09/19/2011 12:20 PM
On Saturday, March 19, 2011 the Cleveland Gladiators faced a hostile crowd at the Veterans Memorial Arena in Spokane, WA. The Gladiators were going up against the defending ArenaBowl Champions’ Spokane Shock.
After leading the Shock late in the fourth quarter, Gladiators legendary quarterback John Dutton came up limp following a fourth down incompletion. Dutton grimaced in pain. Immediately, his teammates and coaches knew the sustained injury was serious. On the next series, an unknown rookie quarterback by the name of Kurt Rocco entered the game.
“It was nerve racking,” Rocco said. “I was definitely thrown into the fire. I’m not going to say that’s a bad thing. If anything, it was a good thing for me.”
With only 57 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Rocco threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Troy Bergeron. The touchdown secured them a 61-48 lead and an eventual win.
“Once I threw that first touchdown pass, it was a real relief,” Rocco said. “That helped.”
Following the game, the Gladiators learned Dutton tore his left Achilles tendon and would be out for the remainder of the regular season.
“After that, all of the veterans realized that I was probably going to be the guy for them so they took me under their wing,” Rocco said.
Week after week, Rocco excelled. He finished the regular season 319-of-495 for 3,834-yards and 72 touchdowns. Cleveland finished 10-8 and were crowned East Division Champions.
At the conclusion of the regular season, Dutton returned to the team in a first round matchup against the Georgia Force; however, Head Coach Steve Thonn stuck with the young gun. After being sacked four times and throwing an interception, Dutton replaced Rocco. Cleveland fell to Georgia, 50-41, and was knocked out of the playoffs.
The season, however, could still be considered a success for Rocco and the Gladiators.
“I felt like I played well. I was told I played well. I know, however, I played inconsistent, especially on the road. I’m not going to lie about that. Film will show that. I think I have a better understanding going through an entire season on what to expect this season and seasons to come. Hopefully I will turn out to be a little more consistent,” Rocco said.
Rocco’s stellar play surprised fans, coaches and players around the AFL. But as the AFL is submerged in its three-week exclusive period and players can only be assigned to their respective teams before they become free agents, Cleveland has yet to select a quarterback.
“John is a great quarterback and I could see him coming back. I don’t see why he wouldn’t,” Rocco said.
Rocco, though, respects Dutton.
“Going into camp last season, regardless if I was going to make the team or not, I knew I was going to be backing up John,” Rocco said. “I knew he was an AFL legend. I knew all of his statistics; I knew he was an ArenaBowl champ. I was actually excited coming into a league that I had no experience in and didn’t really know anything about, at first, I got to sit back and learn.”
Rocco admits that Dutton’s decision will have a factor on where he will play next year.
“If [Dutton] comes back to Cleveland, I’m not saying I won’t play there,” Rocco said. “If another team calls me after the exclusive period though, I would consider some options.”
Cleveland has yet to make a move during the exclusive period. Meanwhile, once the team makes a decision at quarterback, a young quarterback with eminent potential may be on the market at the start of the free agency period.
“My game will improve,” Rocco said.” Hopefully this upcoming season, wherever I am, I will be able to adapt. I still have a lot to learn.”