Editor’s note: This is the third 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.
The Lexington Horsemen were facing the end of their second season of existence. The team was losing by six points to the Ohio Valley Greyhounds with just seconds to go in their 2004 National Indoor Football League semifinal game, and head coach Bob Sphire was stepping out onto the field to give a few final instructions to quarterback Dusty Bonner.
The 3,500-or-so fans in Wheeling, W.Va., where the Greyhounds were located, were going crazy, flinging all kinds of debris toward the Horsemen. Burgers, cookies and Iron City beer flew through the air, making life miserable for the away team after a comment by a Horsemen player earlier in the week found its way to Wheeling.
“He had said something about white trash or something in the articles,” recalled Garry McPeek, now the athletics director at Frederick Douglass High School but then the offensive line coach for the Horsemen. “So they passed out white trash bags. The whole arena had white trash bags on, it was unbelievable, a great scene. I don’t know how many it held but they were packed in there like cord wood.”
Before that July night staring down an arena full of enthusiastic Appalachians, the Horsemen first had to earn their way there. They did so with the help of a new head coach, Sphire, who replaced Tony Franklin after the franchise’s inaugural season.
Sphire’s promotion from defensive coordinator made it so that every member of the Horsemen coaching staff was also a high school coach, which he said gave the team a competitive advantage.
“Those were all good coaches,” Sphire said. “They could have all been great college coaches if they decided to go that route, every one of those guys, and I think when we had the opportunity to do that league, we took pride in that.”
The Horsemen proceeded to assemble the most successful season in franchise history.
The 2004 team was stacked with talent. The Horsemen were quarterbacked by former University of Kentucky starter Bonner, who had won the Harlon Hill Trophy — the NCAA Division II Heisman — twice at Valdosta State after leaving UK.
The team’s special teams coordinator and primary recruiter, Mike Harmon, helped construct a roster that gave Bonner a full stable of offensive options. Among them were wide receivers Eddie Eviston, who had won two NAIA national championships as a QB at Georgetown College, and Chad Spencer, who had played at both UK and Georgetown. The ground game featured Derek Homer, a punishing runner for NIFL defenses to handle who had been Kentucky’s 1996 Mr. Football and gone on to play at UK and briefly in the NFL.
The team featured a wide variety of personalities, which Sphire said worked to its advantage as the season went along.
“It was kind of a unique mix on our roster,” Sphire said. “It kind of kept that balance between some of those kind of guys who will sometimes will walk that line and cross that line if they don’t have the right teammates, and then you mix a Champ Kelly in there and he keeps those guys on the straight and narrow and then you’ve got a heck of a ball club.”
Kelly, who is now assistant director of player personnel for the NFL’s Chicago Bears, was an anchor for the Horsemen as an all-league player. The former Wildcat, who also earned a master’s in business administration from UK, later became an assistant coach and general manager for the Horsemen.
The team cruised through the 2004 regular season with a 10-4 record, but always on their minds was Ohio Valley, the two-time defending NIFL champions. The Greyhounds knocked the Horsemen out of the 2003 playoffs, beat them again during the 2004 regular season and were 5-0 all-time against Lexington by the time the teams met again in Wheeling. After playoff wins over the Atlantic City (N.J.) CardSharks and the Houma (La.) Bayou Bucks, the stage was set for the rematch.
Kelly called the fans at WesBanco Arena in Wheeling some of the rowdiest in the league, and on the night of July 24, 2004, they were ready for the Horsemen.
“That old hockey rink had us down in the end zone, not on the side,” Sphire said. “They had the balcony right there. They had all the noisemakers, they brought all their five-gallon buckets in, used them as drums. Coach Garry McPeek’s a big guy, a big offensive line coach. They threw a Big Mac at him, they threw Oreo cookies at him.”
The game was close throughout. Bonner commanded the offense in the raucous arena using a silent snap count. It all came down to one play with 10 seconds remaining.
“Dusty looked at me and he said, ‘Put the ball in my hands, let me make that decision,’” Sphire said. “I said, ‘OK, here’s the play.’”
Bonner took the snap on a run-pass option and found Maysville native Harry Lewis — who had played collegiately for North Carolina and Louisville — open in the back of the end zone for a 35-34 Lexington victory.
Bonner called that game one of the highlights of his arena football career.
“When we finally got over the hump of beating the team from Wheeling, West Virginia, to get to the national championship, that was a big game for us,” Bonner said. “We’d had a lot of trouble trying to beat them.”
Following the win over Ohio Valley, the Horsemen faced another daunting task at the NIFL’s Indoor Bowl IV in Sioux Falls, S.D. The Storm franchise was about to go on an unprecedented run of indoor football dominance by winning 10 championships in 12 years across various leagues. On that night, however, the Horsemen had their moment, defeating Sioux Falls 59-38 for their only league championship in the franchise’s seven-year existence.
“I still remember they had the red, white and blue balloons in the ceiling for the celebration afterward,” McPeek said. “We end up winning the game. … It was great. Very rewarding. A great bunch of guys that came together and did a heck of a job.”
Following that championship game win, the Horsemen came close but never won another title. Five years later, the franchise folded. However the impact they made in the Lexington community lived on, 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:
Sunday: Rowdiest rivals tested title team’s mettle
Monday: Lexington community still reaping benefits
Tuesday: The economic endgame