The Hitmen’s Playoff Dream Dies in Chicago
New York – (9 April 2001) — The NY/NJ Hitmen did their part on Sunday. Behind a strong defensive performance and the much maligned, Charles Puleri, lightning struck the Thunderbolts down as NY shut out Birmingham 22-0 in their regular season finale. The Hitmen’s bid for the playoffs however came to an end as the Chicago Enforcers earned a trip to Los Angeles, by defeating the 8-2 Orlando Rage 23 to 6. After starting the season at 0 and 3, New York won 4 out of their last 7 games to close their inaugural season. It wasn’t enough as Chicago climbed out of a 0 and 4 hole and the eastern cellar to qualify for the playoffs at 5 and 5.
NY came into Sunday’s action needing a win over Birmingham and an Orlando win over Chicago to make the playoffs. NY held their end of the bargain but Orlando didn’t. Not all is gloom and doom with the XFL’s NY franchise. The Hitmen ended their season on a positive note by avenging an early season loss to Birmingham. NY improved their road record to 3 and 2 and their overall record to 4 and 6. Was it a losing season? YES… But not a lost season though. Despite missing the playoffs, NY/NJ showed toughness and desire in the face of adversity all season long. They battled back from injuries and bad luck. The Hitmen were not the league’s most talented team but they fought every inch of the way to earn respect. NY spent most of the season trying to find an identity, and trying to build chemistry. What they found was that no matter what cards are dealt to you, as long as you don’t fold, you walk away better from it all.
On Sunday in sunny Alabama, Corte McGuffey made his second pro start in place of Wally Richardson. After starting the game 3 of 9 for 85 yards and leading NY to a 3-0 lead, Rusty Tillman pulled the rookie for opening day starter, Charles Puleri. With a playoff spot hanging in the balance. Charles Puleri led The Hitmen on a 5 play 81 yard TD drive. Charles was huge on this drive going 4 of 5 for 81 yards and a TD to Zola Davis from 4 yards out. The extra point failed but the Hitmen took a 9-0 lead to the half.
The Hitmen defense pitched their second shutout of the season without their best defensive lineman, Israel Raybon. Chris Maumalaunga showed tremendous heart by playing even though his father passed away last weekend. The fact that he showed up to help his team in their quest for the playoffs is very admirable, considering what he has been through. The Hitmen defense disrupted the Birmingham offense all day long with 3 Interceptions and they sacked Graham Leigh 4 times. The Bolts ground game was held to just 55 yards on the day.
The New York offense which has struggled at times this season, produced their highest point total of the year against Birmingham. On their 1st drive of The 2nd half, New York didn’t take too long to attack. On their very first offensive play, Charles Puleri hit Kirby Dar Dar for a 77 yard Touchdown. Puleri connected with Zola Davis for the extra point. The score was now NY 16 Birmingham 0. The 77 yard connection was the longest play from scrimmage all season for The Hitmen.
The Hitmen defense officially sealed the deal when Joey Eloms intercepted an errant Graham Leigh pass at midfield, Eloms lateraled to Donnie Caldwell, who then returned the pick 46 yards for a touchdown. The defensive score gave NY a 22 to nothing lead. The score remained that way all the way through thanks to NY/NJ’s dominant defense. Birmingham’s best weapon, Stepfret Williams was held to only 25 yards receiving.
Charles Puleri finished the game 5 of 7 for 158 yards and 2 TD’s. That’s two more then he had all season!
Graham Leigh was just 19 of 39 for 188 yards and 3 Int’s. Kirby Dar Dar had just 2 receptions but for 117 yards and a TD.
This was a topsy-turvy year for The XFL and especially for the Hitmen. They started out the year getting shut out on the road, They finished the year on the road, this time it was them who shut out the opposition. Despite a rough start to the season, Rusty Tillman kept his team together. Injuries hit the Hitmen all season long and tragedy struck several of the Hitmen’s players. The team as a whole sucked it up and gave it all that they had. In the end, they came up on the short end of the eastern playoff stick but with the way, Chicago has played. They deserve their playoff spot. The playoffs should be very exciting. There are a lot of fascinating stories to be told. The stakes are higher, one win gets to the XFL championship. Unfortunately, The Hitmen will not be a part of that process.