Arena football is coming back to Fayetteville.
The Carolina Predators will call the Crown Coliseum home for the 2022 season as members of the American Indoor Football Alliance.
Fayetteville hasn't been home to an arena football team since the Cape Fear Heroes folded in 2019 after a seven-year run.
The Heroes were Fayetteville's fourth arena football team, following the Cape Fear Wildcats (2002-04), the Fayetteville Guard (2005-07) and the Fayetteville Force (2011).
Charles Gunnings, who will coach the Predators, has been involved with all of those teams, going all the way back to his playing days with the Wildcats.
"I’m very excited to bring football back here to Fayetteville," Gunnings said during a press conference Wednesday to announce the team's partnership with the Crown. "I’m home."
Based in Spartanburg, South Carolina, team owner Ralph Byrd chose the Predators' new home after talks with Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem and Myrtle Beach.
"I felt like this is where we needed to be," Byrd said. "Why not have our home in a place that is established in arena football?"
Byrd, like Gunnings, played arena football in the early 2000s, and his first game was in the Crown as a running back for the Upstate Dragons.
"My first year playing, to come into a building of this magnitude, back then with the fans, it was a different game of football," Byrd said.
About those differences: Arena football is played on a field sized to fit inside of stadiums where ice hockey or basketball teams play — with a length of 50 yards instead of 100. And instead of the usual 11-man side in the NFL, arena teams field eight-man squads on offense and defense.
Padded barriers surround the sidelines, and goalposts are just 9-feet wide and 15 feet off the ground, compared to the NFL's 18.5-foot wide posts that are 10 feet off the ground.
Rebound nets beyond the end zones keep the ball in play until it touches the ground, as long as it stays inbounds. One designated player is allowed a running start on offense, as long as he doesn't cross the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. There's no punting, and missed field-goal attempts can be returned.
"It’s very fast-paced. It’s a little different from traditional football," said Predators assistant coach Sean Woods.
"You’re going to see a lot of fireworks on offense," added John Hall, another of Gunnings' assistant coaches, all of whom are looking forward to tapping the talent-rich area of Cumberland County and beyond.
"Fayetteville is an untapped market when it comes to talent," Hall said. "Over the years, from all the teams we’ve had here locally, there have been a lot of guys overlooked and Coach (Gunnings) has been doing a great job of getting guys in and coaching them up.
"Everybody’s excited about getting back into it."
"It is a deep talent pool in this area with Fayetteville State, Campbell and Methodist, just to name a few," Woods said.
"You’ve got guys who have that desire to play professional football and sometimes they get overlooked. This can be another avenue for them to get to that level. If it worked for Kurt Warner, it can work for anybody else."
Gunnings, who coaches on Scotland High's staff, said he's not seeking out high school players because if they play in this league, they'll lose their eligibility to play in college.
But he does intend to mentor those teens.
"We don’t get just anybody to play for us," Gunnings said. "You have to fit into the puzzle we have."
Other AIFA teams include the Birmingham Ravens, Las Vegas Kings, Mississippi Raiders, St. Charles Bandits and Tampa Bay Cyclones.
The Predators' first tryouts will be held Jan. 15 and another tryout is set for Feb. 5, with time and location to be announced later on the team's Facebook page and website. Those interested can register at predatorsarenafootball.com.
The league is set to begin play on March. 26.
Sports editor Monica Holland can be reached at email@example.com.
Fayetteville set to welcome arena football back to the Crown with the Carolina Predators
Monica Holland The Fayetteville Observer