Thursday, May 1, 2008

Tide fans stay loyal in tough season

Chesapeake routed by Lehigh Valley in front of 200

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The handful of fans at the Chesapeake Tide’s Continental Indoor Football League game Sunday afternoon had various reasons for coming to Show Place Arena. Some were players’ relatives and friends. Others were there for the cheap entertainment. And a few were there for the irony.

A group of students from Georgetown Day School in the District stood above midfield and spelled out ‘‘T-I-D-E” on their chests. Their shirts stayed off all the way to the bitter end in their winless team’s 50-17 defeat to the Lehigh Valley Outlawz.

Alex Zeldin, to whom his friends pointed as the definitive superfan among the body-painted superfans, discovered the team in its inaugural season last year. He was procrastinating from doing schoolwork and stumbled upon the Tide on Wikipedia.

‘‘We saw and we thought it was a complete joke. So we came out here the first time thinking we would get a good laugh out of it, but then we got really hooked,” said Zeldin, who went to four games last year and hasn’t missed a game since.

By a reporter’s count, the Tide drew no more than 200 fans to their game against the Outlawz. Even with ticket prices slashed nearly in half — they now range from $5 for kids to $15 — attendance was down from official counts in the first two games, when the Tide averaged 700 fans.

But considering the rare Sunday afternoon start time, the Washington Wizards and Washington Nationals both playing at home, and the NFL Draft enticing football junkies, defensive lineman Savon McLemore said he was surprised by the crowd.

‘‘We got a great amount of people that come out today and didn’t think we’d have a good showing,” said McLemore, a veterinary technician in the District who played at Suitland High School. ‘‘They came out to support us.”

Gary Henning of Prince Frederick, easily distinguished by his white beard that he admits makes him a Santa Claus look-a-like, has only missed one game, home or away, in two years. His son Robert is the center and immediately took up the indoor game after graduating from Fairmont State University in West Virginia two years ago.

Outside of football, Robert Henning is a substitute teacher in Calvert County and on the coaching staff at Huntingtown High School. According to his father, he only plays because he loves football — not because of the extra cash in his pocket.

‘‘You never get rich playing,” Gary Henning said. ‘‘They do it because they love the game.”

McLemore reflected that same genuine passion. He was upbeat after the loss, which ensured that the 0-6 Tide would not have a winning season. With six games left, they are three-and-a-half games out of returning to the playoffs with the fourth and final spot.

‘‘I love the game and being a part of a team,” said McLemore, who played in college at West Virginia Tech. ‘‘When you’re not part of a team, you lose a lot of that love and that camaraderie that you’re used to playing in college. It’s nothing to do with payments or anything. It’s the enjoyment that you get from seeing the fans who enjoy the game just as much as you do.”

In his travels around the league, Gary Henning has observed different gameday scenes. Some places draw thousands, which the Tide hasn’t done since last season. In a recent game at Lehigh Valley, the padding around the field was adorned with ads, he said. But at Show Place Arena, there were only two sponsors: team owner Martin Johnson’s information technology company and the team’s former public relations firm.

Several season ticket holders said they plan on sticking with the team as long as it’s in town. The interaction with the players and tailgating before and after games make the Tide a good value, especially for those who prefer to take their minor league sports in the form of football.

Billy Cox of Deale, who has season tickets with his brother Bobby and his brother’s girlfriend, Amanda Collinson, learned of the team from a conversation at a bar last year. He said he used to go to the arena to see the Chesapeake Icebreakers, the short-lived minor league hockey team, and goes to the occasional Bowie Baysox game.

But he has been most loyal to the Tide, who satisfy his football fix in the Washington Redskins’ offseason, although it’s much less stressful. The three sit in the front row in the corner and yell at the players and referees. They stand out in the small crowd, but Cox said that’s part of the fun.

‘‘You care, but you don’t care,” he said. ‘‘If they lose, they lose. It’s not like if the Redskins lose and you’re upset for a week.”

As dedicated as they are, Cox and his friends don’t go shirtless. In fact, they go quite the opposite. He makes jerseys for his group and players’ families. While the players’ jerseys are solid blue with simply ‘‘TIDE” spelled out in small letters on the chest, his has the team name stylized on the front and the logo sewn onto each shoulder.

Back in the Georgetown Day section, Zeldin and friend Jeff Schneider sported worn Chesapeake Tide T-shirts after returning from a halftime trip to the concession stand. They got the shirts last year at a game, but the only place team gear is sold nowadays is online.

Seeing such evidence of decline hasn’t made this group of superfans optimistic about the team returning next year, they said. Even though they will be away in college, they said they hope the Tide will still be around.

‘‘For me it’s just the Tide pride,” Schneider said. ‘‘Having witnessed some of the amazing wins they had last year, even though they’re losing this year, it’s still in there. Even when the Redskins go down, you’re still a fan. You can’t just forget about the Tide after a bad season.”

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