Alton Walker, co-owner of the Tampa Bay Tornadoes, was expecting to see an arena full of fans and a momentous season. After all, he spent two years of his life putting his new brand and team together in time for the 2020 American Arena League (AAL) football season.
“Honestly, I haven’t really had that much free time for about a year and a half now,” Walker said. “We’re trying to get everything set up, from getting players, hiring the right coaches, finding the proper front office staff and building a promo team. ”
A Tampa native, Walker has been making it a priority to give back to his home city while juggling the challenges of forming a new team.
“I’ve been planning on getting out more into the community,” he said. “We’ve also been doing a lot of stuff behind the scenes like feeding the homeless. [For Thanksgiving] I’m having a turkey giveaway and I adopted a couple of families [to help out.]
In November, Walker and his team visited different schools around Tampa Bay, including Shaw Elementary, Webb Middle School, Howard W. Blake High School and A.P. Leto High School.
“We’ve been doing different things for high schools as well as with middle schools and a couple named a room after me since those are my two alma maters,” he said. “It’s been really busy for the past year and a half, so I’m looking to kind of slow down a little bit.”
With the AAL originally scheduled to kick off in March 2020, Walker had the goal of following the business model of the now-defunct Tampa Bay Storm and bring the same energy and sense of community to Tampa Bay.
Once the coronavirus pandemic hit Florida, the Tornadoes felt the immediate effects. Having their practice time and training locations taken away led to the postponement of the season, which was set to begin July 25.
“The hardest challenge was finding a place to practice,” Walker said. “We still wanted to play our first game. But, all of a sudden a big boost [in positive test results] came and Florida was on the top [of the list.] On top of that, the parks were closing, the number of people that would be there was shrinking and so on and so forth. It wasn’t going to allow us to get a full professional football practice in.”
But the tentative July start date wasn’t going to stick for long, and Walker made the decision to get rid of a shortened season and cancel it altogether. The newest football team in Tampa won’t play its inaugural season until 2021.
It’s not ideal having to cancel a season before it kicks off, but for Walker, the pandemic came as somewhat of a “blessing.”
“As of [June 6], I had to make an executive decision to forgo this shortened season and just pop out and be spectacular in 2021,” he said. “Everything happens for a reason. COVID-19 was a curse and a blessing.”
Even though he was not able to kick off his new team on time, the pandemic allowed him to tackle additional goals he couldn’t do before the proposed start date.
One of his main goals was building a relationship with USF and its students.
“Before [the pandemic,] I didn’t get an opportunity to come to USF, go to Bull Market and get with the current players and coaches,” Walker said. “We’re going to have a bus that’s going to come to your campus to pick your students up and bring you to the games. We will also have a certain area for you to hang out.”
Aside from building a fan base, Walker was gifted with the chance to further build his roster and was given a chance to evaluate his options.
“COVID-19 is allowing us to see who is serious, who is not,” he said. “Who’s going to keep their bodies right? Who’s going to ride with us until the wheels fall off? … We’re prepared to ride with them.”
Most of all, they will be able to begin training camp a month early in January to get rid of first-game jitters and have a successful comeback after a heightened waiting period.
“Everything has been really falling into place,” Walker said. “We have everything we need, we have players and we have the equipment.
“The cake is made, we just have to put the icing on that thing.”
For the full conversation with Alton Walker, watch The Oracle Sports Podcast with Nolan Brown and Hannah Halili, which premieres Monday.