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Greater Tulsa Reporter


Football Thunder Predates Basketball Version

By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer



Tulsa’s most successful professional sports franchise receives no love. There are no hugs. No kisses. No bouquets.

 With only seven losses in nine years and six national championships, the team bearing a familiar name knows how to win unnoticed. The Oklahoma (not the City) Thunder travel from town to town and field to field searching for a place to call home.

 Playing in Tulsa, Skiatook, Bixby and Catoosa, this kingpin of the Gridiron Developmental Football League (GDFL) is known nationwide in minor league circles. Don’t dare call the Thunder semi-pro or wrath and scorn will be dealt out by general manager Steven Roper.    

It appears the Thunder (bearing the name before the NBA team) has everything except one item – fans.

“Our problem is that we need people to come out and experience this level of football,’’ says Roper, a member of the ownership group who also handles game-day operations, accounting and answers the phone from his business (Better Living Medical Equipment) in Sapulpa.

“We’re well known in the football world, but the fan base is not there. We play in the summer months so we don’t interfere with college, high school and NFL level football. Fans get the opportunity to come out and watch a great game, but when fans hear the word ‘Thunder’ they think basketball. That’s the downside of sharing the name.’’

Roper says the nickname has been copyrighted by the football team, and the NBA franchise had to seek permission to use it. Oklahoma City has made the moniker famous. The on-field club not so much. Perhaps 300 to 500 fans a game turnout to watch the Green Country version win and win and keep on winning. Oklahoma has gone undefeated the last two seasons while sweeping the Gridiron Bowl national championship.

 The Thunder also won the title in 2013 and captured three straight titles in the World Football League from 2008 to 2010, finishing 40-0. All Roper wants is a little respect from the community and about 2,000 fans per game.

“I’d really love to see that,’’ he says. “We’ve done radio, sports shows, television and vehicle giveaways. We’ve put ourselves out there any way we can. We had our (custom painted) bus in the Catoosa Christmas parade and in the MLK parade.’’

 While the Thunder searches for an identity, the Enid Enforcers will become the Thunder’s farm team for the 2018 season, which runs from April to August. An open tryout for the Thunder was held Jan. 20 at the WBO Sports Center, 6217 S. Mingo Rd. The team will take a peek at any post-prep players 19 or older. The team has even had a 39-year-old on its roster. It seems no one is too old to dream of playing pro football.

 Perhaps a little background about the Thunder and the GDFL is in order at this point. The franchise was born in 2008, the brainchild of Skiatook businessman James Ashford. It was then sold to the current ownership group consisting of Roper and three doctors. Dr. Venkatesh Movva also owns a team in India, the Thunder’s sister club.

The local version of the Thunder began playing in 2008 at Booker T. Washington’s S.E. Williams Stadium, then moved to Skiatook. Subsequent seasons have been played at LaFortune Stadium, Holland Hall and East Tulsa Sports Complex, Bixby and then at Catoosa last season. The 2018 home will be announced later.

Roper says the team is not fickle, it just moves every season.

“This year we’re trying to move and find a community who wants to support us, like Skiatook did,’’ says Roper. “We run into problems in Tulsa because it’s an issue of stadium rental. A contract can conflict with a school’s first right of refusal and it gets sticky for us.’’
And it gets in the way of the team’s real purpose, to help local talent keep playing beyond high school or college or sometimes even the NFL.

“A lot of athletes don’t get that opportunity to play at the next level and they still want to play,’’ Roper says. “We’ve done a good job of recruiting high level athletes. Anthony Gillespie of Jenks was recruited by the Browns and didn’t make it. Trae Johnson from TU plays for us, and Shawn Jackson from TU was the Conference USA MVP.

“Brandon Noohi (from UCO) is our quarterback and made about $20,000 last season. We had a linebacker and quarterback go to the Redskins camp a couple of seasons ago. It’s our goal to give players from OU, OSU, TU, NSU and UCO the opportunity to go to NFL camps. They deserve a chance.’’

 The Thunder and GDFL pay scales vary among players and teams. Players still must hold day jobs to make a living while some teams don’t pay and some make athletes pay to play. However, the Thunder is as close to first class as a minor league franchise can be.

 The team films players in high definition so they can provide video to prospective NFL teams. An in-house attorney is available to help negotiate contracts, and a medical staff is there to handle injuries. Rehab is taken care of by the franchise.

 Playing under NFL rules, Roper says the GDFL will add 19 teams for 2018 and will field nearly 50 teams nationwide. The Thunder still plans on winning the championship again under head coach Rashid Lowe, a trainer who also coaches locally at the high school level.

 “Our success is due to our ability to pull local talent. Oklahoma has a vast amount of talent,’’ says Roper. “We have a lot of great athletes coming from Owasso, Union, Jenks and Bixby. We do our best to recruit those guys.

 “Willie Ponder is from Tulsa Central, and he played with the Giants, Seahawks and Rams. He couldn’t get picked up, so he played for us. He’s now on the coaching staff of the Eagles.’’

 Accoutrements and accomplishments come and go with the Thunder. When the team has cheerleaders, they’re known as the ThunderCats. Porter said the club has even played on ESPN, beating the Austin GameBreakers 101-6 in 2009.      

Maybe the most amazing fact of all focuses on the owners paying for everything out of their own pockets. They even lose money to keep their team on the field. Roper would like nothing better than to see the Thunder move up to the Indoor Football League or the Arena Football League. The problem is the IFL requires $350,000 a year, and it’s too costly for the local team.

“The Oklahoma Thunder Football Foundation is not for profit, and we don’t get outside funding,’’ says Roper. “We don’t even come close to breaking even. We do it for the love of the game and helping athletes continue playing football.’’

In return, all the franchise wants is a little affection from a growing fan base. The Thunder is tired of being the cutest team at the GDFL dance and remaining a wallflower. When will the Oklahoma Thunder find true happiness? Roper’s hoping that a pro football romance between the team and Tulsa fans is right around the corner.

Updated 02-08-2018

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