O.J. Simpson, a star on the 2017 Kansas City Phantoms who graduated from Truman High School in 2001, walked into the Epic Sports Lodge in Independence full of energy and enthusiasm.
It was Monday afternoon, and the 34-year-old wide receiver and his teammates had already participated in a 6 a.m. practice at the Independence location, but you couldn’t tell by the excitement level in his voice as he was ready to hit the practice field.
“We’re back,” Simpson said, referring to the return of the Champions Indoor Football (CIF) League team that finished its first season with three straight wins and a 4-8 overall record. “We didn’t have the success we’d hoped for last year, but that was last year. We’re all excited about this year – we can’t wait to get this thing going.”
Simpson tied Anthony Parks for the team high in receptions with 52 for 403 yards and five touchdowns last year. He also added 14 carries for 74 yards and two TDs.
The Phantoms open the 2018 home campaign at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena on March 16 against the Omaha Beef, but the first regular-season game is March 9 in Bismarck, North Dakota, against the Bismarck Bulls.
“A nice 12-hour bus ride to start the season,” joked Phantoms first-year coach Meadow Lemon, the son of late legendary Hall of Fame Globetrotters star Meadowlark Lemon. “The boys will get to know each other real well on that bus trip. Today’s February 26 – we start March 9 – you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that’s not a lot of time.
“That’s why we’re practicing at 6 in the morning and again at 1:30 in the afternoon – but I don’t hear anyone complaining. I know a lot of the players on this team and our fans are going to love them. And they’re going to love the style of football we’re going to play.”
Last year, Lemon served as the offensive coordinator for the Duke City Gladiators in Albuquerque, New Mexico, leading his high-flying offense to a league-leading 3,036 yards of total offense. Quarterback Donovan Porterie earned league MVP honors under Lemon’s tutelage and will bring his talents to Kansas City for the 2018 season, which excites Simpson.
“We have a great coach who loves offense, a great quarterback and a lot of talent,” Simpson said. “We have some guys back from last year’s team and some exciting new players. Like I said, let’s get this thing going!”
Six players from 2017’s Phantoms squad will join Simpson for the upcoming season – Jared Elmore, Jarard Milo, Kevin Funches, Korey Hollingshed, Travis Mosby, and Tyrone Groves.
“It’s always important to me to have players with a local connection,” Lemon said. “These guys have a passion for Kansas City and they’ll help our incoming players connect with the football heart of the city. Of course, these guys make it easy to commit to local players when they’re as talented as they are.”
Elmore, a former player at Mid-America Nazarene University, caught 23 passes for 333 yards and was second on the team with eight touchdowns despite playing in only nine games in 2017.
Milo, a former Kansas State standout, recorded 47 tackles, two for a loss, forced a fumble, broke up seven passes, and led the Phantoms with three interceptions last year.
Funches made 10 tackles in four games in 2017, including a tackle for a loss, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Before joining the Phantoms, he played defensive back and returned kicks for Tusculum University.
Hollingshed made four tackles in two games with the Phantoms last year after wrapping up his collegiate career with Independence (Kan.) Community College.
Mosby, a Lee’s Summit grad who played at Washburn University, made one tackle in one game for the Phantoms last season.