Catching the ball on the run was easy. It was the wall he needed to prepare for.
DISTANCE: 35 yards
PLAYERS: Thyron Lewis and Shane Austin
DATE: April 12, 2014 vs. LA KISS
FINAL SCORE: Gladiators 40, KISS 30
In outdoor soccer, a ball that travels out-of-bounds must be tracked down by a player on the field. If the ball strays far, play is stopped for an extended period of time. This led to the creation of indoor soccer: more action, less stoppages, a wall in place to keep the ball alive.
Arena Football founder Jim Foster saw this dynamic difference in the M.I.L.S All-Star Soccer Game on Feb. 11, 1981 in Madison Square Garden. A light bulb went on.
Foster started drawing the field he saw in front of his eyes on what would become the famous 9-by-12 manila envelope, but instead of kicking marks and the center circle, he drew yard-lines. The walls remained, and the gaps at the end for goals were raised in the air for a place to put in goal posts with netting. If the ball bounces off the net or the wall, it was still live. A faster, more intense version of football was born: Arena Football.
33 years later, a four-year AFL veteran receiver named Thyron Lewis had already had his share of bouts with the wall. The wall is unforgiving and will stop a full-speed runner in a split-second. According to Lewis, the trick is "[You just] secure the catch with your hands, bring it in and hold on with a tight grip... and prepare for impact."
At the Honda Center in Los Angeles in 2014, the Cleveland Gladiators were in a defensive struggle against the expansion-LA KISS, who were playing the fourth game of their inaugural season. With a little over two minutes left in the third quarter, the Gladiators trailed 30-26. Lewis, who had already caught one touchdown, came around the offensive set in motion.
Quarterback Shane Austin took the snap. Lewis started inside against zone-coverage. The defensive back backpedaled toward the inside to meet him. Lewis redirected his route momentarily to the outside, and Austin threw the ball deep toward the left hash mark as soon as Lewis made one final cut to the inside. The defender bit on the outside move and was stuck in quicksand.
This sequence of events was the easy part, as the chemistry between Austin and Lewis grew with every game together and would flourish to 41 touchdown connections (including playoffs) over two seasons. The hard part for Lewis was slowing down, because, as he puts it, "I was running too fast." The momentum carried him into a full somersault over the wall. The referee in the end zone had already seen Lewis take two steps with the ball secured in a tight grip and threw his hands up, and, fortunately, his grip held on through the flip. Fast-forward the video below to 2:22 to see the play.
An added bonus for Lewis, a native of South Central Los Angeles, was the fact his brother was in attendance and witnessed the touchdown from just above the point of impact. Thanks to family-friendly league rules administered by AFL founder Jim Foster, Lewis tossed the ball to his brother when he came back over the wall.