Flying high again

Story by Tim O’Bryhim

If you lived in Wichita in the 1980s the names Erik Rasmussen, Andy Chapman and Chico Borja brought to mind hat tricks, the color orange had an army attached to it and the Angels were a dance squad, not an outlaw motorcycle club. The Wichita Wings professional indoor soccer team was a phenomenon that blew into town in 1979 and captured the hearts and minds of untold thousands of Kansans throughout its 22 year existence. In the team's heyday the 1980s the shorts were short, the mullets were long and the players stormed onto the Kansas Coliseum's field to the tune of Gonna Fly Now, known to non-Wings fanatics as the Rocky theme song.

Until recently, this was pure nostalgia. The February 24th announcement that indoor soccer is returning to Wichita, however, has fans of the old team atwitter, as evidenced by the proliferation of fan pages on social networking sites like Facebook. But to one of those fans, the Wings return is not just good news, it is a vindication of thousands of hours of poring over microfilm, trolling the internet for videos for sale and staying in touch with former players.

It didn't take long to get hooked, says Mike Romalis. My parents took me to my first game on November 21st, 1982 against the St. Louis Steamers. I was young, but I remember it was very crazy and loud in the Coliseum.

The Romalis family wasn't alone. By the 1983-84 season, home attendance averaged over 9,000 per game. Wings players could be seen around town talking to local kids in elementary schools, in ads for tanning salons and hotels and on local television shows like Kaleidoscope. Wings fans started The Orange Army, which traveled to away games and made home games a raucous event.

Ray Denton, director of operations for the Wings during the 1979-80 season, remembers that one of the league officials from New York turned to him as they watched a game and remarked that he had never seen such an amazing atmosphere at an indoor soccer game before.

The crowd really got into it. The fans would bring lots of signs and they would participate in the activities during half-time. That first year there were some great battles with the New York Arrows, Denton says.

The man most responsible for creating that army of orange-clad fans was Liverpool native Roy Turner. He spent 5,994 days associated with the Wings, most often as head coach, but sometimes as team president. One of the most experienced players in the North American Soccer League, Turner was able to bring a number of his former Dallas Tornado teammates to Wichita in the early years of the Wings. More importantly, he brought professionalism and a winning spirit to town. The name Roy Turner would forever be associated with the Wings franchise and the excitement it created in Wichita.

There was a buzz in the air for a big game, Romalis remembers. The announcer, J.B. Johnson, would say, And now Wichita Are You Ready!?! They'd play Gonna Fly Now on the loudspeakers during player introductions, and the guys would come out and throw soccer balls or roses into the stands. The Angels would do a dance routine to a popular song, often something by Michael Jackson. The crowd was amped up and ready for action, especially for the St. Louis Steamers. A lot of fans had it in for the Steamers because back in the 81 playoffs there was some rough play that injured goalie Mike Dowler. The fans didn't forget.

What the fans couldn't do was keep the Wings financially stable. Near the end of the first season, the first Save the Wings campaign began. It came so close to failing that first year. We announced we wouldn't be able to continue due to lack of funds. Making the announcement before the season ended was the best decision we could have made. It got the fans riled up enough that we were able to keep it alive, says Denton. Unfortunately, Wings fundraisers became a semi-regular staple of Wichita life over the next couple decades. When the Wings played its 2001 season, it was in a different league with a different logo. It was to be the original franchise's final season. During the 2000s, Romalis felt that the team had been forgotten. It had been the biggest professional sporting event in town for years, but no one seemed to be keeping the memory alive. So Romalis went to work.

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