Garry McPeek was in awe the first time he walked onto the field in Rupp Arena for a football game. Music was pumping, spotlights were flashing and the full lower arena was being whipped into a frenzy in anticipation of a new sport.
“It’s kind of like wrestling, WWE and a rock concert crashes together and a football game breaks out” McPeek said “That’s what it’s like.”
McPeek was on the field that night in late March 2003 to serve as the offensive line coach for the Lexington Horsemen, which at the time was the city’s newest attraction. Rupp was as full as it would ever be for an indoor football game, though many of the attendees needed a boost to their spirits after watching the Kentucky Wildcats’ basketball season end at the hands of Marquette, a game that had been shown on the screens inside Rupp earlier that evening.
The 10,004 fans would go home disappointed for the second time that day after the Horsemen lost their inaugural National Indoor Football League game to the Lake Charles (La.) Landsharks, 50-41.
That outcome was not a sign of things to come.
Over the next seven years, the Horsemen would win almost 80 games, play in three different leagues, participate in three championship games and win one. As McPeek said, you never knew what you might see at a Horsemen game, but you could always count on some household names — the late Jared Lorenzen, Dusty Bonner, Neal Brown and Champ Kelly to name a few — offensive fireworks and winning football (the Horsemen never had a losing season).
The team employed players, coaches and administrators who moved away to bigger and better endeavors. Many more, like McPeek — now the athletics director at Frederick Douglass High School — blended into the Lexington community as movers and shakers in their own right.
Our five-part summer series, The Ride and Fall of the Lexington Horsemen, looks back on those times now 10 years after the franchise folded. We’ll look at what it was like through the eyes of those involved, what it all meant and what led to the franchise’s demise.
Today, a history lesson.
The Horsemen were launched by a group of 32 local investors. That group, along with team president Ron Borkowski, expected indoor football to take hold in Lexington, which had also recently gained a new minor league hockey team, the Lexington Men O’ War.
“After meeting with Ron, I felt that this team and this league has a lot of potential for growth,” Bill Alley, one of the investors said in 2002. “The response from our other investors has been fantastic, and we are all excited about bringing another entertainment option to downtown Lexington.”
The Horsemen joined the NIFL in 2003 as an expansion team, bringing the league’s total to 23 franchises stretching from Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the east to Salt Lake City, Utah, in the west. Capitalizing on the popularity of the larger-market, nationally televised Arena Football League, the time was ripe. Games were played from March through August.
The group hired former University of Kentucky offensive coordinator Tony Franklin as the team’s first head coach and general manager and let him build a roster of local names that thrilled fans in the Horsemen’s inaugural season.
“It was just a group of guys who loved the game,” said Franklin, whose initial roster included 16 former UK players. “Wanted to play, had great camaraderie with each other and they were grown men. We had fun. We went on the road and had a good time, I mean, instead of midnight curfew I was dropping them off at bars.”
That season the team was led by former UK quarterback Dusty Bonner and was instantly competitive.
“We just had guys that really enjoyed playing with each other,” said Franklin, who is now the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State University. “And they were super competitive with each other so a great mixture of people that, a lot of them, had ties to the University of Kentucky who had played there. I knew all of those guys and then we had some great players from the area schools.”
The league paid players $200 per game, plus a $50 bonus if they won, DiLorenzo once said. Team members were given housing and one meal a day.
“You’re not doing it for the money,” Lorenzen said at the time he played. “You’re doing it for the love.”
The Horsemen finished their first season 9-6 and lost in the first round of the NIFL playoffs.
In Year 2, Bob Sphire moved from defensive coordinator to head coach and led Bonner and the Horsemen to their most successful season, defeating the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Storm to claim the NIFL championship in Indoor Bowl IV. The team continued its run of success, but never again won a championship.
After two seasons, the first financial cracks began showing. Eight NIFL teams, including the Horsemen, bolted for the newly created United Indoor Football league. Meanwhile, one of the 32 original Lexington investors, the late Lennie House, took over full ownership of the team.
After three seasons, three playoff appearances and two championship game losses in the UIF, the Horsemen moved on to their third league, an AFL developmental league known as AF2.
After Bonner left, the team was quarterbacked by Eddie Eviston, who had led Georgetown College to back-to-back NAIA national titles before joining the Horsemen as a wide receiver for the NIFL title team.
“It was kind of just a cool atmosphere,” said Eviston, who is now a state championship-winning coach at Covington Catholic High School. “These guys coming together and us getting it done.”
Following its first year in the AF2, the team was re-branded as the Kentucky Horsemen and signed for 2009 their most recognizable star yet. Lorenzen, the all-time passing yardage leader in UK history, who had won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants in 2008, returned to Lexington looking for a way to stay connected to the game.
“I had just finished playing with the (Indianapolis) Colts,” Lorenzen said during an interview a few weeks before his death this month. “(General Manager) Matt DiLorenzo asked if I was willing to play for a couple more years and I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
Lorenzen led the Horsemen to a 10-6 record in his one season back in Lexington. An 82-49 playoff loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pa.) Pioneers on Aug. 7, 2009, turned out to be the last Horsemen game ever played, although no one knew it at the time.
“I had the time of my life this season,” Lorenzen said after the game. “I was active in the community and I wanted to give something back to Lexington. That was my goal coming here. God willing, I’ll be able to come back next year.”
What went wrong?
Moving from lesser leagues to the AF2 might have been a mistake for the Horsemen, as its larger financial commitment was difficult for the team to meet. And when AF2 planned to merge with the AFL, the proposed fees grew even more, to the point of being impossible for Lexington. Shrinking attendance, the rental fees in a too-large arena and a recession-damaged economy added to the woes.
In the end, the Lexington franchise was controlled by the Horsemen Charitable Foundation, which was chaired by Brett Kincaid, who made the final call to end the team after keeping it afloat with much of his own money for the final season. According to DiLorenzo, the last general manager of the Horsemen, much of the team’s equipment was sold to the Chicago Rush of the Arena Football League. However, the fate of one key item remains a mystery to this day.
“I was making calls years ago,” DiLorenzo said. “Like where is this field?”
The turf that served as the team’s playing surface in Rupp Arena had been kept in two trucks which disappeared after the team folded.
“I couldn’t find them,” DiLorenzo said recently. “I found one company that said those trucks could have been sent to, believe it or not, Indianapolis. I could not track them. I don’t know where that turf is. For all I know that turf could be sitting in two trailers.”
Long after the demise of the Horsemen, indoor football’s always-unsteady existence lives on in the now six-team AFL and several smaller leagues.
In the next installment of The Ride and Fall of the Lexington Horsemen, we’ll look at how an infusion of local talent was leveraged into successes at the box office and on the field.
Stories still to come in the five-part series, The Ride and Fall of the Lexington Horsemen:
Sunday: Rowdiest rivals tested title team’s mettle
Monday: Lexington community still reaping benefits
Tuesday: The economic endgame