The year was 1992. It was four years since the Cardinals arrived in the Valley via St. Louis. Arizona sports fans had yet to fully embrace their NFL franchise thanks to one losing season after another, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of empty seats at nearly every home game.
That same year, Valley football fans began to fall in love with a professional football team -- not the Cardinals, who would go on to have six more consecutive non-winning seasons, but the Arena Football League's Arizona Rattlers, who moved into then-America West Arena with the Phoenix Suns and began winning almost right away.
Unlike the Cardinals, the Rattlers were a revelation to Phoenix football fans. They sold out every home game in those early years. Players such as Sherdrick Bonner and Hunkie Cooper became Valley household names.
Why? Because they were winners. They made the playoffs in their second AFL season, and they won their first title in Year No. 3 by earning an upset ArenaBowl victory over the host Orlando Predators. Three years later, they won a second championship, against Kurt Warner and the Iowa Barnstormers, in front of a raucous Phoenix crowd.
Nearly 20 years have passed since that second title, and while they don't enjoy the kind of fanfare they received in the 1990s thanks in part to he Cardinals' recent rise, the Rattlers have continued to win. They have appeared in seven of the last 14 ArenaBowls and won three in a row from 2012-14. Last year, they came a controversial play away from a fifth straight ArenaBowl appearance.
It's easy to contend that the Rattlers have been the most successful franchise in the AFL's 29-year history -- but sadly, they're part of what could be a dying brand. Due to reported financial concernsand the emergence of the Indoor Football League, the number of AFL franchises in operation has recently been cut from 14 teams to just eight this season, the fewest since 1991.
Last year, the San Jose SaberCats, one of the AFL's most successful franchises over the last two decades, folded just three months after winning Arena Bowl XXVIII due to alleged dysfunction within the league.In his story for sanjoseinside.com, David Barclay noted the SaberCats had been the most successful pro sports franchise in San Jose history.
The same can be said for the Ratters in regards to the Phoenix area: They've won five championships, tied for the most in AFL history and more than the Cardinals, Suns, Diamondbacks, Coyotes and Mercury combined. They'll go for a record sixth title on Friday when they host the Philadelphia Soul in ArenaBowl XXIX.
If the AFL continues on its current trajectory, the Rattlers may not exist for much longer. That's why Valley football fans should soak up every last drop of arena football for as long as they can.
ArenaBowl XXIX begins Friday at 4 p.m. at Gila River Arena in Glendale. Tickets are available here. If you can't make it, tune in on ESPN.
We don't win a lot of championships here in AZ, which is why the few banners that do hang from our stadiums' rafters are precious. Friday is an opportunity for Valley fans to possibly witness another title -- and maybe remind themselves why an Arena Football League team was their first football love.