ARENAFOOTBALL
October Trade Looms Large Heading Into the Playoffs

Washington has been Spokane's go-to target all season.

July 31, 2014


By MIKEY WONSOVER

The No. 3 seeds in the AFL Playoffs, which kick off this weekend, have each other to thank for some of their success this season. If not for a head-scratching trade in October between the Pittsburgh Power and Spokane Shock, both teams might have experienced much different seasons.

The trade, which saw Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Washington dealt for Spokane quarterback Arvell Nelson and offensive lineman Ben Ossai, showed that two teams can benefit from swapping players.

Nelson and Washington, the main components of the deal, don’t have many similarities. Washington is a pint-sized wide receiver who holds 11 franchise records in his three years with the Power. Nelson, a 6-foot-5 do-it-all-performer, is as imposing of a figure as there is in the AFL. The two players also had very different reactions to the surprising trade.

“My reaction was joy because I wanted to be traded,” Nelson, a Cleveland native, said. “It was nothing against Spokane, I just wanted to be closer to home because of my son. It was joy because that’s where I wanted to be.”

For Washington, who is from Pennsylvania, being traded wasn’t as easy to accept.

“My initial reaction was being surprised,” Washington said. “When the news came out, I wasn’t informed. Beforehand I sat down with the GM and we discussed things. Nothing was guaranteed. They just said ‘we’ll stay in touch and call you next week’. But next week I got a text message from my brother that was like ‘hey, you’ve been traded to Spokane’. I was like ‘Huh? For real?’”

Instead of letting the situation get the best of him, Washington embraced his new team.

“Organizations make transactions to better their team,” Washington said. “Spokane was familiar with the talent I bring. Pittsburgh is a whole other thing. They have a brand new team. I was going to an organization that was used to winning, always in the playoffs.”

The speed demon was needed even more than originally planned given the turmoil in Spokane this season. Washington and Rashaad Carter were the only Spokane receivers to play 16 games this season. Adron Tennell, who won the 2013 Cutters Receiver of the Year honors after setting a new single-season franchise record with 49 touchdowns, was limited to only 10 games this season. Erik Meyer, last season’s AFL MVP, broke his collarbone in Week 8 and played in just 12 games this season.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries, a lot of adversity we’ve had to go through throughout the season,” Washington said. “I had to make plays and do the best I can for Spokane. We had a lot of rookies fill those positions. As a vet, you’ve got to make a play, got to make a tough catch, you have to push yourself beyond normal.”

Washington has thrived as the team’s main target this season, leading the Shock with 1,356 receiving yards and 23 receiving touchdowns. The No. 2 leading receiver on the team, Carter, finished with a distant 780 receiving yards. Washington knew what he could bring to the team.

“Just my speed and my quickness,” Washington said. “The confidence, when I’m out there running the route and my number’s called, I feel like nobody in the world can beat me. That’s just the attitude and mentality that you got to have.”

Nelson didn’t transition to the Power quite as seamlessly. Nelson was acquired to back up Power quarterback Tommy Grady, a role he filled for Meyer in Spokane. Nelson was relegated to backup quarterback and special team duties under then head coach Derek Stingley. When Ron James took over in Pittsburgh in Week 2, he quickly expanded Nelson’s role.

“Arvell’s a great football player,” James said. “We talk about all our guys being football players as opposed to being position X, Y, or Z.”

Instead of leaving him on the bench as a backup quarterback, James inserted Nelson into the starting lineup as a Jack linebacker. Nelson dominated at the position, finishing the season with 60 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and five interceptions. The Power have gone 14-1 with Nelson as the starting Jack linebacker.

“I really didn’t expect to play the whole season at Jack, but once coach put me in and went with me at Jack, I planned to have much success,” Nelson said. “It was something to me that wasn’t much of a surprise, because I work for this. Once he called my number and let me go, I wanted to have as much success as possible.”

Giving up a franchise record-holder in Washington was tough, but Nelson filled a different need for the Power.

“He’s a tremendous athlete,” James said. “If you lined him up on the field with other guys, shoulder to shoulder, you just look at him and say ‘what position does he play?’. You wouldn’t even know looking at him. He’s a great player that fits our system. In Arena Football, you need one or two players like him that can plug into many positions. There’s not much he does that can be replaced. He’s indispensable to us.”

The Power and Shock have proven that in trades, sometimes everyone wins.

“When you trade for two guys that put as much effort into what they do and love what they do, it can work out for both teams,” Nelson said. “Spokane, in their situation, they have a good core of receivers and a good team, so Mike Washington was a great fit for them. Coming over here for me with Pittsburgh, we have the same thing. A great team, a great group of guys.”

AFL rosters can change in a hurry. Despite the success Washington and Nelson have experienced this season, there’s no guarantee they will be in the same cities next season. But with Spokane’s playoff matchup against the San Jose SaberCats coming up on Saturday, Washington has more important things to worry about.

“I don’t look into the future, I’m about the present and the moment,” Washington said. “But personally, I don’t get into the playoffs, championships, this and that. It’s just another game. We’ve played San Jose three times. It’s 0-0. You win, you advance; you lose, you go home.”

Nelson is looking forward to his shot as a starting quarterback one day, whether that’s in Pittsburgh or elsewhere, but right now he has the Orlando Predators on his mind.

“I do see my future with the Power, but I also want to be a starting quarterback in this League,” Nelson said. “At the same time, I like this team. Right now we’re focused on winning this playoff game coming up this weekend and trying to win the ArenaBowl.”