CLEVELAND – Arena football isn’t known for its defense, with all the aerial tactics and stunt moves that occur on the 50-yard enclosed turf field.
That doesn’t stop 5-foot-10, 190-pound Joe Phinisee from displaying his skill set for the Cleveland Gladiators.
The 2004 Warren G. Harding graduate had an interception and a fumble recovery to help the AFL’s best team to a 16-1 record after a 62-20 victory over the Jacksonville Sharks on Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena.
Cleveland held a 35-20 lead at halftime and shut down the Sharks (6-11) in the second half – a rarity in arena football.
“We were hitting on all cylinders – interceptions, fumble recoveries,” Phinisee said. “I didn’t realize what we had in the second half until after the game. I really expect that from my defense. When it’s clicking, it happens that way.”
Beside his second-half interception (his fourth this year), Phinisee had a fumble recovery late in the second quarter. The ball popped out of a Jacksonville receiver’s hands after being popped by a Cleveland defensive back near the Gladiators’ 5. Phinisee picked up the ball and rumbled ahead 20 yards.
“I happened to see the ball on the ground. They call me ‘Johnny On The Spot.’ I had to get that ball,” he said.
He starts at linebacker for the Gladiators, but he’s still more of a defensive back.
“You play jack linebacker,” Phinisee said. “You go side-to-side, 5 yards. A lot of people, they use them as defensive backs. You’re still playing defensive back at the end of the day. It’s still a fast game. You have to play from side-to-side.”
Gladiators coach Steve Thonn, who has been with the team for five seasons, said he’s happy with Phinisee’s performance with Cleveland.
“Joe’s been so consistent this year,” Thonn said. “We moved him into that Jack linebacker spot. He gives us that extra DB. Joe does a great job of working well with the three DBs behind him. He had the knack for making plays. That’s the way he’s always been. If he’s close, it seems Joe makes a play.
“He’s fit that role for us and made a lot of plays for us.”
Phinisee’s road to the AFL’s best team wasn’t as successful as his play was Saturday night.
After graduating from Harding, Phinisee went on to attend school and play football for Walsh University, where he received a degree in criminal justice. Although he had his degree, he still wanted to play football on the professional level.
He was on track to play in the AFL in 2009, but the league then went on strike – ending the first year Phinisee could have played professionally.
However, that didn’t hinder the WGH graduate from pursuing his dream. He played for the Peoria (Ill.) Pirates in the now defunct af2 that season before joining the Gladiators in 2010.
Phinisee always carried the words of former Raiders coach Thom McDaniels, which was perfect for this type of situation.
“Coach McDaniels is a great coach,” he said. “He taught us to deal with adversity. He taught us to be physical. I took that when I went to play college and when I went to play professionally.”
Quickly, Phinisee learned the game he had been playing since he was 9 years old wasn’t the same anymore. The arena league was much quicker than the game he once played at Harding or Walsh. To help the learning curve, Phinisee picked up some lessons from veterans itching to play in the AFL, but succumbed to the 2009 strike – forcing them to play in places like af2.
Phinisee has caught on and has become a versatile player for the Gladiators. Prior to Saturday night’s game, he had 55 tackles (40 solo) and recovered four fumbles.
“You can almost put Joe in any position,” Thonn said. “I remember three years ago we had two receivers go down. We put him in at receiver and he scored a touchdown right away, got open right away. He’s just that type of guy that knows football.”
Though his life is now in Cleveland, Phinisee still remembers his Warren roots.
“Anybody who makes it from a small city has to be prideful,” Phinisee said. “The city backs me up. The city has always been there for me. I give back as much as I can.”
Phinisee wants to give as much as he can as the Gladiators make the push to the postseason.
“Each week we strive for 1-0. That’s our motto for each week,” Phinisee said. “Our goal was never to be (16-1). Our goal was to make the playoffs.”
The Gladiators can go 17-1 if they beat the Tampa Bay Storm next Saturday in Tampa Bay. If they do that, Cleveland will have home field throughout the playoffs.
Cleveland will host a first-round game on Aug. 2. And, this year’s Arena Bowl will be at the highest remaining seed.
“That would be amazing to have the first championship in Cleveland,” Phinisee said. “We could start off for the Cavs, the Browns, the Indians. Cleveland is going on a good path right now.”