Once the defender's heel touched the turf, he knew he had a touchdown.
DISTANCE: 40 yards
PLAYERS: Thyron Lewis and Shane Austin
DATE: June 21, 2014 vs. Philadelphia Soul
FINAL SCORE: Gladiators 69, Soul 68
In 1987, AFL founder Jim Foster hired a man named Mouse Davis to be the first director of operations of the Arena Football League. Foster needed help making his new version of football work, and he knew Mouse was the man to do it.
Mouse Davis had been running a record-breaking offense known as the Run 'n' Shoot since the early 1960s. The offense consisted of plays where the quarterback and his four wide recevers would read the defense and adjust the routes on the fly. By doing this, the defense would always be wrong.
As director of operations, Mouse became the original architect of Arena Football, using the same offensive philosophies in 8-on-8 football. He installed the Run 'n' Shoot for the original four teams, allowing wide receivers the freedom to break defensive secondaries and put points on the board.
In 1988, the second year of the league, a young receiver/defensive back from Wheaton College named Steve Thonn signed on to play with the Chicago Bruisers. After five AFL seasons and 13 career touchdowns as a player, Thonn moved into a coaching role as a wide receivers coach, offensive coordinator and head coach, all in Arena Football. In his second season as head coach of the Cleveland Gladiators in 2011, he acquired a promising young wide receiver named Thyron Lewis.
Lewis had always been coached to run routes precisely. Alvin Harper, a great route-runner in his prime and winner of two Super Bowls, was his receivers coach at Howard University. Stan Hixon, a receivers coach who helped develop players like Santana Moss and Allen Robinson among others, coached him for two years with the Washington Redskins.
But after signing with the Stockton Lightning of AF2 for the second time in 2008, Lewis received some wise words from veteran wide receiver Hannibal Thomas on how to play indoors.
"Leave the outdoor routes outdoors," Thomas said.
Precision was not important in Arena Football. Fluidity, reads and correct uses of speed were the tricks to get open. After three successful years in AF2, Lewis was prepared to make the most of his opportunity in Cleveland.
By 2014, Lewis was a receiver Thonn could trust. According to Lewis, "When a coach trusts you, it makes you want to be better than you are."
On this wild night in Philadelphia, the 11-1 Gladiators needed as many big plays as they could get to keep up with a Soul team determined to knock off the top team in the American Conference. In the second quarter, the Soul held a 27-18 lead. Lewis and quarterback Shane Austin had already connected on a 47-yard touchdown when Lewis snuck behind the zone coverage when they weren't looking. They knew they could do it again, even if it was against man coverage from Rayshaun Kizer, a Second Team All-Arena Selection who was the Soul's best defensive back.
"If I can catch him flat-footed, I can get by him," Lewis told Coach Thonn before the offense took the field. Thonn gave him the go-ahead.
Starting from the 10-yard line, Austin sent Lewis in motion. Lewis started from the end zone and accelerated toward the middle of the field. Kizer shuffled back slowly, waiting for Lewis to make his move. Lewis turned his shoulder in, and Kizer slid right, ready to bump him off-course. But this shift opened up the field to his left, and Lewis planted his foot and took off. Kizer's right foot stuck in the ground flat, and Lewis had him beat.
Austin threw the ball deep. Kizer closed in on Lewis in the final 10 yards and grabbed the receiver's left arm to prevent the touchdown. But the pass was perfect and hit Lewis in the cradle of his right arm in the end zone: a great read, a fluid route, a one-handed catch. Fast-forward the video below to 3:36 to see the play.
The touchdown swung the momentum back to Cleveland, and the two teams battled to a memorable finish that would clinch a playoff spot for the Gladiators.