FROM KEITH GROLLER
Tommy Benizio was in the lobby of Stabler Arena on a sweltering day last July when it was announced that an Indoor Football League team was coming to the Lehigh Valley.
Benizio, the IFL's commissioner, returned to Stabler Arena on Saturday night to see that IFL team — now known as the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks — make its debut and the league's top guy gave the new entry a thumbs up.
"When you see an idea come to fruition in less than a year's time, it's very exciting," Benizio said. "We see a near full house here tonight and lots of enthusiastic fans."
Benizio is in charge of the 22-team, third-year league that stretches from Alaska to Richmond, Va.
The Richmond Revolution was the Steelhawks opponent on Saturday night and spoiled the Steelhawks debut by rallying for 48-45 overtime victory before 2,830 fans.
The final score certainly wasn't what the Steelhawks (1-2) were looking for, but the new franchise, which will play six more home games at Stabler, is giving the league what it wants.
The Lehigh Valley team along with the Reading Express gives the IFL a presence in the northeast corridor and Benizio would love to see more teams from the Philly/New York market come aboard.
"The Steelhawks are a great addition to the league," said Benizio, who was previously the co-owner of the Intense Football League, which merged with the United Football League to form the current IFL two years ago.
"Obviously, you want to keep the costs down, so you want to be a bus league," Benizio said. "It's professional football, but you want these teams to grow roots in the community by having lower budgets and travel costs are a big part of that."
So Benizio is aggressively seeking for future neighboring rivals for the Steelhawks.
"I had lunch today at Starters Riverport with three potential team owners from the New York/Pennsylvania/New England region and we'd like to grow this region," he said. "All would have teams within five hours or less and that would be great for the Lehigh Valley team."
As for the ownership of the Steelhawks, Benizio has a lot of faith in Glenn and Mike Clark, the father-son combo that serves as the team owner and general manager.
Glenn Clark owns Rockwood Programs, an insurance agency based in Wilmington, Del.
"They're doing this with a lot of integrity and a lot of class," Benizio said. "It's a well-financed group that's going to do things right. They made an investment in this community before they ever put 10 cents into the football team."
As for the opening-night operation, Benizio said: "There are some things they can polish and they will. They didn't have the opportunity to get here until 48 hours before kickoff. The women's basketball team here at Lehigh doing so well [the Mountain Hawks played in the WNIT] limited the Steelhawks opportunity to prepare as well as they'd like. So, there are some kinks they need to work through."
"But the bottom line is they showed up, the uniforms look great and the stands are just about full. They're putting on a good show. They got the big things right and the little things are going to get better and better."
•On the field, the Steelhawks couldn't overcome a variety of little things, like penalties and turnovers, and couldn't post their second win over Richmond in three Saturdays.
The game, which lasted more than three hours, had plenty of everything to keep the crowd entertained.
Lehigh Valley built a 15-0 lead and scored on the final play of the first half to go up 25-14 at halftime.
However, Richmond scored two touchdowns within the irst nine minutes of the third quarter to take the lead and then fought back from deficits of 32-28 and 39-35 to take the lead on a 6-yard TD run by Bernard Payton — his fourth of the night — with 1:22 left.
The Steelhawks came back to get a game-tying field goal by Paul Stoltz on the final play of regulation to force overtime.
Stoltz drilled a 35-yarder on the first possession of overtime to give the Steelhawks a 45-42 lead.
But Richmond quarterback Dennis Brown, who had more than 150 yards of total offense, scored on a 1-yard run to send the Steelhawks fans — and there were still plenty making noise until the final play — home disappointed.
For Lehigh Valley, quarterback AJ Roque, a Kean University product, put on a show with four touchdown tosses, two to Pius X graduate Quinton Lopez, who had four catches overall.
Roque, demonstrating plenty of elusiveness, also ran for 34 yards.
Isaiah Grier led the ground attack with 101 yards and scored a pair of TDss – one rushing, one by reception.