Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of five stories examining the history and impact of the Lexington Horsemen, an arena football team that played in Rupp Arena from 2003 through 2009.
Andy Raaker’s family wouldn’t exist without the Lexington Horsemen. Raaker was the team’s equipment manager in some of its early seasons and was close friends with quarterback Dusty Bonner from their time at the University of Kentucky.
“Ironically, the Horsemen are the reason that I met my wife,” Raaker said. “Dusty’s wife and my wife are sisters, and so hanging out with him when he was back to Lexington led to me finding my wife.”
Raaker’s story is one of many around Lexington: people’s who’s lives have been forever changed by the short-lived arena football team’s existence.
On local high school fields, former Horsemen can be seen all around, especially at Frederick Douglass, where much of the administration served with the team in some capacity. The Horsemen — who played a March through August schedule — assembled a staff that included high school coaches from Tates Creek, Lexington Catholic, Lafayette and others, which helped to improve relationships between those coaches on Friday nights in the fall.
“We all got the chance to work together in that setting,” former Horsemen and Lexington Catholic head coach Bob Sphire said. “We all kind of realized nobody in this deal is really a bad guy, we’re all in this thing trying to win ball games at our high schools, but we’re all just trying to do our jobs in the settings that we’re in. I think that was really good to maybe overcome some of those things that were going on at the time.”
Matt DiLorenzo, the team’s last general manager, said he isn’t surprised at how many Horsemen players and coaches stayed in Lexington after the franchise folded in 2009, because of its emphasis on community involvement.
“We broke records with how much volunteer work we did,” said DiLorenzo, who is now a sales/marketing representative at Kenney Orthopedics in Lexington. “How many times we went into schools, how many times we volunteered at Special Olympics and did things. We were very proud of that. You’re of good character, people want you to be a part of their team and a lot of our guys networked a really good way.”
For another member of the organization, the Horsemen represented an opportunity to make good with the Lexington community after the scandal-ridden end to the Hal Mumme football coaching era at the University of Kentucky.
“For me, it some ways was a chance at redemption to a degree,” Tony Franklin, Mumme’s offensive coordinator and the first head coach of the Horsemen, said. “My wife and I made the decision, we stayed in Lexington for five years after I was no longer coaching at Kentucky. That was year three when the job came up and by then all the stuff was settled.”
The late Jared Lorenzen, a former quarterback for UK and the Horsemen, credited both the team’s approach and the city itself for the players remaining in the area.
“That’s a toast to Lexington as well,” Lorenzen said during an interview a few weeks before his death this month. “They treat their guys great and it was a good combination.”
One former player who stuck here with happy returns was Jonathan Hawks, who now coaches track and field at Tates Creek where his girls’ team won a state championship this spring. Hawks, who hails from Georgia, said that before coming to the Horsemen, he had never been to Kentucky.
“This community embraced me,” Hawks said. “Being able to see that I could have an impact in the city. I’m not really big on publicity but it was just a blessing to be able to go and meet with a lot of kids in a bunch of different areas of the city. I just felt like I needed to stay around and continue to put my heart and soul into the city.’”
Frederick Douglass has an extremely high concentration of former Horsemen on staff, including the school’s principal (Lester Diaz), associate principal (Mike Harmon), athletic director (Garry McPeek) and head football coach (Brian Landis). McPeek, who served as an assistant coach for the Horsemen in all but one year of the team’s existence, said that the relationships built during that time have made a mark on the Lexington community.
“I think it’s had a huge impact,” McPeek said. “Anytime that you take a game and impact people’s lives in a positive way, you know you’ve done your job. I think the Horsemen had a tremendous, tremendous effect, not just on people’s careers but on people’s lives, you know, the mothers, fathers and dads that they have become.”
Even for those who left Lexington, the Horsemen experience has stuck with them in meaningful ways.
“Watching all that stuff and the fun that they had and being friends with them,” said Franklin, who is now the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State University. “It made me realize just how much I loved the game and missed the game and wanted to be a part of it.”
Franklin’s impact on today’s football is visible every time a team runs the spread offense. His influence didn’t become palpable until after his time with the Horsemen, when he developed the Tony Franklin System to help high school coaches implement the spread. Later, as offensive coordinator at the University of California, Franklin helped develop Jared Goff, who led the Los Angeles Rams to the most recent Super Bowl.
Unfortunately for the Horsemen, their impact on the game and on the city wasn’t enough to save them. Financial woes, a challenging economy and arena football’s fading popularity led to the team’s downfall, a story that will be told in the next installment of The Ride and Fall of the Lexington Horsemen.
The Ride and Fall of the Lexington Horsemen:
Monday: Lexington community still reaping benefits
Tuesday: The economic endgame