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They had a high-octane offense that lit up the Nassau Coliseum scoreboard.
For the fans, it was family-affordable entertainment and just a great time win or lose — and they won a lot of games, including back-to-back-to-back Eastern Division titles from 2003 to 2005.
I’m talking about the New York Dragons.
From 2001 to 2008, the Dragons — a team in the Arena Football League — played at “The Barn,” and it was something special.
I was the radio play-by-play announcer for the Dragons and — with all due respect to all of the other great jobs that I’ve had in my career — my eight years in the AFL was the best time of my professional life, mainly because of the great relationships created during that time and some special friendships that are still going strong.
To this day, I miss the Dragons and the AFL very much but as the saying goes:
“What’s lost, can be found again.”
The league officially announced on Wednesday it will return to play, and it has us reminiscing on Long Island’s arena team.
Under new ownership, the Arena Football League is returning with 16 teams playing a 10-game season. There is no word yet on which cities will have teams, but we’re pulling for the rebirth of our team from the island.
Keep reading for Dragon’s history, memories and fun facts.
The fall and rise of the AFL
After the 2008 season, the Dragons were in the process of being sold to a Long Island group. From my knowledge, I remember there being plans to get a new logo and a new mascot to replace Sparky “The Dragon,” who had gone on to become the mascot for the Islanders. Sparky had actually been pulling double duty for the Dragons and Islanders for a few years, but once the sale went through, Sparky remained property of the Islanders.
And those new Dragons owners? It never materialized.
The Arena Football League shut down for a season before returning in 2010 — but without the New York Dragons. The league continued operations until 2019 when the Albany Empire won the final Arena Bowl before the AFL filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and shut down for good after 32 seasons.
That was until Wednesday when the return of the AFL was announced, great news for anyone who has ever been involved in the “50-yard indoor war”.
“Just hoping it gives guys opportunities that it gave me,” said legendary Dragons quarterback Aaron Garcia. “The AFL will always hold a special place in my life and heart and I just hope somebody else gets that opportunity because of this comeback.”
While we wait to find out more about the Arena Football League’s return, and if there will be a team in the New York area, let’s look back on eight years of memories that the Dragons created on Long Island.
New York Dragons SparkyEmbed from Getty Images
New York Islanders SparkyEmbed from Getty Images
From Iowa to Long IslandEmbed from Getty Images
The Arena Football League was founded in 1986 and began play in 1987. Former National Football League and United States Football League executive Jim Foster came up with the idea for arena football, drawing up the plans on a manilla envelope while watching an indoor soccer game at Madison Square Garden. Foster would eventually own the Iowa Barnstormers — the team that NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner played for. After the 2000 season, Foster sold the franchise to Islanders owner Charles Wang, who relocated the team to Long Island.
And that’s how the Dragons were born in 2001.
“When I think of the Dragons, I think of Charles Wang and I think of how incredible it was at that time even to have a really good owner who really cared about us,” said Garcia, who played eight of his 19 AFL seasons for the Dragons.
During his career, Garcia threw 1,336 touchdown passes, was a three-time All-Arena selection and a two-time Offensive Player of the Year. He capped off his playing career leading the Jacksonville Sharks to the 2014 Arena Bowl championship while picking up the game’s MVP honors.
Winning that championship was great, but he will always cherish his eight years on Long Island.
“I still talk to guys that I played with in New York like Kevin Swayne and Marcus Owen, and you follow guys like Matt Nagy and Chris Boden,” said Garcia. “Just a lot of good memories.”
Great Memory: The night the Dragons almost scored 100 pointsEmbed from Getty Images
One Dragons memory at Nassau Coliseum that really stands out is from July 7, 2001 when the Dragons beat the Carolina Cobras 99-68.
That’s right…the Dragons scored 99 points in one game!
And they had a chance to get 100.
The Dragons scored a late touchdown to get to 98 points, but head coach John Gregory, who recently passed away, elected to go for one point because he “didn’t want to rub it in to Carolina,” he said.
Garcia threw 11 touchdown passes in that game, including seven to Kevin Swayne who would go on to play three seasons for the New York Jets.
“We had such great talent in Aaron Garcia at quarterback and future NFL wide receivers Mike Furrey and Kevin Swayne,” said former Dragons media relations coordinator Howie Wirtheim. “Our offense was the other ‘Greatest Show on Turf.’”
The commissioner remembersEmbed from Getty Images
Before he was the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and became known for the “knock at the door” to let some of the greats of the game know that they were going to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, David Baker was the commissioner of the Arena Football League from 1996 to 2008.
He helped take the league to unprecedented growth and success including landmark television deals with NBC and ESPN.
And he excited to hear of the AFL’s return.
“I think that would be wonderful for somebody to bring it back,” said Baker. “I, for one, would be happy to help them in any way I can. I would be glad to be the first one to buy a ticket.”
Baker was a frequent visitor to the Nassau Coliseum for Dragons games and was always impressed with the way the organization was able to connect with the fans.
“I think they really cared about the community,” said Baker. “What I remember about it was some very exciting football with guys like Aaron (Garcia) taking time to sign autographs afterwards. They were always willing to do that. They wanted to thank the fans who came to see them.”
Baker was always easy to pick out in the crowd as he stood 6-foot-9 inches. So, when it was time for a Dragons ritual, the fans made sure that he was taking part in it.
“There was the time between the third quarter and the fourth quarter where they did the YMCA, said Baker. “One time, I did YMCA, and after that, all those fans made me do it every time. I thought it was very special.”
And when you think about the history of the Dragons and the AFL, Baker will always be remembered as being special.
Great Dragons: Former players who made it bigEmbed from Getty Images
A number of Dragons, including a few of the players that Garcia mentioned earlier, would go on to big things outside of the Arena Football League.
Kevin Swayne was already an AFL star receiver for the Iowa Barnstormers before making the move to Long Island with Garcia. After the 2001 season, Swayne signed with the Jets and spent three seasons with Gang Green before returning to the Dragons. The highlight of his Jets career was catching a touchdown pass at Giants Stadium in 2003 against the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football.
Former Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy, who is currently getting ready for Super Bowl LVII as the Kansas City Chiefs’ senior assistant and quarterbacks coach, was a Dragons quarterback in 2002 and 2003. He initially had a tryout in 2001, but wasn’t quite ready for Arena Football. A year later, he was all in.
“I was amazed at how much fun it ended up being,” said Nagy. “How do you not love throwing the ball every play?”
And Nagy loved life on Long Island.
“After practice, we would have half the day left and we would go to Bethpage and play some golf,” said Nagy. “We had a house that five of us lived together in Oyster Bay. Playing at the Coliseum and the Long Island fans — it was awesome.”
In Chicago, Nagy hired former Dragons wide receiver Mike Furrey as his wide receivers coach. After two seasons with the Dragons in 2002 and 2003, Furrey went on to a seven-year NFL playing career, spending time with the St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns before embarking on a career on a career in coaching. He is currently the head coach at Limestone University in South Carolina.
Former Villanova star quarterback Chris Boden called Long Island home for two seasons when he played for the Dragons in 2004 and 2005.
“I have such fond memories from the two years I lived on Long Island while playing for the Dragons,” said Boden, who is now back with his alma mater as Villanova’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
“It’s hard to put in words how special and amazing the arena league was. The life-long friendships with teammates, coaches, staff and all the people I met living in New York is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
Boden is getting ready for his fifth year on the coaching staff at Villanova. He spent some time as an AFL assistant coach with the Columbus Destroyers, Nashville Kats and Colorado Crush before becoming the Head Coach at ASA College in New York and then ASA College in Miami.
The Barn was rocking for Dragon’s gamesEmbed from Getty Images
The atmosphere at Dragons games was amazing.
With a strong commitment to the community, the Dragons would have youth football teams play games before games, during halftime and even after games.
“The Long Island community was behind us,” said Rory Vacco, a former Dragons assistant coach and director of player personnel.
“They wanted us to succeed because they liked the entertainment part of it. The community was very supportive of our team.”
The football product was outstanding and the Dragons organization also did a great job off of the field entertaining the fans. A big part of that entertainment came the Firedancers, the Dragons’ dance team that engaged with the fans and brought the Dragons’ faithful out of their seats at all of the home games.
“Being a Firedancer and Arena Host was so much fun,” said Danielle Dellilo, who is now the promotions director of Lite FM and iHeartRadio Broadway.
“From being in dancing school from the age of two through my adulthood and being a cheerleader during high school, being able to incorporate both dance and cheer for the Dragons was a lifelong dream. And the fact that I was an arena host as well, it just gave me the opportunity to show my radio and hosting skills that I learned from my college radio station, WRHU at Hofstra University.”
Dragons fans were entertained from the moment they entered the Coliseum until they left and that, at times, was long after the games ended.
“The Dragons provided great family entertainment at an affordable price,” said Wirtheim. “Every postgame, fans were able to come onto the field to meet the players and attempt to kick field goals.”
Going to a Dragons game was an experience.
There was always something to do and always something to see before, during and after games.
“The games were special because they were very family oriented,” said Dellilo. “After each game, fans were able to do meet and greets and get autographs from the Firedancers and the players. Plus, the game was super intense, full of action, suspenseful and kept us all on our toes.”
Eight years of special memories
For me, a special memory of the Dragons was watching my eldest son Bradley grow up with the team. He was born in 2005 and I took him to practice from the time he was a baby until he was able to run around with the players.
It was also special when my wife Sheryl would bring Bradley up to the press box at halftime time when we could enjoy a few minutes of family time before it was time for me to go back to work.
Thankfully, my younger son Jared got a taste of indoor football when I did television play-by-play for the New York Streets of the National Arena League in 2019, but that lasted for just one season. My hope is that Jared gets another chance to be a part of this great sport.
And maybe that will happen.
The AFL’s return and new leadership
In a press release on the Arena Football League’s new website, it was announced that Lee A. Hutton III has been named commissioner, making him the first black commissioner to lead a professional sports league in the United States. Also, the league named Travelle Gaines deputy commissioner, Tuo Clark president of entertainment and Curt Feldtkeller executive vice president.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Nagy. “It provides a lot of opportunities for guys that might be on the fringe of playing in the NFL. It’s more football.”
“I was so excited to hear that the arena league will be back,” said Boden.
Should Long Island have a team in the AFL’s restart?
It has the support of these former players and staff:
“It was great while we were there,” said Vacco. “For Long Island to have an arena team again, they would jump behind it.”
“The fan base…I remember games on Long Island and just how crazy they were and how much they loved our football games there,” said Nagy.
And now, there seems to be reason for optimism so perhaps it may be time for fans to find that old Dragons gear and get it ready — just in case.
“I have three older kids now and my daughter still wears a New York Dragons sweatshirt to bed and she’s 22 years old now,” said Garcia.
Whether the Dragons come back or not, I will always have fond memories of my eight years with the team. There are reminders of the Dragons all over our home including the autographed helmet that the team gave my wife Sheryl and I as a wedding gift and the many photos and footballs that are on display around the house.
Every time I think of the New York Dragons, I think of the Billy Joel song “I’ve Loved These Days”.
Welcome back Arena Football League!Embed from Getty Images