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Dominant Debut

When Bryce Peila arrived at the doorstep of the Arena Football League earlier this year, he could have knocked politely.

The former Crater player could have quietly made his way in, making sure not to step on anybody’s toes as he cautiously figured out his role with the Portland Thunder.

He could have, but he didn’t.

Instead, the 24-year-old kicked the door down and proceeded to wreak havoc in his rookie debut.

Peila racked up a list of honors while playing jack linebacker for the first-year franchise. He is up for the league’s rookie of the year award, was named the Thunder’s team MVP and earned a spot on the AFL’s second-team all-defensive list. In July Peila was recognized as the league’s Week 18 MVP after tallying 3 1/2 tackles and an interception and scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery in a 44-31 victory over the Los Angeles Kiss. And in April, he was named an AFL playmaker of the week for more of the same exploits.

“I’m extremely grateful,” Peila said. “I don’t really get too caught up in the awards and stuff because personally, I want a championship as a team. Then again, it’s nice. I guess it shows that hard work pays off.”

Not bad for someone whose football future appeared murky after a record-breaking career at Western Oregon University. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Peila continued to train after his college career ended without any indicators that he’d be able to play professionally. He returned to Central Point and worked for about a year before landing a private workout with Portland in November.

The rest is history.

Peila started every game for the Thunder, who finished 5-14 in challenging conference and nearly upset defending AFL champion Arizona in the first round of the playoffs. Portland rallied from a 35-20 deficit in the third quarter to take a 48-45 lead with 55.2 seconds left. The Rattlers responded with a go-ahead touchdown with 29.4 seconds remaining before a Thunder interception ended their season.

“It was good to get back into the game,” Peila said. “Being out for a year and living at home really sucked. Playing with all those guys, we all got along really well. I had a blast, really. It was kind of like re-inventing my whole love of the game.”

Arizona (15-3) will take on the Cleveland Gladiators (17-1) in ArenaBowl XXVII at 5 p.m. next Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena. The game can be seen on ESPN.

“We had them on the ropes,” Peila said of the Rattlers.

On the season, Peila had 64.5 tackles, eight interceptions, seven pass breakups, five fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and one sack.

Peila said one of his top moments was the squad’s win over the Kiss at the Moda Center in Portland, where his work earned him the league’s weekly MVP accolade. The triumph opened up a two-game lead over Los Angeles for the final playoff spot in the National Conference.

“I had lots of fun, especially that game,” Peila said. “I had fun every game, but in that one the whole team really came together. It was exciting. The fans were into it, and you want to win for them. They pay to come see us and support us and cheer us on. It’s the least we could do.”

Peila spent the past week in Southern Oregon. He will next return to WOU to help coach the football team, complete his degree in exercise science and continue to train. Peila, whose minor is health, is three classes away from finishing after leaving early to chase his football aspirations.

He also plans to make a highlight tape and connect with his agent. Peila is hoping an even bigger opportunity comes his way.

“After the season, in a lot of ways it was back to square one,” Peila said. “We all love the this game. Personally, my dream is to play in the NFL.”

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt.

Former Crater standout Bryce Peila earned a spot on the Arena Football League's second-team all-defensive list while playing jack linebacker for the Portland Thunder this season. PHOTO COURTESY BRIAN BEAUDRY