A Successful Arena Football Return for Albany Empire

Darius Prince has Six TD receptions in Teams 65-60 victory in Home Opener

ALBANY — Times Union Center reopened its doors to indoor football, and Darius Prince made sure the sparse but enthusiastic crowd was entertained.

Prince, who played in the last Arena Football League game ever played in this building, debuted Saturday night with the Albany Empire — now in the National Arena League — and displayed a great deal of skill to go with toughness. He caught 12 passes for 160 yards and six touchdowns as the Empire enjoyed a successful NAL debut, beating the Columbus (Ga.) Lions 65-60 in front of an announced crowd of 2,735.

Because of COVID-19 protocols, the building capacity was set at fewer than 4,000. The team hopes to have an open arena for vaccinated spectators for its next home game, June 12 against the Carolina Cobras.

"My biggest concern for this game, being our first one with a young team, was how they were going perform when the bullets started flying," Empire coach Tom Menas said. "Overall. I was extremely happy with it. The ending, we could have done a little bit better than that."

The Lions (0-1) scored 14 points in the final 30 seconds to make things interesting, but the Empire (1-0), who averaged 7.3 yards per play and never trailed, had enough cushion to hold on. 

It was the first football game in the building since Aug. 11, 2019, when the Empire won the AFL championship over the Philadelphia Soul. Prince had nine catches for 99 yards for the Soul in that game, although it was quarterback Tommy Grady, still with the Empire, who was that game’s MVP.

Both are arena football veterans — this is Grady's 13th year and Prince's sixth — but they had never played on the same team.

“I’ve always been a fan of his work,” Prince said. “His work speaks for itself, so when I had the opportunity to come here and play, I didn’t think twice about it.”

Prince, who once was in Philadelphia Eagles training camp, showed the grit it takes to play the indoor game. In the second quarter, he made a one-hand catch of a Grady pass in the end zone as he crashed into the end boards to make it 21-12. In the final minute of the half, he snared an 11-yard Grady delivery and proceeded to flip over the boards. Albany, thanks to a late defensive stand, led 28-18 at the half. Even on his fifth touchdown, a 47-yard strike late in the third quarter, Prince was wide open but still had an encounter with the end boards.

“There were some bad balls,” Grady said. “I thought they were incomplete, and he went and got them. The one-hander, I overthrew that big-time. He made some great plays.”

Grady, who led the Empire to a 22-7 overall record in their two AFL seasons, finished 20-for-29 for 244 yards and eight touchdowns. He also threw two TDs to Phillip Barnett, who didn't join the team until Friday.

"How do you not feel fantastic with these guys?" Menas said. "A coach is blessed to have the talent we have, but we've got to get the other guys to start bringing it up, too. We can't just rely on Tommy and Prince and the veterans to do it."

Until late in the game, a young Albany defense held up well. The Empire had four sacks and an interception by rookie Kenneth McGruder. Columbus, the reigning NAL champion, never let up. Mason Espinosa, who was Grady’s backup with the 2019 Empire, completed 34 of 48 passes for 368 yards and nine touchdowns, four to Lonnie Outlaw.

Burnt Hills native Craig Peterson made all nine extra points for the Empire and also scored a "rouge," a two-pointer awarded in the NAL when a kicker splits the uprights on a kickoff. His kicking proved to be the difference. The Lions matched the Empire's total of nine touchdowns but missed six of nine conversions, most of them two-point attempts.

"I totally ignore kickers in general," Menas said. "I'm an old football player, and I don't even look to see where kickers are half the time. Craig is a phenomenal pro. I'm just joking when I say I don't notice Craig, because Craig won't let you not notice Craig. That's the beauty of him. He's got that strong leg that backs it up."