Graziani’s Line Now Stays Busy

Times Staff Writer

A timeline in the Avengers’ media guide details the franchise’s milestones from its birth in 1998 to the start of this season.

Missing is the phone call that, as much as anything, put the Avengers in today’s Arena Football League quarterfinal game against the Arizona Rattlers.

Tony Graziani was a reserve quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons during their Super Bowl season in 1998, the year the team also brought in Arena league veteran Sherdrick Bonner as a practice squad quarterback.

The two left-handers became good friends, then stayed in touch when Bonner returned to the Arena league with the Rattlers in 1999.


Two years later, Graziani was out of the NFL and at a crossroads. The Canadian Football League was one option, the Arena league another.

He called Bonner.

“I trusted his opinion, and he gave me good advice,” Graziani said. “He said, ‘Come play Arena.’ ”

Graziani signed with the Avengers in May 2001 and has become one of the league’s best and most durable quarterbacks in his second full season as the starter.

Sunday, he will try to lead the fourth-seeded Avengers (11-5) to their first postseason victory. Bonner and the sixth-seeded Rattlers (11-6) stand in the way.

“This is going to be fun,” Graziani said.

Graziani, 29, is thoroughly enjoying the Arena league experience. The Palm Springs resident passed for 4,290 yards and a franchise-record 96 touchdowns while leading the Avengers to their best regular-season record. He is under contract with the team through next season.

“He has a wife, two kids, makes six figures, throws on every down and plays in the second-largest market in the country -- what’s not to like?” said Kevin Demoff, the Avengers’ director of football operations.


Graziani, drafted by the Falcons in the seventh round from Oregon, played in 18 NFL games and passed for 999 yards in 1997-99. He also played for Barcelona in NFL Europe before joining the Avengers.

In his first AFL game in 2001, he came off the bench against the Rattlers and threw a touchdown pass on his first attempt. But he played in only one other game before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

Last season, Graziani threw 467 passes for 3,568 yards and 67 touchdowns with only nine interceptions. The Avengers earned their first playoff bid but lost a first-round game to Tampa Bay.

At one point this season, Graziani threw 185 consecutive passes without an interception. Three of the Avengers’ four last-second victories were won on his last-play passes.


“He was a good player last year, but the confidence he has when he drops back in the pocket this year is far better,” Avenger receiver Greg Hopkins said. Graziani’s luck avoiding serious injury also set him apart this season. He started all 16 games and missed only a few snaps.

“We do a five-step drop probably more than anyone else in the league, so he’s had to stand in the pocket longer,” Coach Ed Hodgkiss said. “He’s a tough guy and he was lucky that he didn’t get any freak injuries.”

Sunday, Graziani will try to rebound from two erratic performances.

The Avenger offense failed to score in the second half of a 45-34 victory over lowly Colorado on May 10. Two weeks ago, San Jose intercepted four passes by Graziani, one in the end zone with 48 seconds left that secured a 47-43 SaberCat victory.


“I kind of got out of rhythm and made some throws I shouldn’t have,” Graziani said. “We were able to work on some things with the bye last week, so hopefully we’ll be back in sync.”

Graziani will be trying to lead the Avengers to their first home victory over Arizona. The Rattlers are 4-0 at Staples Center, including an 82-76 overtime victory April 13, when the teams combined for a league-record 23 touchdowns.

Graziani completed 19 of 28 passes for 329 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns. Three weeks later, he completed 22 of 31 passes for 289 yards and eight touchdowns in a 63-49 victory over the Rattlers at Phoenix.

“They know what we do and we know what they do, so I don’t think there are going to be too many surprises,” Graziani said.