An interception turned out to be the last pass J.J. Raterink threw in a record-setting three seasons with the Quad City Steamwheelers.|
The quarterback's exit was hardly befitting of the football franchise's face guy, either.
A benched Raterink was released to play for another team in another league a month before the worst season in a storied squad's history became its last, ending in financial ruin.
"That's why I'm so excited about (tonight),'' Raterink said ahead of his return to Moline's i wireless Center. "Things didn't exactly end on my terms.''
Raterink gets the chance at a rewrite of sorts, as the signal-caller of the 'Wheelers former sister franchise and af2 rival, with the Iowa Barnstormers playing the Chicago Rush in an AFL preseason game at Moline's downtown civic center.
But while the seventh-year pro has reunited with his favorite target in Des Moines, tonight's dream scenario has little to do with Raterink tossing another touchdown pass or three to 'Wheelers all-time receiving leader Jesse Schmidt at their former home field.
"Obviously, I want to play well, especially against my old team,'' said Raterink, who quarterbacked Chicago to the playoffs the past two seasons.
"Instead, for me, this will be more about seeing familiar faces. I met a lot of good people in the Quad-Cities, and made so many great friends, I'm just looking forward to seeing them all again, whether it's glancing up in the stands or getting a chance to spend some time with them after the game.''
That Raterink is in this position, returning now as a conquering hero, is both a testament to his talent and tenacity.
Among Raterink's Wheelers' records, the QB is QC's career leader in passing yards (11,152) and TD passes (233).
"I thought about just hanging it up after that 2009 (Steamwheelers) season went south so fast,'' Raterink admitted, remembering a 4-2 start dissolve into a 5-11 disaster when the league and arena were forced to take over financial responsibilties for a bankrupt ownership group.
"It was so depressing to see what happened. We were wondering when they were going to shut us down or what would come next. It was just a mess.
"When I decided to try pro football, my dad had told me, `Give it three years.' But that was my fourth season already, so when I left the Steamwheelers for Alaska, I was thinking that might be it for me.''
After finishing that summer season with the Fairbanks Grizzlies and former QC coach Sean Ponder, Raterink returned to the Quad-Cities to reunite for workouts with former teammates such as Schmidt, also left in limbo when af2 shutdown, and with the AFL not yet reorganized.
Raterink also began working for hockey's QC Mallards and then Enterprise Rental Car locally.
"But while it's hard to get up and go to work everyday, I've never had that problem with football,'' Raterink said. "That line is so true, that you'll never work a day doing what you love. So the thing that kept me from retiring was the feeling I still had some football left in me.''
Current Iowa coach Mike Hohensee thought so, too.
So when the AFL relaunched in 2010, after a 16-month financial re-organization, Hohensee approached the Wyoming product and former Rhodes Scholar candidate about serving as Chicago's backup behind playoff-qualifying QB Russ Michna.
Good thing, too, because Michna got injured that season, leaving Raterink at the controls for a Central Division title and postseason appearance.
Armed with that success, Raterink landed a free-agent deal as Kansas City's starter last season.
But even though Raterink received national air-time, as an ESPN "Play-of-the-Day'' winner, the losing club shipped him back to Chicago last summer for another playoff run, to return a favor to the Rush when Michna got hurt again.
This fall, when Hohensee jumped to the Iowa job, Raterink was his first free-agent signing.
"I know the terminology and the way this (coaching) staff works, so it's an easy fit for me,'' said Raterink, who turned 30 in August and admits to now having a coaching career in his post-playing plans.
"It's great to be back in Iowa, where I'm really comfortbale and mesh well with the people. And, of course, it's great to be back with Jesse. He's not just a great player, but a great friend.
"When he re-signed (with the Barnstomers) early this month, (former QC coach) Troy Biladeau called me and said, `It looks like somebody's enjoying an early Christmas.'''
Not to mention a second chance.
"I never got to properly say good-bye to the fans there,'' said Raterink, whose final 'Wheelers pass was ironically picked off by the Barnstormers.
"But this is the reward for forging through the tough times. I get to have a homecoming and I'm really excited about it.''
AFL preseason game
-- Time & place: 7 tonight at Moline's i wireless Center, the Iowa Barnstormers meet the Chicago Rush in an AFL preseason game.
-- Tickets: $10, $15 and $30 at the arena's box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, by phone (800-745-3000) or on-line at www.ticketmaster.com.
-- Storyline: The Barnstormers are led by the leading passer (J.J. Raterink) and top receiver (current All-AFL performer Jesse Schmidt) in the history of the now-defunct Quad City Steamwheelers. The Rush also boast a former 'Wheelers teammate in St. Ambrose product Russ Monk. Davenport West grad J.J. Payne, an ex-Barnstormer, also is a training-camp hopeful with Chicago. The most-recognizable of the area collegians on either roster is Iowa's all-time leading receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, a rookie with the Barnstormers. Iowa is coached by Mike Hohensee, whose 10-year tenure with Chicago was highlighted by an ArenaBowl title in 2006.
-- Notes: This is the second straight season the Barnstormers have played an AFL exhibition game in the Quads. Schmidt caught a TD in his homecoming game last spring. ... The i wireless Center also hosted AFL exhibition games for the Des Moines-based Barmstormers in 1999 and 1996, prior to the 'Wheelers 2000 launch. ... Future Super Bowl-winning NFL MVP QB Kurt Warner played in that first preseason game here for his homestate Barnstormers. ... Both teams are a week into training camp. Chicago opens March 10 (with Tampa); Iowa two days later (at Spokane).
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