A Farewell to Freedom
The Trenton Freedom of the Professional Indoor Football League folded after two seasons of play, but it shouldn't be viewed as a total surprise. The team lost money and there simply was not enough fan support for the franchise to move forward.
Last season my good friend Carmine Zappola invited me to go to the Trenton Freedom game on May 3rd vs. the Richmond Raiders. The Freedom overcame a 16-point fourth quarter deficit with six minutes left to win the game 33-32. It was a really fun and exciting game, so I decided to write a fans point of view article for OurSports Central with my take on the contest. I was surprised by the amount of interest it drew, so that season I ended up doing interviews with many people involved with the Freedom including co-owner Dennis Williams, General Manager Megan Williams, quarterback Warren Smith and wide receiver Roger "Spiderman" Jackson.
The people who worked for the Freedom were very dedicated. Megan Williams put her heart and soul into the team and, despite her mom passing away, she kept moving forward, doing her work for the Freedom.
On May 11th, Mother's Day, when the Freedom defeated the Harrisburg Stampede 52-39, the win wasn't the big story. The Freedom honored the players' moms and raised a lot of money for Ovarian Cancer Awareness. Unfortunately, Megan lost her mother just days prior to the game. She was going to do the coin toss, so they dedicated it to Florence "Floss" Waters in her honor with Megan's aunt doing the toss.
The Freedom that season went 8-4 and finished in first place in the National Conference before losing at home to Lehigh Valley in the playoffs, 49-38.
In their second season, the Freedom went 6-6 and did not make the playoffs.
"It's a tough day for everyone and especially for those that have worked their tails off trying to keep our product alive in Trenton," Freedom general manager Jeff Gonos said in a team statement. "At the end of the day it's just not the right fit at the right cost for what our investors were looking to accomplish."
"Personally I'm crushed. I loved being the head coach of the Trenton Freedom. I loved being in the community of Trenton," O'Hanlon said. "At the end of year two I planned for year three. I was in talks, when allowed, with our players and talked to the coaching staff I had coming back in regards to who we would try and go after who weren't former Freedom players. When I got the call we weren't coming back and the facts as to why, I don't think I even argued the points to why we should stay. It was presented black and white."
O'Hanlon had nothing but positive things to say about the ownership group of Michael Schubiger and Dennis Williams. "First off our ownership was and is amazing. I'm not saying this to be P.C. I'm saying it because I truly believe that. Now I know there will be people who get upset with that, and I understand. Trenton is a market that our ownership wanted to be in. They could have gone anywhere; with that said, all pro teams need community support."
Trenton Freedom co-owner Dennis Williams said, "All our bills are paid (or will soon be paid), so at least I can hold my head up high and say, 'I tried, I failed, I had a lot of fun and I didn't hurt anyone in the process.'"
The bottom line is the Freedom had a big battle ahead of them putting a team in Trenton with its history of failed sports teams. The Trenton Lightning of the Indoor Professional Football League in 2001 only lasted six games before they folded after its owner was arrested and eventually convicted of several counts of theft. In 2011 indoor football came back with the Trenton Steel of the Southern Indoor Football League. They only lasted one season then decided to fold. Also in 2013, the ECHL's Trenton Titans folded under a sea of unpaid bills. More recently, the Arena Lacrosse League cancelled a showcase game at the Sun Bank National Center.
Perhaps fans feared investing their time and hearts into a team because so few in the market lasted very long.
O'Hanlon had a great deal of respect for the Freedom fans who attended games the past two seasons. "We had great, amazing fans who I truly wished after each game I could thank for their support, but other than Saturday nights, the powers that be didn't really see them screaming for the Freedom. In the off season it got real quiet last year and this year, and that spoke pretty loud."
As in many minor league sports when a team's season is over it is out of sight and out of mind. Fans tend to focus on other sports until the next season rolls around.
Another problem is the area surrounding the Sun National Bank National Center. "Walk around the arena area alone and look at all the closed businesses and shut down buildings," O'Hanlon said. "We need to support each other in the community. If another team is to ever come back to Trenton... if the local businesses aren't supporting each other and fans aren't supporting the team year round, I'm not sure it works."
O'Hanlon felt another factor which hurt the Freedom was a lack of media support. "I found the papers chirping in when they did rather funny," he continued. "It's the Trenton way. I don't remember them giving us much if any coverage unless we directly supplied the stories and info, but as soon as something negative happens, man, they were on it and that's again the lack of support we got. I'm sure the community would have loved to have read about the many local players making up their Trenton Freedom."
On his plans for the future O'Hanlon said, "I don't have any. I wasn't planning on being out of work, so I'm kind of in a bad place. It's so late in the game; teams have their coaches. So I just have to pull myself up and find work. Again I was 100% in. I could find work outside of football but it would most likely require me to move out of the state which I don't want to do. So as I understand the fans are upset over us not coming back. I understand why, but for sure I'm upset I'm out of work right now."
The product on the field proved solid, and Freedom QB Warren Smith signing with the AFL Spokane Shock and WR Roger "Spiderman" Jackson signing with the New Orleans VooDoo provided proof of the team's talent.
"It's a shame that the Freedom folded," opined Smith, "because I saw big potential in Trenton down the road if they got the right investors, especially considering it was only 40 minutes from my house. I want to thank the Freedom family for the opportunity in 2014 and all they have done for me."
"I was very sad to hear that the Trenton Freedom team was folding," added Jackson. "It was a great organization with great owners and staff. I know for a fact the community was proud of the team. It was something they could look to for positivity. I was going to keep up with them for the rest of their existence. I hope something happens to bring them back, but always #TF4LIFE. We had great players and we always left it all on the historical red turf!"
"It comes as a big surprise, yet you just never know in indoor football what could happen with any team," said Freedom quarterback Stephen Panasuk. "I enjoyed playing at home the past 2 years. The ownership and coaches were phenomenal and the fans were great. A lot of strong relationships were made, and I wish everyone the best of luck moving forward."
The team also provided opportunities for those in the front office. Steven Eggert, who was the media relations director this past season after serving as an intern last season, said, "As someone who has been around Trenton all my life, I've seen the city in its highest and most recently, lowest pro sports moments. I was hoping this team would mark a step in the right direction for the Trenton sports market. Unfortunately, it wasn't the case."
Eggert who graduated from Rider this year with a degree in Journalism has a bright future ahead of him.
"The Trenton Freedom was one of the greatest opportunities ever presented to me," said Macy Golder who also worked two seasons with the Freedom. "Week One of their first season, I started out doing team stats. While I loved doing that, I knew there was more I could be doing for the team. Following my heart and passion, the team allowed me to conduct interviews with players and coaches. This gave me a chance to not only know the front office/organization side of the Trenton Freedom, but also I really got to know the players and coaches. Interviews after a win were always fun, but an interview after a loss was always a challenge. I loved the challenge, though, because it pushed me to become a better reporter. I learned so much during my two years with the Freedom that I will be able to use that knowledge for the rest of my life. While I am sad that the Freedom will no longer be a team, I am grateful for the memories and grateful to have met so many wonderful people who will forever be in my life because of this team.
"I have a lot of exciting things lined up for the fall, and without the Trenton Freedom, these opportunities wouldn't be possible. To the Trenton Freedom fans, front office, players, coaches and everyone else involved, thank you!"
"I'm definitely going to miss working with the Freedom," added photographer Steve Hofmann. "I got the opportunity to meet and work alongside so many great people, and it's a memory I'll always cherish. My deepest thanks to the Williams family for reaching out to me and allowing me the opportunity to work as the team's photographer. The entire organization felt like one big family, and I think that speaks volumes about everybody involved. It was simply an incredible experience."
The Trenton Freedom Xtreme Dance team also did an outstanding job getting the fans pumped up during the games and being involved in the community. Rachel Liberto did a great job as the Dance Team Coordinator.
Carmine Zappola, my friend who introduced me to the Freedom, is lost for words. He was one of the biggest Freedom fans, and he would try to get as many of his friends to come with him to games as he could. He would be very loud during games and trash talk opposing players. To him the Freedom was his team, they had over 1,000 fans per game, and Carmine said if they had two thousand more they would probably still be around.
I look forward over the years to continuing to keep in touch with everyone I met during my time covering the Freedom. If Spiderman Jackson makes an NFL team one day, I can tell everyone that I covered him when he played for the Trenton Freedom. I will end with this: Thank you, Michael Schubiger and Dennis Williams, for bringing a quality brand of football to Trenton. I wish it could have lasted longer, but we have seen in indoor football that is a tough task to accomplish.
Images from this story
Trenton Freedom Dance Team
Trenton Freedom General Manager Megan Williams
Trenton Freedom's Macy Golder with Coach Kevin O'Hanlon
Trenton Freedom Owner Dennis Williams
Trenton Freedom WR Roger "Spiderman" Jackson
Trenton Freedom QB Warren Smith
Trenton Freedom's Macy Golder
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Professional Indoor Football League Stories from September 2, 2015
- A Farewell to Freedom - OSC Original by Fran Stuchbury
- A Farewell to Freedom - OSC Original by Fran Stuchbury
- A Farewell to Freedom - OSC Original by Fran Stuchbury
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s), and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts or opinions of OurSports Central or its staff.