Fans have reason to cheer Night Train

05/06/02 LaCrosse Tribune

Wide receiver Ben Antony sure wasn't expecting it, and he's been playing football in this town for years.

"Actually," he would say afterwards. "no I wasn't."

The new coach, Mike Brown, certainly was surprised.

"At first, I was thinking they had come to see if I'd screw up," he laughed.

Miss Cleo herself probably couldn't have seen it coming. And even if she had, she couldn't have explained it.

But there they were. There you were. An announced crowd of 2,700 for the Night Train's 40-26 victory against Wyoming on Saturday at the La Crosse Center.

No, there probably wasn't that many people, (I lost count and interest at around 45) but even if it was only 2,000, that still beat the races. Woo-hoo! Three cheers for the football fans!

It's really unexplainable. The Night Train were 0-5. Right or wrong, they just fired a coach, John Schimon, who loved football so much he would sit up into the wee hours of the night with his wife, explaining the Night Train positions and plays to her, telling her each player's strengths. "I never understood football before I met him," Leah Schimon says.

But that's not it. In their last home game, the Night Train got embarrassed. The game before that, they just flat gave up.

The fan turnout defied logic, really.

"I came out of the locker at halftime and couldn't believe it," Brown said. "I think the crowd got bigger as the game went on."

Maybe it was all the airtime the team has gotten this week. Maybe it was the new ads the team is running. Maybe people really did come out to see if Brown would fall on his face. There always will be those who gawk at car wrecks.

But Brown has this simple theory, and it seems to make perfect, simple sense. La Crosse loves football.

"The fans want to love us so much," he told his players this week. "We just need to give them a reason."

The Night Train did give a reason, plenty of reasons. They won, for starters, and we all know that's more fun than losing. But they also made big plays, exciting plays. The defense made four interceptions. Marvin Hooker made two with a cast on his arm.

The new quarterback, Marrial Shields, may be the biggest reason of all. He spun, and juked, and scrambled, and threw the Night Train to victory, and smiled like he was an 8-year-old at Walt Disney World. He had one of those Barry Sanders kind of runs where he broke 784 tackles and 34 ankles, and when it was all over, he had gained just 18 yards, but the crowd was on its feet.

"We loved that," Shields said of the crowd noise. "We fed off that."

We may never know if Schimon's firing was justified. It doesn't matter at this point. It's the owners' money, they can do what they want.

But clearly, it couldn't have come at a better time. It stirred up interest just before two probable wins. And the hiring of Brown - his career head coaching record is now 1-0 - appears to be a great move. The players love him. He has so much energy and passion. It's infectious.

"He's a great motivator, is what it comes down to," Antony said. "His motor's always running. He's always got ideas. He's always looking for our opinion."

Shields said this: "(Brown) stayed with us. Nothing against John Schimon. John Schimon is a good guy. But he has more intensity."

No, Brown hasn't transformed the Night Train into the league's best team overnight. He knows Wyoming was weak. There will be more bumps on the road.

But Saturday night, the Night Train players were exciting. La Crosse had a fun football team to watch.

It's a shame Schimon didn't get to feel what Brown felt Saturday night. The man who brought the Night Train to La Crosse didn't get to run around the field giving high fives, blowing kisses to cheering fans after the game. It might be his own fault.

Schimon did get to see it all though. How? He was in the crowd. He and his wife bought tickets. What did you expect? He's a La Crosse football fan.

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