Commentary

Michna performing well close to home

Troy Clardy details Chicago Rush quarterback Russ Michna's rise to the top.

Originally Published: March 14, 2008
By Troy Clardy | Special to ESPN.com

For the past three weeks, Russ Michna has been the starting quarterback for the Chicago Rush. Even though he's been taking over for AFL legend Sherdrick Bonner, who's on the mend with a sore knee, nothing has changed for Michna. Well, almost nothing.

"I work a little harder in pregame warmups now," Michna said while laughing. "Preparation-wise, I feel exactly the same. But now I actually try to break a sweat during pregame warmups."

Michna and the Chicago Rush travel to Tampa Bay to face the Storm on Monday night (8 p.m. ET on ESPN2). In less than a month, he has gone from breaking a sweat to breaking onto the list of No. 2 quarterbacks who have looked pretty good as the No. 1 guy.

This year, it's becoming one of the AFL's elite lists, one that contains Philadelphia's Matt D'Orazio, Dallas' Chris Sanders, and New Orleans' Danny Wimprine. Sanders returned to the bench after Clint Dolezel's shoulder healed, but Wimprine has now become the full-time starter for his team.

For Michna though, the future is now. "I'm basically capitalizing on a great situation," Michna said. "Offensively, we're extremely talented, and our defense keeps making plays week after week. My job is just to take care of the ball, get it to the right guys and they'll take care of the rest."

So far Michna's been doing the job well enough that the Rush are 4-0 when he is the starting QB. In those starts, he tossed 20 touchdowns against only three picks. All season, he has also been a big weapon for the Rush in the red zone, racking up eight rushing scores so far in their goal-line package.

Two of Michna's four wins came in crunch time too. In Week 7 at Kansas City, he coolly hit WR Travis LaTendresse for the game-winning score with six seconds left. The following week against Grand Rapids, he connected with WR Damian Harrell for the winning points with 1:32 remaining.

"As an offense we started to grow up in those games, and Russ was a huge part of that," LaTendresse said. "He did all the things to make us calm down and score. It's all the stuff you're going to have to do in the playoffs, when everything's on the line. It gave us great confidence."

Not bad for a kid in his second year in the league who has thrown about as many passes in his AFL career (131) as Sherdrick Bonner has career wins (122).

When it comes to homegrown talent, it doesn't get anymore local than Michna and the Chicago Rush. It would be almost impossible. "The apartments we stay in are a quarter-mile from the high school I went to," Michna said. "I never would have thought in a million years I'd be back in Schaumburg. And now I'm back here living, playing, and enjoying every second of it."

Michna's road from Schaumburg to, well, Schaumburg, is much longer than a mere quarter-mile. After graduating from Conant High School in neighboring Hoffman Estates, Ill., Michna set records, won games and racked up awards at Western Illinois. After spending some time with the St. Louis Rams, he went to the CFL, playing two years for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. After his career up north finished during the 2006 season, Michna had no idea that his next detour would take him back home.

"I knew a little bit about the Rush," Michna said. "I knew about the ArenaBowl they had just won. I had just been released from the CFL at around that time, and I was talking with my agent about trying to keep on playing. He said if you're going to go to the arena league, there are only two or three guys you want to learn the game from. It just happened that coach Hohensee was one of them.

"The first day I came in and worked with coach Ho we talked about more about football-related stuff in more detail than we had in the two years I was in the CFL. When he talks, you feel like it's something special. Any time he talks about anything, you know that it's important, whether it's a pregame speech, or us just talking about a play. Most people talk and you're just having a conversation. When coach Ho talks, there's a purpose and he conveys his point every time. It's an incredible trait that he has."

Hohensee wasn't the only one Michna drew his early AFL quarterbacking knowledge from. "Last year I had the luxury of sitting behind Matt [D'Orazio], and we had [current Tampa Bay starter] Brett Dietz in camp too," Michna said. "Those two guys have a really good understanding of what's going on in the game. So I learned from those three guys for quite some time and I felt good from the beginning."

Now in his second year with the Rush, Michna has been helping Chicago feel confident about their season, despite the fact that he rarely shows his feelings during games.

"I don't get real excitable for games," he said. "I just approach it like, 'Go out there and do my job.'"

Some would look at Michna's lack of emotion in the huddle and call him cool and collected. Travis LaTendresse jokingly calls Michna something else.

"He's boring! He has no emotion. He'll throw nine touchdowns and just go, 'good job,'" LaTendresse said. "It's better to have a guy like that, instead of a guy who's up and down all the time. He'll crack a joke every once in a while, but he's pretty even keel, pretty mellow."

As composed as Michna may be in the huddle, he may be even more calm in the moments following. "In the outdoor game, you walk to the line of scrimmage and your head is on a swivel for those three seconds before the snap trying to figure out where the blitz is coming from and who's picking it up," Michna said. "In this game, all you've got to worry about is what's happening on the back end, in the coverage. Those two or three seconds before the snap in the indoor game are almost calm, whereas in the outdoor game it's the most frantic time there is."

LaTendresse also notes some of the differences between Michna and Sherdrick Bonner. "I think Russ is more agile," LaTendresse said. "You see that when he runs the goal line package for us, even when Sherdrick is in the game. He holds on the ball a lot longer, too. But he's letting us receivers work. We know we're going to do our scramble drill, and we know we're going to get to a spot where the DBs can't cover us, but we also know he's going to find us and get the ball there."

Still, those differences between Michna and Bonner have added up to the same winning formula the Rush have enjoyed so far this season. At 7-2, they entered the week with a four and a half game lead over the Colorado Crush and the Grand Rapids Rampage in the Central Division. Although the division appears to be all but sewn up for the Rush, Michna is aware there's still plenty at stake for Chicago.

"The next idea is homefield advantage. That's the next one on the plate," Michna said. "We feel that it would be almost impossible for anyone to come and beat us in Chicago. We have great fan support, and we're really confident playing at home. Our main goal is to keep winning games and to let everything sort itself out."

Troy Clardy hosts Inside the AFL, ESPN's official arena football podcast, posted Thursdays on ESPN's PodCenter. You can drop him a line at troy.clardy@espn.com.