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Gladiator-like performance by Thunder QB helps Portland snap its losing streak

TRIBUNE PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Portland Thunder quarterback Kyle Rowley stands in the pocket, looking to throw during Saturday's 72-48 victory over the Jacksonville Sharks.Moments before the Portland Thunder took the field Saturday night against the Jacksonville Sharks, Thunder quarterback Kyle Rowley stood by himself in the Moda Center hallway leading from the locker room to the field. Rowley was swaying a bit, trying to contain the adrenaline his body was producing. Rowley was looking up at the ceiling, deep in thought.

Many things that might have been running through Rowley’s mind:

• Portland hadn’t won since May 16, dropping six consecutive games (“Losing does something to the soul,” Rowley said. “We’ve been in those games, it’s not like we were ever getting blown out. But it wears on you.”).

• The Sharks traded Rowley to the Thunder last season (“I don’t want to lose to that team,” Rowley said. “They traded me. That motivated me.”).

• The responsibility of winning put squarely on his shoulders by virtue of being an Arena Football League quarterback (“I always kind of put it on my shoulders,” Rowley said. “In this league, it’s the quarterback’s responsibility to win.).

In those moments before Saturday’s game, Rowley appeared, for all the world, like a gladiator, transported from ancient Rome, to play football in Portland.

Then, when he stepped onto the field, Rowley played like a gladiator.

Bruised, cut and having the hell beaten out of him over 60 minutes of action, the 36-year-old quarterback completed 22 of 29 passes for 235 yards and six touchdowns, with no interceptions. He also ran for a touchdown and led Portland to the best offensive performance in franchise history and a huge 72-48 win over Jacksonville.

“He took a couple of big-time hits,” Thunder coach Mike Hohensee said. “The kid battled. But that’s who he is. He’s a battler. He’s going to fight until the end. That’s what I love about the kid.”

From the outset, Rowley absorbed devastating punishment.

During the game’s first drive, Rowley and Thunder fullback John Martinez collided on a handoff, and the ball popped free. Rowley dove into the pile and smothered the ball. When he came out of the scrum, Rowley looked to be in serious pain. He took off his helmet, grimaced and shook his right hand. For the next several plays, he flexed his hand between snaps.

“I had a bruised thumb all week,” he said. “Going into the game, I had some issues.”

In the second quarter, Rowley took a brutal blindside hit in the pocket. He lost control of the ball, and the Sharks were able to scoop it up and score. During the play, Rowley’s facemask was pushed up into his lip. After the game, the right side of his lip was bloody and swollen. He will need stitches to repair the damage, but during the game, surgical tape sufficed to hold the skin together.

“It was a good blindside hit from the backside end,” Rowley said. “My facemask pushed into my lip. It was no big deal, though.”

In the final minute of the game, Rowley’s number was called to run the ball, gain positive yardage and keep the clock moving to seal the win. He took several shots to his lower body, which left him walking into the post-game media availability with a noticeable limp.

“I got hit on the leg a little bit on the last drive,” Rowley said. “You’ve got to get positive yards out there, and you have to play smash-mouth football, so I got a couple of bumps and bruises from it, but no big deal.”

The physical toll on Rowley did not stop him from playing a near-flawless game.

“He did a good job,” Hohensee said. “There were a couple of times where he brain-farted a little bit, threw it into coverage. But for the most part, he did a fantastic job.”

Said receiver V’Keon Lacey: “He was great. He showed it throughout the week, making the right reads and making the right throws. He wasn’t just forcing it. He was composed.”

Every Thursday and Friday, the Thunder offense breaks practice with the chant: “Hang 80.”

“We want to put up 80 (points), because that means we scored on every drive,” Rowley said.

The Thunder nearly achieved that goal against the Sharks (7-7). They scored on all but two drives — the fumble on their fifth possession and a missed field goal after a two-play, four-second drive to end the first half.

And Portland would have been even closer to its 80-points goal had it not botched five PAT attempts.

“Still not 80,” Rowley said, with a smile. “We were one drive short of our goal. But we put up 72. Our offense feels good. To put up 72 and beat a good Jacksonville team, it means we’re a team to be reckoned with.”

Rowley was extraordinarily judicious spreading the wealth with his touchdown passes. He threw two TDs to Lacey, two to Jared Perry, one to Perez Ashford and one to Martinez.

Rowley nearly had a seventh touchdown pass, but in the first quarter, Duane Brooks caught a swing pass just before reaching the line of scrimmage, and Brooks was credited with a 3-yard rushing TD.

Quick to give the credit to his receivers, Rowley said the emergence of Perry as a deep threat has helped the offense jell in a dangerous way.

“Jared Perry has changed the way we’re able to play,” Rowley said. “He can make the big play down field, and that opens things up. Now, we’ve got the defense playing defense; they’re not playing offensively.”

The win was almost imperative for the Thunder (4-10). Having finally won, Portland is now a good position to make a push for the AFL playoffs. The Thunder will be fighting with the Spokane Shock (4-9) and others for a spot from the National Conference. The Shock will play the Los Angeles KISS (2-11) on Sunday.

The pivotal game in the season may be the July 25 game between the Thunder and the Shock in Spokane. The season series is 1-1, so whoever wins that game will own the tiebreaker if both teams finish with the same regular-season record after 18 games.

“The number one goal is to get into the playoffs,” Rowley said. “And if we do that, we’re going to have some momentum, just by the nature of the beast.”

After winning Saturday’s emotional game and braking their gut-wrenching losing streak, the Thunder were understandably jubilant. When someone threw water in the air in the locker room in celebration, though, Rowley proved himself as a veteran and a leader by keeping the victory in perspective.

“Hey,” Rowley said, addressing the team. “It (the victory) is not that big of a deal. This is what we need to expect to do. We need to expect to win. You can’t let what happened in the past change who you are as a football player. We all need to expect to win, because that’s how you do win.”

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