When the Arizona Rattlers joined the Arena Football League, they joined 11 other franchises for the 1992 season. Of those franchises, only one remains to this day: the Rattlers.
In fact, the team has outlasted the AFL itself, which folded following the 2019 season. The team moved to the Indoor Football League in 2017, where it remains to this day. In a business setting where so many organizations have come and gone, with some lasting for only one year, what has the Rattlers on the brink of 30 years in operation?
“I think it always starts at the top with your owner,” says Kevin Guy, who has served as the team’s head coach since 2008 and team president beginning in 2021.
“Ron Shurts, he has definitely put this organization on a different level. And if you go back to the early days when the Arizona Rattlers were thriving, it was also owned by Jerry Colangelo.”
Under Colangelo, the team won two AFL championships in 1994 and 1997. Under Shurts, the team became an indoor dynasty, winning AFL championships in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2017, their first year in the IFL, they won the league championship despite having to rebuild the entire roster from scratch.
That leadership has been echoed in the work of Guy, who has prioritized culture as a pillar of the organization.
“One of the things we’ve talked to the players about is not necessarily fear of letting yourself down but creating a fear of letting the organization down, putting the organization ahead of your personal goals. If everybody’s working hard and paddling their boats in the same direction, then we’re all going to get to where we want to go.”
One player who succeeded greatly in Guy’s environment was Anttaj Hawthorne. Hawthorne played eight seasons with the Rattlers, won three championships, and was inducted in the team’s ring of honor in 2018. Despite experience playing for the Wisconsin Badgers in college and the Oakland Raiders in the NFL, Hawthorne ranks his time with the Rattlers at the top of his tenures, even while working side jobs off the field.
“The love for the game was greater in the AFL,” says Hawthorne. “Here with the Rattlers, it was like a brotherhood. We all became friends, we all hang out all the time.”
That sentiment extends beyond the locker room as well. A large part of the Rattlers’ culture is the fan base, which is one of the largest in the league. Over the course of his AFL career, Hawthorne developed a camaraderie with fans who would frequently attend games.
“You’re there with the fans … you’re almost playing with the fans. They’re right there. You can literally get a sack and then go high-five a fan. … I’m lifelong friends with people who used to be fans now, and it’s a lot of them. … The fans in Arizona are hands-down the best.”
The Rattlers are hoping to continue their success in 2021, but much like the rest of the sports industry, they are being challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Guy is hopeful that they will be able to overcome the obstacles and play a stable season with fans at the “Snake Pit.”
“I think the teams that do the best job of dealing with COVID are going to be the teams standing at the end trying to compete for a championship. We’re going to have to be strict, and people are going to have to buy in.”
The Rattlers are scheduled to begin their season on the road against the Northern Arizona Wranglers on Sunday, May 16. They’re slated to play their home opener against the Tucson Sugar Skulls on Saturday, June 12.