virginia iron horses logo

The Virginia Iron Horses logo

So, Roanoke is getting an indoor football team.

The Virginia Iron Horses will take the field — or, perhaps, more accurately, the artificial turf — at the Berglund Center in March 2019. The team will be one of 12 in the new National Gridiron League, which hopes to succeed where some other indoor football leagues have failed.

The National Gridiron League has a different business model from most other sports leagues, because the teams will be owned by the league (with some local owners as minority shareholders), presumably to provide consistency.

So far, just two teams have been announced — ours and the Kansas Kapitals in Topeka, Kansas, although the league has released the list of team names — the Blue Bombers (not to be confused with the Canadian Football League team of the same name in Winnipeg), the Destroyers, the Firebirds, the Pioneers, the Stampede, the Bighorns, the Mudcats, the Outlaws, the Redsticks, and the Twisters.

We’re guessing the Redsticks will be the franchise in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Just a hunch.

There’ll be time enough later for our sportswriters to evaluate the team’s offensive scheme and its defensive prowess, so let’s devote some attention today to what’s really important . . . the nomenclature.

There are two ways to look at the name Iron Horses. The first is this: This is a really cool name. It’s unique, always an advantage. The word “iron” conveys strength, and there aren’t many teams that use a metal in their name. The minor-league baseball teams the Lehigh Valley IronPigs and the Aberdeen IronBirds are two others. The Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League is another. The two-word name “Iron Horses” is also distinctive, and the word “horses” suggests speed. And, of course, the name nicely alludes to Roanoke’s history as a railroad town (even if the team name is “Virginia” and not “Roanoke”).

We’re biased, but we think this is the best name in the whole league —although Bighorns is pretty unique, too. (Of course, so, also is the name of the minor league baseball team in New Orleans — the Baby Cakes. Unique isn’t always a good thing.)

Now, for the flip side —here’s where we fake right then juke left and try to pull off a trick play by transitioning from football to culture. The railroad gave up on Roanoke a long time ago, so why do we keep trying to hang onto past glory with railroad-themed names? We have a hockey team called the Rail Yard Dawgs. We previously had a hockey team called the Roanoke Express and a short-lived indoor football team called the Roanoke Steam. All those were good names, too, but do they suggest that we’re looking backward when maybe we should be looking forward?

OK, OK, maybe we’re reading a lot into a little, but there’s a serious question here: Our main economic development agency, the Roanoke Regional Partnership, has spent a decade trying to re-brand our public identity. Once, we were seen as a “former railroad town.” Now we’re “an outdoors town.”

We should be rightly proud of our heritage as a railroad town. But that heritage is also in the past.

We went through a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s when out-of-town journalists passing through Roanoke routinely described us this way: “A gritty former railroad town.” “An often neglected and declining old mining town.” “This struggling mountain region.”

Some of those were technically accurate (we are in the mountains) but others weren’t. We were never a “mining town,” declining or otherwise.

More recently, the out-of-town press has been much more positive. Former city manager Chris Morrill popularized a phrase to describe Roanoke’s economic transition — “from train city to brain city.” That both rhymes, and encapsulates our transition from a railroad town to a city where the Virginia Tech Carilion Medical School and Research Institute (where brain research is its forte) is at the center of our economic hopes.

The website Politico picked up on this in a lengthy 2016 story that held up Roanoke as an example for other mid-sized cities to follow — “Trains Built Roanoke. Science Saved It.” More recently, the Wall Street Journal has called our downtown “trendy” — not just once, but twice.

So here’s the thing: Is there any other sports team whose name draws from an industry that essentially abandoned the city?

Yes, yes there is. The Boston Red Sox has a minor league team in Lowell, Massachusetts named the Lowell Spinners, a reference to that city’s heritage as a cotton mill town.

Lowell was founded in the 1820s as a textile manufacturing town, importing cotton picked by enslaved workers in the South and turning it into cloth. By 1850, Lowell was the nation’s industrial center. By 1860, it was home to more cotton spindles than in the entire South. Lowell continued to prosper well into the early 1900s — but then the cotton mills started to move south in the 1920s, to take advantage of cheaper labor. By 1931, with the Great Depression underway, Harper’s magazine called Lowell “a depressed industrial desert.” Today, there are no textile mills in Lowell, and there haven’t been for decades. Yet when Lowell got a minor-league baseball team in 1996, it was named . . . the Spinners.

Roanoke, at least, still has the railroad, just not its headquarters. And, to be fair, Norfolk Southern still employs 1,300 people here, hardly an insubstantial figure — so Roanoke is still a lot closer to its railroad heyday than Lowell is to its cotton mill heritage. Today, Lowell is known as a college town, home to the second largest state university in Massachusetts and a growing number of research labs. Nobody’s confused that a team called the Lowell Spinners comes from an actual cotton-spinning town, so perhaps we shouldn’t be concerned that the Virginia Iron Horses will make people think that Roanoke is nothing more than a railroad town, be that present or former.

Still, we run through all these names to pose a serious question: When you’re asked by someone out-of-town to describe Roanoke, how do you describe it? We’re all ambassadors in a way. And, when the Virginia Iron Horses open play next year with a 28-man roster, we’ll have 28 more.