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Roughriders owner seeks to take field this summer

WHEELING — While an offer to purchase the West Virginia Roughriders has been given more time, Gregg Fornario is still in charge of the franchise. And he wants to see indoor football played in the Ohio Valley this summer.

“It’s still my team and I’m going to do with it what I want,” Fornario stressed in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. “There is a group out of Baltimore that is interested (in buying the franchise) but they wanted a little longer to think about it.”

That group — HMG Sports — signed an agreement deal to purchase the franchise in late 2020, but had until the first week of 2021 to make it official, according to Fornario. HMG also owns the Baltimore Lightning franchise, another indoor football team.

Terms of the proposed deal were never disclosed.

Fornario, who re-located the franchise from Richmond, Va., to Wheeling two years ago, said he has recently talked with officials at WesBanco Arena and they expect to be at approximately 30-percent capacity by mid-summer.

“That would be about 1,560 fans,” Fornario said.

“We would likely start sometime in late July and finish up sometime around the first of September.”

He said there are plans for three games, but no dates have yet been etched in stone.

“The first game will be an Alumni Game. We will have players from the Roughriders teams of 2017-2020,” he explained. “We will mix-match them up and play against each other. The other two games will be exhibition-type contests.”

The Roughriders took the 2020 season off due to COVID-19 after announcing plans to compete in the National Arena League.

He noted that the 2019 American Arena League championship banner would be hoisted to the rafters inside WesBanco Arena that night, as well as a few ‘name’ players attending in one capacity or another. The Roughriders stormed to a 13-0 season in claiming the title with a 55-29 victory over Carolina.

When asked about a head coach and a staff, it didn’t take Fornario long to answer.

“Mook Zimmerman will be our head coach,” he quickly said of former Roughriders head coach who retired after the championship season. “I will never play a game without Mook as the head coach and Mook will never coach another team.”

While Mook will return, it’s likely that the ‘independent’ Roughriders will have a vastly new look.

“We had five assistant coaches on the team and two of them were local. We’ll also try and get Connor Arlia and Cole Smelley, a couple of local guys, back,” Fornario added. Arlia is a Weirton Madonna graduate while Smelley played his high school football at Bridgeport.

“Robert Meachem who played in the NFL for the New Orleans Saints before he played for the Richmond Roughriders said he would come back for the Alumni Game, and Greg Hardy, as well.”

Fornario said Hardy wouldn’t be eligible to compete because he is under contract with the World Wrestling Entertainment, but “he could coach defense.”

Fornario also said he is looking at acquiring a “decent name” to play in the three games.

Fornario said more details would be coming in the near future.

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