Outside the Rattlers’ locker room on Sunday, Danny White was turning to head off to a postgame press conference when the sight of Hunkie Cooper coming up the walkway stopped him.
White, the only coach the Rattlers have had in 13 seasons, waited for the star receiver, who had a potential game-tying touchdown catch escape his grasp on the final play of ArenaBowl XVIII just moments before.
The two men — the two faces of Arizona’s arena football franchise — were face to face and embraced.
“You’re the greatest champion I have ever been around,” White, his voice cracking, told Cooper.
The emotional moment following the Rattlers’ 69-62 loss against the San Jose SaberCats at America West Arena ended a season in which the squad overcame much early adversity to reach the Arena Football League’s title game for a third straight time.
The end of an era? That’s to be determined.
Let’s be clear: The Rattlers, despite uncertainty from a change in ownership, will field a team next season.
But they might be under new leadership, as the contracts of White and Gene Nudo, vice president of operations, are up.
Also, players who have defined the team (Cooper, quarterback Sherdrick Bonner, lineman Mark Tucker) could retire, although Sunday’s score might have made that less probable.
“I know potential is still here for this product,” Nudo said, citing a franchise-record crowd of 17,391.
“It’s just a product that has been left alone a little. It needs to get put back on the front burner by somebody.”
Robert Sarver, whose ownership group is scheduled to take over the Suns, Rattlers and the WNBA’s Mercury from Jerry Colangelo this week, has sent a 2005 certificate of operation to the AFL.
“I want to see the Rattlers stay in Phoenix and keep playing,” said Sarver, who attended his second AFL game on Sunday.
But Sarver said he does not want to be heavily involved in the Rattlers’ operations. That could mean appointing someone to oversee the franchise, bringing in an investment partner or selling the team outright.
“I think this team needs someone whose main interest is the Rattlers, who can put all the focus in developing that,” Sarver said.
One ownership possibility speculated, Sarver dealing controlling interest in the team to attorney Kim Coben, appears less likely. That could make a return by White more likely, as Coben is not his biggest fan.
However, the X-factor is if an NFL team comes calling with an offer to fill an offensive coaching vacancy.
The man who learned offense in front of Tom Landry’s Cowboy computer is plenty innovative. Despite the arena game’s cozy confines, White finds all kinds of ways to get the ball in the hands of everyone.
That was especially evident on Sunday, as — with Arizona unable to stop San Jose — White had to dig into every nook and cranny of the game plan to help the Rattlers keep up.
Cooper and Bonner are under contract for next season, but retirement is still an option.
“Every year, we have this same conversation about how we’re all too old,” Cooper said. “We’re not too old. As long as we are still under contract, this is going to be a competitive team.”
The speculation of the Rattlers’ future could be meaningless, as White, Nudo, Cooper, Bonner and others could still be around in 2005.
And that would, from a personnel standpoint, keep the era from ending. Which would let Arizona focus on another task — keeping the window of opportunity from closing.