The Peach State Cats play at The Classic Center on Sunday, March 31, 2019. (Photo/Henry Queen)

When Tim Freeman started the Peach State Cats a year ago, the team didn’t have a home. The home games were originally scheduled in Dalton, Georgia, but Freeman pulled the arena football team out before the season started because the ticket sales weren’t good enough.

Thus began a season on the road. Without a permanent home, the Cats went 0-6 in the American Arena League, which was founded in 2017.

Before the team’s second season, Freeman reached out to The Classic Center in downtown Athens about a potential partnership. The Cats secured a three-year deal with The Classic Center, allowing Freeman, the owner of the team, to continue his mission.

“I just wanted to give guys the opportunity to play,” Freeman said. “I’ve always been interested in arena football.”

On March 31, the Cats beat the Carolina Cowboyz 38-14 in the team’s first true home game of its short history.

“What better way to do it than in Athens?” head coach Mareno Philyaw said. “The home of the Georgia Bulldogs, right down here where everyone loves football.”

The Peach State Cats finally found a home.

‘Radically different’ from Sanford

The first three kickoffs in the Cats’ first game in Athens hit the ceiling.

But even before the opening kickoff, there were plenty of signs that the AAL was a far cry from the SEC.

The players arrived with shoulder pads and a helmet in one hand and cleats or sneakers in the other. One player pushed his toddler’s stroller. Another ran back to his car in The Classic Center parking deck because he forgot something.

Players and fans shared the same bathroom — out the door, under the escalator and to the right. The bleachers were only a few steps behind the players, who sat in green banquet chairs on top of a fancy rug enclosed in an area originally meant for a hockey team. Theoretically, nothing could stop an eager fan from chatting with a player during the game.

The Cats haven’t received their shipment of Nike jerseys yet, so they played on Sunday with practice jerseys with no logos and no names. They are transitioning from a blue-and-yellow color scheme to a red-and-white pattern that is easier on the eyes of Bulldogs fans. 

“People said we looked too much like Georgia Tech,” Freeman said. 

Without the names or access to a roster, fans relied on the PA announcer to give them information about the game. The PA announcer frivolously translated numbers to names while holding his laptop with the rosters in one hand and a microphone in the other. 

“It’s a radically different gameday experience than Sanford Stadium,” spectator Justin Floyd said.

‘Shaking hands, kissing babies’

Many fans at the game stumbled upon the Peach State Cats by coincidence. Floyd heard about it on sports talk radio. Lecole Lattimore, who brought her young son and five of his friends, happened to click on an email from The Classic Center. Others heard about it through friends. 

“If it was advertised, it would have gotten a bigger crowd,” Lattimore said.

There wasn’t an official attendance number announced, but the bleachers appeared to be at least 75% empty.

“The attendance was a little bit lower than we hoped [for],” Freeman said. “But the crowd had great energy.”

The team is prepared to market itself better going forward. 

“We’re going to have to do more grassroots stuff,” Freeman said. “We’re going to have to get some players out there with their jerseys on, politicking, shaking hands, kissing babies.” 

Lives beyond football

For a brief time in 2008, Freeman coached Bruce Irvin at Ware Prep Academy in Atlanta before the school shut down. Irvin played in two Super Bowls and now plays for the Carolina Panthers. 

But in over 10 years of coaching at different prep schools, that’s not what makes Freeman most excited. 

“The most pride I take are in the guys that have families,” Freeman said. “I still have guys contact me, they have a family, they’re doing well, they have good jobs, they moved on to bigger and better things.”

Even as the owner of the Peach State Cats, Freeman said it’s still his goal to guide his players to better lives.

“We still try to inspire the guys to start thinking what their ‘Plan B’ is if football doesn’t work out,” Freeman said. 

Receiver Javon Horton and cornerback Robert Price have a real chance to gain upward mobility. They will soon travel to Florida for an opportunity to join the minicamp of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, a Canadian team. 

Others won’t be so lucky in football. But a lot of the players already have great jobs. Freeman said DaMarcus DowDell is a train conductor for the Norfolk Southern Railroading Company. Byron Mulkey is a marketing teacher at Peachtree Ridge High School. Chris Payne owns his own graphics company.

And they get to play football on the side for a team that is no longer without a win. 

“We finally got one,” defensive coordinator and Mareno’s brother David Philyaw said after the game. “I’m so happy.”

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