15 years younger than me and go out there and still dominate was amazing. I may have lost a step or not be quite as talented or able to jump as high, but to be able to go out there and compete, be successful and help my team win is an incredible feeling.”
But Steve did not just do it for fun. He was there to work, and he once again found himself in a familiar place when he rolled seven yards in the first half for his first rushing touchdown in seven years, something he likely felt that he would never experience again not that long ago.
“It was amazing,” he recalled about scoring that touchdown. “There was a good friend of mine in the stands who had his young son there, and I gave him the ball. To give back and put a smile on someone’s face, entertain and know I’m contributing to the success of my team – words can’t describe that feeling because there will be a time where I won’t ever be able to do that again. I had that feeling that it was the last time I’d ever play the last time I came out of that tunnel, but it’s almost like God gave me another chance. To come out and play and compete was just an exhilarating, amazing feeling. Like I said, words can’t describe it. The Good Lord has blessed me, and I’m grateful for one more opportunity. I’m playing every play like it’s my last play.”
While football has caused Steve much pain throughout his lifetime, he has nothing but love for a game that has also provided him with so much.
“Football has really helped develop me into who I am, and it’s allowed me to be a great leader and role model for young adults,” he reflected. “A lot of kids these days are getting steered in the wrong direction, and that probably could have happened to me. Thank God, I got into football and athletics, where I was able to excel. It also allowed me to be successful in the classroom and get a college degree. To play professional football at the highest level and to entertain, compete and say you’re the best of the best is the ultimate feeling and an amazing accomplishment.”
While he may have a championship ring on his finger and the distinct honor of being officially named the Greatest Fullback in af2 History by the league in 2009, Steve’s greatest accomplishment is arguably his ability to fight back. He has undergone a seesaw battle with football throughout his life, and it has attempted to write his final chapter on multiple occasions. Yet he somehow emerges from the smoke to counter every attempt by football to do that. Down but never out, he still has a score to settle.
And if football wants to think it can stop him from capping off his run as a professional football player exactly how he wants to do it – by all means, let it go ahead and try. Thousands of defenders throughout his career have thought they could stop him, too. Ask them how that turned out.