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Saturday, Apr. 18, 2015

Just another league lost in time

Posted Wednesday, July 13, 2011, at 1:28 PM

In 1974 and a portion of 1975 the World Football League tried to provide a challenge to the NFL. Financial instability and credibility issues ultimately proved fatal to the upstart group and its owners. The WFL halted operations midseason in 1975. Above, Birmingham Americans running back Paul Robinson (18) gets a block from teammate Phil Engle (67) as the Detroit Wheels' safety Rocky Long (left) and defensive lineman Mike Walker pursue along with other members of the Wheels defense. (Photo courtesy Greg Allred/www.worldfootballleague.org)
It was supposed to rival the National Football League in every way. It was supposed to -- and did for a short time -- draw big name talent from both the college and NFL ranks to its fledging world.

It was supposed to be the league that sculpted a new face of football.

What it turned out to be was merely a scratch on the surface of the face of the sport. But what an unusual, colorful and down right unique scratch it turned out to be ultimately.

It was the World Football League and for a year and a half it put professional football in places like Birmingham, Alabama; Sherveport, Louisiana and Honolulu, Hawaii.

The WFL won't be remembered by anyone younger than 40 -- and even among those just a few.

But it will go down in sports history as the league that tripped, stumbled and tiptoed it's way through the latter stages of 1974 and for an even shorter, time the following year.

The names of the teams were almost as colorful as the idea of the league itself. Bring a new, improved brand of football to the masses and ultimately expand it worldwide.

Instead it never grew and found it hard to keep itself upright in the wake of all its, mostly self-inflicted troubles.

It began as 12-team, three division league with franchises in most large metro areas, including some that didn't have pro football.

The Eastern Division featured entries in Jacksonville (Sharks) and Orlando (Florida Blazers), two markets which to that point had been shunned by the NFL.

The Philadelphia (Bell) and New York (Stars) also were there.

In the Central Division Memphis (Southmen) and Birmingham (Americans) were the newest cities to host pro football as well as longtime NFL flagships Detroit (Wheels) and Chicago (Fire).

Finally, the Western Division brought football to Portland (Storm) and Honolulu (Hawaiians) as well as Los Angeles (Southern California Suns) and Houston (Texans).

But a promising start on opening night would be the high point of an initial season that was filled with scandal, backstabbing, missed payrolls, repossessions and so many internal failures that it would lead to the disbanding of two franchises (Detroit and Jacksonville) and relocation of still two others (New York to Charlotte, NC and Houston to Shereveport) ahead of a total revamping of the league before the start of the next season.

The inflating of paid attendance numbers by owners in two cities -- Philadelphia and Jacksonville -- during the first week of the season would lead to what was termed "Papergate" and was the first crack in the armor of the would-be answer to the NFL bully on the block.

It was just the beginning of the gradual spiral that pockmarked the WFL.

The league will also be forever connected to another upstart group, one that wanted instead of taking over the football world one step at a time, one that wanted to push its way to the forefront of the media industry.

The television contract, all one year of it, was bought by a fledging network that ultimately didn't last as long as it would've liked either.

TVS, owned by among others Eddie Einhorn, carried a live game on Thursday night for 17 of the 20 weeks of the season as well as two playoff games and the championship contest.

The league also became a birthplace for many other things including rule-changes, storied and short-lived careers and general oddities.

For the first time in known sports history a woman was in charge of a team -- Birmingham lady bar manager turned team president Carol Stallworth -- and it gave another chance to the founder of two other maverick leagues (Gary Davidson who had helped found the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association) another shot at glory.

Both would ultimately fail and neither would find a rebirth of any note. In fact, after Davidson was bullied out of the role as commissioner in November 1974, he would fade into the sports woodwork and become a novelty of sorts for stories about the leagues he had a hand in building.

The World Football League gave retired NFL players a chance to strap on the pads once more and it melded into the careers of several future Pro Football Hall of Famers.

Names like Willie Wood, Don Maynard, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield, Herb Adderly and Leroy Kelly are names of players or coaches who ultimately ended up in Canton, Ohio.

They were joined by other such names as John McVay, Jack Pardee, Marty Schottenheimer, Lindy Infante, Kay Stephenson and Jim Fassel who eventually ended up being head coaches in the NFL, but started in the WFL as either a coach or a player.

Fassel is credited with throwing the final pass in the WFL.

Other names that will chime a tone of familiarity include Philadelphia football folk hero Vince Papale (subject of the movie Invincible), who caught the first pass thrown in the league, Danny White who would later quarterback the Dallas Cowboys and Heisman Trophy runner-up Anthony Davis from Southern California.

These names are just a few among the many more unfamiliar names that dotted rosters throughout the league.

Names like J.D. Armstrong, Clayton Heath, Glen Damato (who played college ball at Indiana State), Fred Abbott, Eddie Foster and Frank Cornish were the majority over the well-known minority of league jumpers that were scattered about the rosters that first year and promised to be there in years to come.

Many more were slated to join the ranks, but through legal wrangling by the NFL, missed bonus payments or just simple mistrust of the league, they refuted the WFL and never made the switch.

Along with the names lost to the recesses of time and memory were also ideas and inventions.

Some were cast aside until a time when they would be reborn under new guises, while others faded quicker than the league itself from the public's chatter and comment.

Lost to the chasm of forever were creations such as the Dickerod and the Action Point.

The Dickerod, named after its inventor George Dicker, was a contraption with a 10 foot long stick, the WFL logo on one end and mounted on a base that allowed it to pivot from side to side. It was used to mark the line to gain for a first down.

Even though elements of the Dickerod still exist (marking the first down chains at one of the yard lines), it was not seen in the second year of the league.

Perhaps the most unusual thing lost to the eraser of time was the Action Point.

Instead of kicking the conversion following a touchdown -- which in the WFL was worth seven points instead of six -- the ball would be placed at the 2 1/2 yard line and had to be either thrown or ran across the goal line for an additional point.

There were other changes, but none so out of the ordinary.

While no fair catches on punts and the receiver needing only one foot in bounds were dismissed by the NFL, things like moving the goal posts to the back of the end zone and offensive holding being a 10-yard penalty instead of 15 were later accepted.

The NFL also moved kick-offs from the 40 to the 35 yard line (the WFL kicked off on the 30).

Even with those innovations and futuristic ideas that would someday become acceptable, there were even more -- nearly invisible at the time to the casual observer -- ordeals that would weave a permanent stitch into the fabric of the WFL's legacy.

Players not being paid, equipment and uniforms being seized for non-payment of bills and office furniture being repossessed and telephones being shut off all were just as big a part of the league's legacy as the 22-21 win by Birmingham over Florida in the World Bowl.

After a "reformation" of the league in 1975 with different owners of some franchises, the shifting of others and a vast, yet under financed overhaul, the league lasted until just midway before it finally died a silent, agonizing death.

Perhaps the biggest symbol of the WFL remains on display in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

Sitting there for all generations to evaluate is the championship trophy given to the Americans. It was hidden among the guts of Legion Field in Birmingham until it was uncovered by renovation workers and turned over to the hall in Birmingham where it now stands proudly as a reminder of things past.

So one last piece of the now-defunct journey through the sands of football time still remains, as does the league in every memory of anyone who ever was touched by it in some way.

For anyone who is interested, there's still a place where the league can be researched, revered and even admired its www.worldfootballleague.org.

There, thanks to the efforts of Richie Franklin and Greg Allred among others, you will find many of the anecdotes and info that will more than answer any questions left unanswered. Its also where much of the information contained in this column was gleaned.

My thanks to Richie for his assistance.

Rick is a sports writer for the Greene County Daily World. He can be reached by telephone at (812) 847-4487, ext. 20. He can be reached by email at rcurl@gcdailyworld.com.

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Good article.

BTW... Goodbye Eastern and hello North Knox (for 2 years anyway).

-- Posted by agastro on Thu, Jul 14, 2011, at 9:04 AM

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