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By MARGARET NACZEK
PHOENIX — For the Kanez family, the only activity the trio can participate in together is attending Arizona Rattlers games.
Sandra and Frank’s son, Patrick, faces disabilities that require him to use a wheelchair. The family had gone to other sports in the Valley but no other organization welcomed and accommodated them like the Rattlers organization.
“With the other games, it’s like (the players) are untouchable. You can’t approach them. With the Rattlers, you’re able to approach them and ask them questions,” Sandra Kanez said. “It’s one-on-one but a family as well. It makes it exciting, and it’s acceptability.”
Patrick is what Sandra calls the Arizona Rattlers’ biggest fan. Patrick wakes up early on Rattlers home games to get ready to go to Talking Stick Resort Arena. The family has been season ticket holders for eight years, and Patrick has a collection of Rattlers gear including shirts, a signed football helmet and tray table for his wheelchair.
After the game players look for Patrick to give him a hug or sign an autograph.
“The team, the coaches, the staff, everyone makes you feel like you’re part of a family,” Sandra said.
The Arizona Rattlers are nearing the end of their 26th season and second in the Indoor Football League. They boast six arena championships, including one in their first season of the IFL. As leaders in the IFL this season, they are working toward their seventh championship title to continue their winning tradition.
“Arizona and Phoenix in particular is a proven sports town, and when you win, they’ll come out and support a winner,” IFL commissioner Mike Allshouse said. “Winning is synonymous with the Arizona Rattlers.”
In 2017 the IFL awarded the Rattlers IFL franchise of the year, best fan base and best cheerleader/dance team. The team led the IFL in fan attendance, averaging 12,852 fans a game, according to IFL statistics.
The team is on pace to maintain its attendance title, putting up record numbers at Talking Stick Resort Arena. On May 21, the Rattlers played for a record-breaking crowd of 18,381 fans against the Iowa Barnstormers.
“(That) is amazing at this level of professional football to have 18,000 fans in the seats to watch the team play. A lot of teams in competing leagues across the country don’t even get that for an entire season, and the Rattlers get that in one game,” Allshouse said.
The Baltimore Brigade, an Arena Football League team, in comparison totaled 39,759 fans in the 2017 season and averaged only 5,679 fans a game, according to data from ArenaFan.com.
During the last home game of the regular season, members of the Phoenician Rattlers Booster Club gathered to celebrate Rattlers Nation, who came out with a 45-40 win against the Nebraska Danger. They lead the IFL with a 10-2 record.
“It’s different from the NFL, from any other professional teams,” Steve Myers, a booster member and hardcore fan said. “It’s more family-oriented.”
An hour before kickoff, booster members line up along the padded sideline to high-five players as they take the field for warm-ups. During the game, players will dive over the padded walls into the stands, taking the player-fan relationship to a new level.
“They’ve always called it the 50-yard indoor war, which is good for the fan base. The fans are close up,” Myers said.
“Passionate. Very passionate,” Phoenician Rattlers Booster Club president, Mike Smallwood, said. “Intimate is probably the single best word I could say because the relationship between the fans and players is extremely personal.”
After every Rattlers home game, fans are invited on the field to chat, take photos and receive autographs from their favorite players.
“It’s a great feeling, especially when some of the younger kids come up and they’re saying, ‘I’m a quarterback on my 8-year-old team, my 6-year-old team,” starting quarterback Jeff Ziemba said.
“It means a lot because the kids look up to us,” running back Darrell Monroe said. “They look up to professional athletes. We give them guidance on what to do, how we do it, so it means a lot to us just to go out there and interact with them.”
And Rattlers players and coaches say the dynamic fan base contributes to the Rattlers winning tradition.
“Our fan base it outstanding, Rattler Nation, and the support we get from them. They are as much a part of those wins as I am,” coach Kevin Guy, who became the winningest coach in franchise history, said. “They’re loud. They’re energetic. They’re very educated on the game.”
Guy said there are nights where he takes the field and cannot hear his coaches on his headset. The crowd is deafening.
“When you come in here, it’s like a concert,” Guy said.
Electric. Passionate. Fun. Family. Whatever word fans call the Rattlers Nation, the six-time championship Arizona Rattlers keep people coming back to the Snake Pit because of an intimate relationship with players and an electric performance on the field.