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Published: Thursday, 7/3/2008

Former Falcons, Rockets seek arena football title

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Arena football is a different game from the sport local fans watch in the fall.

Of course, playing the game indoors - on a field that's half the size of an outdoor surface, with nets behind each goal line on the outside edges of the goalposts - practically guarantees that.

But former University of Toledo standout Brandon Hefflin said the differences between Arena Football and the outdoor game go beyond the obvious.

"[Arena football] is a totally different game," said Hefflin, who plays for the AFL's Cleveland Gladiators. "It's a smaller field, and that makes the game a lot faster. You have less time to react, and the ball gets to you quicker.

"But the rules are totally different, too. It's a different game."

Hefflin should know. After finishing an All-MAC career with the Rockets, Hefflin joined the AFL's Columbus team and, in three seasons, became the franchise's all-time tackle leader. Last year he led the Destroyers to a berth in Arena Bowl XXI, a feat he's trying to repeat this season with the Gladiators.

Hefflin is one of six former Toledo and Bowling Green State University players still alive in the AFL playoffs. Hefflin, former BG standout Ronald Redd and the rest of the Gladiators will play a second-round playoff game at Georgia Monday.

The Grand Rapids Rampage, which features wideouts Kenny Higgins (UT) and Cole Magner (BG), will travel to Chicago Sunday to take on the Rush, which includes former Springfield High and UT kicker Todd France.

And the Colorado Crush, which includes former Toledo defensive back Antonio Malone, will take on San Jose Saturday.

Hefflin was named the league's defensive player of the week last week after making seven tackles, intercepting a pair of passes and recovering a fumble in Cleveland's 69-66 first-round win over Orlando.

"I knew, from what we did in Columbus [last year], that the key of defense is to cause turnovers so you can get the ball back for your offense," he said. "I just try to get around the ball and make something happen. Then we look for the offense to take advantage of it."

This season Hefflin has a team-leading 110 tackles, which ranks seventh in the AFL, as well as a pair of interceptions, one of which he returned for a TD.

Hefflin's teammate, Redd, took a more circular route to Cleveland.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride ever since I left school," said Redd, whose career has included opportunities with three NFL teams - Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Atlanta - as well as two stints in NFL Europe and two seasons with the AFL's Colorado team leading into this season.

Redd is one of Cleveland's most productive receivers, hauling in 129 passes for 1,523 yards to lead the team in both categories during the regular season. His reception total ranked seventh in the league, and his yardage total was ninth-best.

He has caught 16 touchdown passes this season and also returned an interception 50 yards for another score.

"[Those numbers] weren't a surprise to me, because I set very big goals for myself," Redd said. "One of those goals was to earn the respect of my peers, my teammates and coaches, as well as everyone around the league."

But Redd said his focus isn't on individual accomplishments.

"I have never won a championship since pee wee football, so my team goal is to be part of a champion," he said. "I try not to go too far into the future. I may look ahead a little, but mostly I try to live in the moment."

Higgins and Magner hope to help Grand Rapids continue their season after upsetting Arizona last Monday.

Higgins, who last played at UT in 2004, was named to the AFL's all-rookie team while with Nashville last season. This year he finished fourth in the AFL with 1,552 and had a team-high 112 catches.

Higgins caught 34 TD tosses, fifth-best in the league, and topped Grand Rapids in all major receiving categories this season. He was named second team all-league for his efforts.

"I'm just trying to do what the team needs me to do. I'm just trying to make plays," Higgins said. "[Being named all-league] is a big deal, but it would be a bigger deal to win the championship. I'll look at honors like that after the season is over."

Higgins said playing in the Arena Football League is especially fun for receivers.

"Arena is like a receiver's dream, because 90 percent of the time they throw the ball," he said. "You know you're going to get the ball one of out every three plays.

"The game is faster because the field is smaller and the players are better [than in college]. You just make your reads, get the ball and go."

Former BG standout Magner is another important cog in the Rampage passing attack, with 69 receptions for 739 yards and 12 more scores. He helped Grand Rapids score 70 or more points five times, including a 92-point effort at Kansas City March 24.

"We have such a great offense, and such a great coaching staff, that when the wheels really get rolling we can be hard to stop," Magner said. "I think we all expected to do better than 6-10 [in the regular season], but we were lucky enough to get into the playoffs.

"But I think we're peaking at the right time."

In past seasons Magner has spent time in the NFL in Atlanta's training camp and on Baltimore's practice squad. But when this season ends Magner said he will join the football staff at the University of Florida, where he will be an unpaid assistant for one of his former coaches at Bowling Green, Urban Meyer.

"I'm absolutely trying to delay that for as long as possible," Magner said. "Right now I'm just taking things one day at a time. My focus is on the next game, and we'll see what happens there."

Contact John Wagner at:

jwagner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6481.



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