Blame shifts like a bouncing ball in team's demise

The Moorestown Saints indoor football team held tryouts in October. As of Friday, however, the team was no longer listed as a league member on the American Indoor Football league's website.
The Moorestown Saints indoor football team held tryouts in October. As of Friday, however, the team was no longer listed as a league member on the American Indoor Football league's website. (JOE MARTELLI)
Posted: November 18, 2013

MOORESTOWN As professional football players go, Randy Lyles is not a big man.

But Lyles, 28, thinks big.

"We've got 60 players in tryouts," the owner of the Moorestown Saints arena football team said in an early November interview at his Mount Laurel office. And he said the Saints would play home games at Philadelphia's Liacouras Center.

"I think it'll be real good," he said, twisting at his giant Super Bowl ring. He held it out to show the red-and-blue logo of the New England Patriots, mounted on a dome of diamonds. "I played corner. On the practice team," he said, during New England's 2003 championship season.

Arena football is played indoors, typically in ice hockey arenas, with eight players on a side instead of the 11 found in college and NFL play. The field is 85 feet wide and 200 feet long, with a scrimmage area 50 yards long, half that of the NFL.

Lyles said he had also played on the Philadelphia Soul arena football team, and was a bishop and the senior pastor of a church in his native Houston.

The Saints' website also reported that he had studied at the University of Houston and held master's and doctoral degrees in theology.

But reporting by The Inquirer revealed that Lyles' Texas-size talk and flash did not match the truth of his claims.

Two days after The Inquirer sent certified letters asking him to explain why the Patriots, the Philadelphia Soul arena football team, and the University of Houston had no record of him, and why the Liacouras Center reported "no contract or agreement" with the Saints, and why the team's payroll checks were bouncing, Lyles said in an interview Monday he was folding the team.

'Bad publicity'

"The Saints are no more," he said, sitting at an outdoor table at the Mount Laurel Starbucks on Fellowship Road. "People feel they can't trust me."

He at first blamed the team's demise on The Inquirer for seeking to verify the claims on his resumé. "There was too much bad publicity," he said.

When told that The Inquirer had not circulated any of its findings, he then blamed former employees and a consultant for "bad-mouthing" him.

Then he admitted the Super Bowl ring was a fake - part of the image he hoped would win the financial backing he needed to build a team.

"The whole thing with the Patriots, that was something that was put up, something to make me look a lot better to people," he said, and shrugged. "People make mistakes."

He promised he would soon make good on the $305 his team collected in October for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure cancer foundation, and begin a payment schedule for employees still owed money.

"It's not that we started this with nothing," he said. "We started it with a little bit of something, but it was going to take us a whole lot more."

The Saints' future is uncertain, but in four weeks time Lyles took dozens of young men, employees, and coaches on a roller-coaster ride of promises and dashed hopes.

"I worked day and night for five weeks," said Mary Ellen Martelli, of Mount Laurel, whom Lyles hired in September as the team's marketing and communications director. "For the longest time we didn't get paychecks," she said, "and then when we did they were returned for insufficient funds."

The Saints' field of dreams was the Pinelands Sports Center in Southampton, Burlington County, where 60 prospective players turned out in October and early November for tryouts. Each had paid $65, the standard fee in the American Indoor Football (AIF) league.

Other AIF teams include the Atlanta Sharks, Baltimore Mariners, Chicago Assassins, New York Wolves, Washington Eagles, and York Capitals.

"This is a lifelong dream of mine," said Dijon Thomas, 27, of Willingboro, who had come on a Tuesday night to try out at wide receiver. He was not employed, Thomas said, but was spending most of his days "getting in shape" for a spot with the Saints.

If he made it, he said, he hoped to land next on the A-level Philadelphia Soul arena team, and maybe even catch the eye of an NFL team like the Eagles.

Players earn about $200 per game, traveling to away games by bus.

'I had hopes'

Eric Childs, an Essex County corrections officer, also saw the Saints as a team where he could relive - and maybe realize - youthful dreams. "I had hopes of going pro," said Childs, 35, who played football in college and for a variety of arena teams.

Age was not an obstacle to his playing semipro arena ball, Childs said. "I use my mental and physical abilities rather than the speed of youth."

Coy Meekins, 20, of Westampton, another prospective player, said Thursday he learned early in the week the Saints were dissolved and was "pretty disappointed." But on Wednesday he received a text message saying the team was meeting Sunday afternoon at the practice field.

"I heard Randy Lyles is no longer with them," said Meekins, adding that he had "no idea" who might be reviving the team or who had sent the message.

In a text message Friday to The Inquirer, Lyles wrote: "I don't have anything to do with the Saints any more. I'm done!"

Alex Samuelian, owner of the Pinelands Sports Center, confirmed Friday that the team had rented his field for a two-hour practice this Sunday.

Previous checks

"I gather there are still members [of the Saints organization] involved," Samuelian said, adding that he hoped they were better funded than when Lyles was in charge. All previous checks for field rental had bounced, he said.

The invitation to Sunday practice turned out to have been sent by Ashley Hesington, the 25-year-old player recruiting director for the Saints.

Reached at her home in Sicklerville on Friday, Hesington said she had no time to talk because she was rushing to a meeting with someone interested in reviving the Saints.

Hesington's mother, Denise Hesington, said that the team had found an "entrepreneur" in Moorestown willing to keep it afloat and that several of the team's managers were seeking additional backers. She would not name the major patron.

"The AIF [American Indoor Football league] has given them a week to come up with funds," she said.

Calls to John Morris, president of the North Carolina-based AIF, were not returned.

The league's website, which a week ago showed the Moorestown Saints as one of its 10 teams, did not include the Saints on Friday.

But Samuelian, who says he expects to see several dozen young men sprinting across his indoor field Sunday, said he was hopeful.

"I think it's a great league," Samuelian said. "A lot of these guys have put their hearts into this. I hope they can straighten things out."


doreilly@phillynews.com

856-779-3841

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