WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tracy Belton ventured to midfield, basking in the buzz of the exuberant Friday night atmosphere inside Verizon Center. The eight-year Arena Football League veteran snagged his second interception of the night — a dazzling one-hander to steal a surefire touchdown from opposing Baltimore — a play he’s made numerous of times in his lucrative indoor football career.
Most of the fans in attendance probably didn’t even know he’s the reigning AFL Defensive Player of the Year, but as soon as Belton stood on the V-shaped, red-white-and-blue Washington Valor logo underneath the jumbotron and flamboyantly spiked the ball to the turf, he and his Valor teammates were slowly carving out their place on the Nation Capital’s sports scene.
In their debut, host Valor handled fledgling rival, the Brigade, 51-38, picking up the franchise’s first win in front of an announced crowd of 15,759.
“When I got the pick, I was just letting D.C. know that I’m here, like it’s family, I’m here with y’all,” Belton said. “I’m in the middle of the field, I’m here. I’m here, D.C.”
Belton, who grew up 10 minutes from the Verizon Center and is a graduate of Largo High School, finished the night with a game-high nine tackles and two interceptions with about 75 of his family members and friends in attendance. The night couldn’t have gone much better in the D.C.-area native’s eyes.
“This is my vision right here,” Belton said. “Coming back home, this is my vision right here. Playing in front of the home team, the crowd, the fans, I mean 15,000 here. We put on a show for the fans. First game, first win ever.”
Indoor football is a lot like traditional American football, except it’s played on a 50-yard field and punting is prohibited, so there’s always a chance of a scoring play. Instead of 11 players on the field, there’s eight. The scoring is practically the same, with six points per touchdown and one point for place-kicked extra points. Drop-kicked extra points are worth two, however.
The AFL plays four 15-minute quarters with a running clock, with the exception to the last minute of each half.
So, overall, the avid American football fan can catch on smoothly with the Arena League, plus added brownie points for a fan-friendly environment and riveting pace.
Washington (1-0) opened their AFL campaign in style, scoring on their first five possessions to bust open a 34-6 lead with under five minutes left in the second quarter.
After falling behind by 28, Baltimore (0-1) gained traction in the opening minutes of the second half, scoring on their next two possessions to draw it to 34-20 with about eight minutes to go in the third quarter.
Baltimore then got to within 11 with under eight minutes left in regulation — 37-26 — but failed to get any closer.
Washington outgained Baltimore in total net yards, 260-206, and picked up 19 first downs, three more than the Brigade.
“I’m very proud of the group, not just our players, but our Monumental staff for allowing this to happen,” Valor coach Dean Cakinos said. “We had a big fanbase tonight; loud, lots of electricity in the building. … We’re very proud to be here.”
Valor quarterback Erik Meyer dazzled, completing 21 of 31 passes for 237 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for 16 yards on the ground, a game-high.
Meyer, a former league MVP, is 34 years old and coming off a year and a half layoff from football.
“It was a challenge getting that chemistry going and getting that timing down, and coming into this game, we were still trying to figure out each other, quarterbacks and receivers,” Meyer said. “Overall, I thought we did a good job.”
Mike Washington caught nine receptions for 112 yards and three touchdowns. Bernard Morris, T.T. Toliver (two total touchdowns) and James Gordon all recorded a rushing score.
Brigade quarterback Shane Carden completed 21 of 32 passes for 197 yards, three touchdowns and one interception off the bench. Baltimore native and University of Maryland grad LaQuan Williams caught five receptions for 36 yards and two touchdowns.
But in the end, after the unknown materialized, players raved about their new office and supporting cast, wide-eyed youth in particular: Autographs, photo ops and a budding sports franchise in the Nation’s Capital.
“Shoot, come out to the Verizon Center, this thing was crazy,” Meyer said. “I was pretty impressed with the people who came out. They were loud. There was one time in the huddle I couldn’t even hear myself when I was calling the play, and it was awesome.”