Photo slideshow: The Ride and Fall of the Lexington Horsemen
Editor’s note: This is the second 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.
Jared Lorenzen was a starter in college, a backup in the NFL and absolutely dominant in the AF2. A quick look at his highlight reel shows him throwing the ball all over the field, running over defenders and refusing to go down while the entire defense, most of whom are smaller than the quarterback, tries in vain to drag him to the ground.
By the time Lorenzen played indoor football in Lexington in 2009, the team was playing in its third different league and had re-branded itself as the Kentucky Horsemen, but one constant remained. To have a chance to draw enough fans to Rupp Arena to keep an indoor team afloat, they needed to win and they needed to be interesting. A tried and true tactic the Horsemen used to draw them in was putting faces familiar to the city on the field, often in the form of University of Kentucky and other local college alumni such as the late Lorenzen.
“I think it’s a natural thing,” said former Horsemen head coach Bob Sphire, a Kentucky native now coaching high school football in Georgia. “They had to be good players; we were trying to win a championship. You don’t just take a local guy because he’s a local guy, none of us were into that. We were trying to win a championship. We were fortunate though, there were several local guys that were really, really good players.”
Original Horsemen head coach and general manager, Tony Franklin, said that local talent was a major key to the team’s early success both on the field and at the box office.
“The one thing I felt was that the local flavor would get people to come,” Franklin said. “And that when you know somebody, there’s 100 or 200 people that are going to come for every kid that plays football from their communities, etc. So the more local flavor that you had, whether it was the Georgetown players, the UK players or Eastern Kentucky players, regardless of where they were from, there was gonna be more interest for them to come see than some guy that you signed from Oklahoma or from California or wherever.”
The first Horsemen roster in 2003 included 25 players and five coaches. Sixteen played previously for the University of Kentucky, including quarterback Dusty Bonner, wide receivers Neal Brown and Dougie Allen, defensive back Champ Kelly and lineman Marvin Major. Two each played at EKU and Georgetown College, one went to Morehead State and two played high school ball in Lexington. Only two of the original Horsemen played college football out of state.
Current Frederick Douglass High School athletic director, Garry McPeek, who served in various coaching roles for the Horsemen from the beginning of the team to the end, with a one-year break to coach a team in West Virginia, said that bringing in talent from the area was a priority for the Horsemen.
“We wanted to start our recruitment in the state of Kentucky,” McPeek said. “With the local colleges, with UK and Eastern and Georgetown and Campbellsville and Centre College, we had all those.”
The original coaching staff — Franklin, and assistants Sphire, Kio Sanford, Antonio O’Ferral and McPeek — also were tied previously to high school and college football teams in the state.
Bonner, a popular quarterback at UK who transferred away midway through his college career, came back to Lexington as a key piece of what became a league champion Horsemen team.
“When I left in college, I just remember I wasn’t happy to be leaving,” Bonner said. “Always loved Lexington, and I guess I kind of had a desire to go back and that gave me a reason to go back.”
Bonner, who led UK to a bowl appearance as a sophomore, beat out Lorenzen for the starting job in the spring of his junior season. Wildcats Coach Hal Mumme decided weeks later to go with Lorenzen instead. Bonner transferred to Valdosta State in his home state of Georgia and became a two-time winner of the Harlon Hill Trophy, the NCAA Division II Heisman Trophy.
Bonner tried to catch on with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons before getting a call from Franklin, his former offensive coordinator at UK.
“I didn’t know anything about (the Horsemen),” Bonner said. “Tony called me, of course he was at Kentucky when I played, he and I were close, and he called me and said, ‘Why don’t you come up here and play or at least come up here and check it out?’ I came up and that was the end of the story.”
After leading the Horsemen to the National Indoor Football League championship in their second season, Bonner eventually left the team but he never left Lexington. He now works here in medical sales and last season served as an analyst on UK football pregame radio broadcasts.
Bonner’s replacement as starting quarterback was Eddie Eviston, a two-time NAIA national champion at Georgetown College who played wide receiver for the Horsemen during Bonner’s tenure. Eviston left the team before the 2007 season and went to play for the Cincinnati Jungle Kats of the AF2, but returned to the Horsemen for the playoffs and led them to a berth in the United Bowl after not enjoying his experience in Ohio.
“I only started that season out and got out rather quickly,” Eviston said. “I only played in maybe two games and so several weeks later the Horsemen called to see if I wanted to come back.”
Horsemen management had one last trick up their sleeve in the form of Lorenzen — one of the most storied quarterbacks in UK history and a folk hero around Lexington, who had recently won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants before being cut in training camp by the Indianapolis Colts.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader a few weeks before he died this month, Lorenzen said that the best of times with the Horsemen came riding the bus to away games.
“You get to hang out with these guys and you’re on these sleeper buses,” Lorenzen said. “It’s a lot like minor league baseball where you’re just kind of traveling and traveling. It was fun. You got to different places and then you played the game and back on the bus, try to get home. I miss that stuff.”
Many of the Horsemen’s local faces were instrumental in helping the team win its only championship in 2004, 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:
Saturday: Indoor football team’s success was fueled by local talent
Sunday: Rowdiest rivals tested title team’s mettle
Monday: Lexington community still reaping benefits
Tuesday: The economic endgame