At the conclusion of the 2015 Professional Indoor Football League (PIFL) season, the league suspended operations and the teams were left to fend for themselves. The Richmond Va. franchise, the Raiders, chose to fold rather than find a new league. They left behind a disappointed and dedicated boisterous fan base. Without a team playing in 2016, the fans feared arena football in their city was gone forever. Unbeknownst to them, Gregg Fornario, the owner-operator of 4nario Sports, and longtime arena football fan were seriously considering creating a franchise. He had a true passion for the sport, and it would give him a place to help develop some of the young players he represented, and maybe even win a championship or two. With the PIFL gone the first thing he needed was a league to play in. He said, “at the time the only east coast league I knew of was the AIF.” By that time that league had also ceased operations. He continues, “then I got a call from Jack Bowman. He got my number from John Morris (Owner of the AIF) and he told me they were starting up a league called Arena Pro Football (APF).”
The first year league was professional meaning, among other things they pay and house their players, but young which meant the teams would likely be either new startups or semi-pro organizations making the jump to the pro ranks. Fornario began a search for a venue and said, “Jack recommended the Richmond Coliseum. He had worked years ago in the front office in Richmond, and he led me to the right people. I liked what I saw, so I signed the lease.” The next step in the process was to find a coach who could deliver the on-field product with the players he and his front office team brought onboard. Continuing, Fornario said, “Jesse (Vice President & Director of Operations, Jesse Heninger) and I interviewed six coaches for the job. I didn't just want someone with knowledge of the game, but someone with years of playing experience was someone I could relate to, and have a good friendship with.” Eventually, they hired Mookie Zimmerman. Zimmerman was both a veteran defensive lineman and an experienced coach, including head coaching experience with the Buffalo Lightning. With a strong front office and coach in the fold, the Roughriders were born and ready to go.
Next came the actual team building. Fornario wanted to win and with the demise of the Raiders, there were plenty of guys already in Richmond with high-level experience ready and eager to play. He chose the cream of that crop, added in some 4nario athletes and found some gems during the tryouts and, just like that, he had what, on paper looked like a very competitive team. That first season was a
bumpy one for the APF, but not for the Roughriders. They ran the table winning 9 games in a row, including the league championship. The final game against The Florida Tarpons is legendary in Richmond. The Tarpons were a very good team with the second-best record in the league who were led by a wily veteran QB named Chris Wallace who kept the rugged Riders defense off balance all night. After 58 minutes of thrilling back and forth action, with several lead changes, Richmond DL Keontae Hollis finally pressured Wallace into a mistake. Defensive back, Malique Johnson’s pick-six clinched the game with 2 minutes left and Gregg Fornario found himself soaked with the traditional celebratory Gatorade bath.
After the season, the APF went through major changes. They merged with two other leagues and created the brand new American Arena League (AAL). While it did include a few developmental teams, there were a few strong veteran teams. Among the vets were the High Country Grizzlies, Cape Fear Heroes, and the Florida Tarpons. The roster of teams also included ambitious startups run by people with the same high expectations Fornario brought to the Roughriders. They were the New Jersey Flight, the Carolina Energy, the Georgia Doom, and the Atlanta Havoc. These eight teams would play many thrilling games against each other throughout the season. The Doom handed the Riders their first, and only, regular season loss and the thrilling New Jersey game is remembered fondly by Gregg Fornario as one of his team's greatest accomplishments. He said, “last season at Jersey, we were down to the Flight by 24 points at the half, but the will and fight in the team and coaches were remarkable. Watching Offensive Coordinator Derek Stoudt calling plays in the hurry-up offense, and Mook being very aggressive with the defense was amazing. It was an amazing comeback.”
Unfortunately, dark clouds were beginning to gather on the Richmond horizon. The city announced plans to demolish the old Coliseum and replace it with a brand new NBA/NHL quality facility. Those plans, while not etched in stone, would mean the team would be without a home for at least one, but possibly two seasons. Worse yet, the city couldn’t tell the team when, or even if, the plans might go forward. As the season continued Fornario, and Heninger, began exploring other options. While remaining in Richmond would be easier, finding an adequate venue wasn’t. The few buildings in the area which could support an arena team were either too expensive, couldn’t provide adequate support, or already had full-time occupants. There was an outside chance the team could remain in Richmond for one more season, but without the city willing to commit to any redevelopment schedule, there remained only one viable option, move the team after the end of the season. But first, they had
to finish the season, and with a second championship a clear possibility they did the best they could to remain focussed on the task at hand.
Down the stretch, the team played very close games against some very good teams. They won close contests over the Grizzlies, Heroes, Energy, and the Flight again, and lost their only regular season game, in Macon, against the Doom. By the time they hosted their second championship game in a row the team had compiled a 19-1 record. The Riders dominated the first half against the Atlanta Havoc and victory was within their grasp. Unfortunately, the second half was a completely different story. Richmond’s starting and backup quarterback combined for 6 interceptions which led to a dominating performance by the Havoc. When it was over, the team from Atlanta hoisted the trophy. The Roughriders had played their last game in Richmond and left the rabid fanbase with great memories and the only championship the city had ever seen.
With season two and Richmond, in the rearview, Fornario needed to find a new city and new venue for his team. The team had a list of requirements they would need to satisfy if they were to succeed wherever they played season three and beyond. Continuing, He said, “The arena would have to have a 4000 to 8000 seat capacity, affordable rent, and they’d have to be able to store the turf and the dasher wall pads, as well as put them down on game day.” While there were dozens of buildings around the country, finding the exact right one that could provide all of those things, as well as an enthusiastic fan base, wouldn’t be easy. Gregg said, “Jesse and I looked at 26 venues.” When they found Wesbanco Arena in Wheeling they knew they had found their new home. The Riders move is very similar to what just happened in the NFL with the Rams moving from St. Louis to Los Angeles and, as Jesse Heninger pointed out, “The Roughriders are one of the only arena football brands, if not the only one to change locations and remain the same brand. We kept the same name because we know who we are and we want you to know too.” Fornaro said, “I want Wheeling to know we are very devoted to the sport and are all in. I take real pride in this and I work around the clock. During the offseason, I recruit from the minute I wake up until I go to sleep.” That recruiting has paid off in a big way because the team has signed many arena football stars WR Larry Beavers, OL Duke Robinson and DL Larry Ford who was the AAL Defensive MVP last season with the Atlanta Havoc and played a huge role in their championship victory over Richmond. The team has signed five WV Mountaineers including QB Jarrett Brown, WR Noel Devine, and DB Robert Sands. They've also brought with them from Richmond, DB Ellis Lankster, DL Darren Lake, D'mauri Jones WR and Malique Johnson the DB who made the game-winning INT in the 2017 championship. All of these players came from Division 1
colleges, many have AFL and CFL experience, and in the case of Lankster and Lake, NFL experience Lankster with Buffalo, and the Jets, and Lake with the 49’ers. The Roughriders were the dominant team in the AAL last season and with the players, they’ve already signed, and their overall 19-2 franchise record, they will likely remain the premier team in the league well into the future.