WHEELING — When people asked owner Gregg Fornario why he decided to move his Roughriders franchise to Wheeling, he answered a question with a question.
Why not Wheeling?
Fornario made 26 stops but finally found a home in the Friendly City after meeting with WesBanco Arena director Dennis Magruder.
“We are really excited to bring back professional arena football to the Ohio Valley and Wheeling,”Fornario said. “We did our homework. We have been at this since April. We didn’t just look at one location, two locations. This is professional football and isn’t something where you just want to find a place to play, play some games and call it a night.
“We are looking for a home and, to me, home means longevity. We are trying to be here for a long time. Jesse (Heniger, director of operations and marketing) and I went on a relocation tour. We went to Boston, Atlantic City, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, George, Pennsylvania and Ohio. When we met Dennis and he gave us a tour of this amazing arena, we really felt this could be an amazing fit.”
The Ohio Valley is no stranger to arena football, as anyone who attends WesBanco Arena for Nailers games, monster trucks, WWE or any other event held at the facility can look up and see the championship banners belonging to the Ohio Valley Greyhounds.
In Wheeling from 1999-2007, the team first began as the Steel Valley Smash before being renamed the Greyhounds in 2001. In 2002 and 2003, the Greyhounds won the NIFL title. Former Bellaire standout Jose Davis was the quarterback for the 2002 squad, passing for 1,668 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Another team, the Wheeling Wildcats, played one season in 2009 before folding.
Needless to say, expectations will be high once indoor football returns for the first time in a decade. So far, the Roughriders have been nothing but successful.
Spending their first two seasons in Richmond, Va., the Roughriders won the Arena Pro Football championship in its first season and finishing second in Year 2.
Despite a new location, those expectations will not change.
“When we learned about the history of the Greyhounds, it was mind-blowing to us,” Fornario said. “Everybody had so many great things to say about them. The fan support they got and the winning ways, that impressed us.”
The man leading the Roughriders is arena football veteran Mook Zimmerman. He served as the team’s head coach and defensive coordinator the past two years and will continue to do so when the team begins play in the spring.
“I already love this place,” Zimmerman said of Wheeling. “Just feeling the hospitality and excitement from Wheeling has me ready to go. When I shook Dennis’ hand, the first thing he said to me was ‘Welcome home.’ And I am glad to be home.
“We understand the tradition here. I have heard this is a football state. We are going to come and build a culture. We are going to continue the traditions and success that has been had here. We are willing to win. I am glad to be here. Football is back, and I hope everyone is ready to cheer. We are championship or bust. Some guys have high standards. We set the standard.”
Zimmerman’s record is an impressive 19-2.
As Fornario and Zimmerman look to build a roster worthy of chasing titles, they are off to a solid start.
The Roughriders have only two players signed, but they are two good ones. Former New Orleans Saints receiver Robert Meachum was part of the team last season and will join the team in Wheeling.
But, the biggest signing is that of former West Virginia University running back Noel Devine. He rushed for 4,315 yards and 29 touchdowns for the Mountaineers from 2007-2010. Devine most recently played with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League in 2014.
“I am very excited to be here,” Devine said. “When Gregg and Mook reached out to me, it was unreal. I am excited to be back in the great state of West Virginia. West Virginia has been like a second home to me.
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to return to West Virginia and play here and add to the tradition. Let’s go Roughriders!”
With only two players on the roster, the team is looking near and far to help round out the roster. That begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at West Liberty University’s West Family Field, as the team will hold tryouts.
All players are welcome to attend. One can pre-register online or that day.
“Hopefully it doesn’t rain,” Fornario said with a laugh. “We are looking for everything. Quarterback, kicker, everything. We have two guys signed. We will be doing 40-yard dash, 1-on-1s, a number of things. I hope to see many local players, and the key is to get local guys. We will also be holding more tryouts in possibly January.”
“We are looking for local guys, looking for whoever can help us come in and be successful,”Zimmerman said. “If you can help me win, I want you. We have a lot of roster room. If you can help me win, I encourage you to be there.”
The Roughriders will begin play in late March. Tickets will go on sale at the end of November.