Smith admitted coming to Dalton was a tough sell and people around the league were “really nervous” about it. If anything, that just made him appreciate the challenge more.
“But I just knew it was such a big football market,” Smith said. “That’s why I said, ‘Give it some time. We’ll build it here.’
“I see good potential, and in a weird way I like the competition of making it work. Whenever we first started getting into it and people were saying, ‘No, Dalton won’t work,’ I was like, ‘Well, watch.’”
The UIFL was founded in 2011 with six teams — the Canton (Ohio) Cougars, Eastern Kentucky Drillers, Huntington (W. Va.) Hammer, Johnstown (Pa.) Generals, Northern Kentucky River Monsters and Saginaw (Mich.) Sting — but none of them currently are in the league. Four of the teams — the Cougars, Hammer, River Monsters and Sting — either folded or left the league after one season. The Drillers and Generals left after last season.
The Rampage joined for the 2012 season as a travel team, practicing in Calhoun but not playing any home games. The Miami Sting, Florida Tarpons, Raiders and Mississippi Hound Dogs also debuted last season. Like the Sting, the Hound Dogs also are no longer in the league.
This season’s league started with seven teams but has since dropped to six. Miami’s team folded before the season began. The Sarasota (Fla.) Thunder has had trouble making road games. They had one scheduled with the Fury and Rampage but Smith said financial difficulties prevented them from happening.
The Rampage are 2-4 this season with little to no chance of making the UIFL’s playoffs. Atop the standings are the Lakeland Raiders and Corpus Christi Fury. Smith said these are the two teams with the most money and biggest payrolls, and that effects wins and losses since there is no league-determined salary cap.
“Who wins the championship is who gets the most money,” Smith said. “Anyone can put together a roster. It’s who can put together the best roster with the most money. And when it’s all said and done, it’ll come down to Lakeland and Corpus Christi this year.”
A manager of General Nutritions Centers in Calhoun, Smith is a 2005 Gordon Central High School graduate and played football at the school. The team’s other owner and Smith’s financial partner, Amer Awad, is a graduate of Canyon Springs High School in Moreno, Calif. Awad and Smith met when the former was doing the latter’s taxes and Awad, a 27-year-old tax consultant for Liberty Tax, expressed interest in owning a minor league professional sports franchise.
Smith was already the owner of a semi-pro outdoor team based in Calhoun, the North Georgia Bulldogs, and had been held that title for six seasons prior to the current one with the Rampage.
He said he has put the Bulldogs “on hold” to focus all his attention and resources toward the Rampage.
The team graduated a player, wide receiver Dallas Walker, to the NFL. He signed with the San Diego Chargers two weeks ago and is evidence that the pipe dream of making it from the UIFL to the biggest level is possible. Rampage kicker Jay Tyroff is one player who hopes to use the Rampage as a launching pad to get back to the NFL. He went to training camp with the Atlanta Falcons in 2009 and Dallas Cowboys in 2010 and has since played for numerous indoor football teams throughout the Southeast.
“It’s every football player’s dream, especially in arena ball, to play in the NFL,” he said in a past interview with The Daily Citizen. “I’ve made it to the NFL, and the politics side of it, it’s all about who you know, as in anything.”
However, many of the players don’t even consider the possibility. They just want to play the game.
“I just really love playing football,” running back Clarence Goines said in a past interview. “It’s my life.”
Smith, 26, can relate to them.
“I’m not too far removed from these guys,” he said. “They’re not too much younger than me. I used to be a player myself. So I kind of know how they have it. ... There are some teams with owners who don’t travel to games. Some don’t even know the players. The players hardly know each other.
“They call my dad (Mike Smith) ‘Pops,’ and I think they’ve adopted him as their dad. They love my son. ... But there’s a fine line there. ... I love them all to death and brought them here for a reason. One thing as an owner is I hand pick players more than anyone else. But there’s a fine line, because I have to let some go.”
From Smith’s observation, the first year is the toughest. If you can survive the first season “it becomes a lot more stable and gets better.”
He also thinks the product is catching on with people who have watched. It’s a slow and gradual process, he said, but it’s a process that Smith believes is far beyond where it was two months ago when the season was beginning.
“I’ve gotten more hugs from people that I don’t know,” Smith said of people’s feedback. “Some of these fans are funny. They’ll tell me thanks and that they enjoyed it.
“After games, it’s really encouraging. I had one where I had 10 emails just telling me how much they enjoyed it.”
If the Rampage don’t make the playoffs, the last game of the season will be May 13 at home versus the Chattahoochee Valley Vipers, a non-UIFL foe. Smith is already looking ahead to next season, and he is optimistic about a successful second year, saying there are no plans to move the Rampage out of Dalton. A Calhoun resident, Smith said he “wants to be here and make this work.”