Friends spark unlikely Columbus playoff run

Thanks to the strong play of good friends Matt Nagy and Damien Groce, Columbus has advanced to the conference championship game against Georgia, William Bendetson writes.

Updated: July 11, 2007, 12:21 PM ET
By William Bendetson | ESPN.com

It seems almost unimaginable. A team loses five of its final six regular-season games, qualifies for the playoffs and advances to the conference championship.

But thanks to the strong play of Columbus quarterback Matt Nagy and wide receiver Damien Groce, that tale became reality when the Destroyers upset the heavily favored Dallas Desperados 66-59 last Saturday in the Arena Football League divisional playoffs.

Now, Columbus is drawing comparisons to Chicago, last season's AFL champ. In the 2006 regular season the Rush, led by quarterback Matt D'Orazio and wide receiver Bobby Sippio, also finished 7-9. But the Rush went on to win three straight road playoff games to qualify for the ArenaBowl.

"In the playoffs, it is about getting hot at the right time," said Nagy, whose friendship with Groce dates to 2002. "We really struggled at the end of the season, but we won our last game and have started to play consistently on offense and stopped turning the ball over."

The Destroyers will play the host Georgia Force on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the National Conference title game for a chance to play in the ArenaBowl.

In Columbus' win at Dallas, Nagy threw for four touchdowns and Groce caught eight passes for 170 yards and one touchdown. Despite his team's struggles, Nagy threw for 3,561 yards and 75 TDs in the regular season. Groce had 1,340 receiving yards and 26 TD receptions.

Groce and Nagy first met at a New York Dragons tryout in 2002. The session was led by John Gregory, one of the coaches responsible for the development of veteran NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, a former AFL star.

"When we used to do the one-on-one drills between receiver and defensive back, I would always want Nagy to be the quarterback who threw me the ball," Groce said. "We both had the same idea that we wanted to score every time. After seeing him a couple of times, I knew that this was the QB I wanted to be with."

The two reunited as roommates in 2004 when they played for the now-defunct Carolina Cobras. The chemistry and competitiveness that Nagy and Groce developed together in Carolina remains to this day.

"Matt is the type of guy who if you say you play basketball, he will say that he is better than you at basketball or if you say you race cars, he will say he is better at racing cars. He would have the receivers over for cookouts and we would watch film while discussing football," Groce said. "He is the type of guy that I definitely would hang out with in the offseason."

While in Carolina, both players had the chance to develop at their positions and learn together. The two stayed close even though they were on different teams in 2005 and 2006. When Columbus coach Doug Kay had the chance to get Groce and Nagy this past offseason, he jumped at the opportunity. Kay acquired Nagy from the Georgia Force and later signed Groce, who played for the Arizona Rattlers last season and with Columbus in 2005.

"After we acquired Nagy this past offseason, he found out that we were trying to sign Damien and he became ecstatic," Kay said. "We really thought of them as a combination, and we knew if we put one with the other, it would be extremely productive for our offense."

Groce, who played with several quarterbacks in his two years away from Nagy, was happy to have some stability. Groce said that Nagy best understands his capabilities.

What most impresses Nagy about Groce is his work ethic. Groce is one of the first players in the weight room and one of the last to leave.

"I really think he is one of the most underrated receivers in football," Nagy said. "He is not someone that says a lot, but he is someone that works incredibly hard. He is someone that I have come to rely on."

How did Groce develop his great work ethic? "I just follow the leader," he said, referring to his good friend Nagy.

William Bendetson is an intern for ESPN.com.