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Sport Magazine, July 1975


By Tony Kornheiser

The remnants of the Florida Blazers - the team that played for nothing - lie in open cartoons at Shader's Office Furniture Store in Orlando. For sale. Odds and ends. Some socks, some jerseys, some mouthpieces. Most of the team's inventory was sold piecemeal after Stanley J. Shader bought it for $3,500 last February at a public auction on the county courthouse steps. Bethune-Cookman College was by far the biggest single customer, buying a complete video-tape unit, exercise equipment and assorted football gear. Most of the helmets, shoes and football went to central Florida high schools. Most of the game jerseys went individually, to souvenir hunters who wanted a memento of their favorite player. All Shader kept was an autographed football; he wasn't much of a fan. Shader bought the inventory strictly as a business speculation, and he made $10,000 on the re-sales.

"I buy distressed merchandise," he said.

Which is what the Blazers were all about.

When the World Football League sent out its birth announcement some 20 months ago, Orlando wasn't on the mailing list. At that time Orlando, behind the mobilization of Rommie Loudd, the former director of player personnel for the New England Patriots, was competing with Tampa for a future National Football League franchise. Loudd came to Orlando dreaming of becoming pro football's first black owner, and he formed a nine-man limited partnership there with white businessmen, installing himself as general partner. But the NFL picked Tampa over Orlando.

Loudd regrouped for a try at a WFL franchise. Unfortunately, as things turned out, he succeeded.

On May 18, 1974, Loudd bought the Virginia Ambassadors, a team that had run out of money - after stops in Washington D. C., Annapolis, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia - without playing a single game. Loudd renamed the team the Florida Blazers and reorganized his investors, a necessary move because only one was left, David Williams, the local Holiday Inn heir. Williams put up close to $1 million.

The Blazers were on their way - toward bankruptcy. The franchise alone cost more than a million. Bonus money ate up $45,000, and training camp $55,000. Leasing 10,000 temporary seats for the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando cost Loudd's Blazers $200,000, and they were billed $38,000 in extra construction costs and told to pay for police, a public address system and even 44 Port-O-Johns. A local anti-pollution law forbade too many cars being driven to the stadium under penalty of a fine, and the Blazers had to put up $10,500 for a traffic control study.

The squeeze was on, but when the Blazers opened their home season with an 8-7 victory over the Hawaiians before 18,000 fans, they were still meeting their weekly payroll. Head coach Jack Pardee and business manager Ed Cain, both of whom had come with the franchise, had put together a team strong enough to win four of its first five games. But on the night Florida beat Jacksonville before some 24,000 fans, the largest crowd ever to watch football in Orlando, the story broke that Loudd was negotiating to move the team to Atlanta

Loudd, not surprisingly, felt the city of Orlando was giving him a bad deal - not only on the stadium arrangements - and he complained bitterly, "If I'd been a white man, things here would have been somewhat different."

Cain, whom Loudd fired twice during the season for "conduct detrimental to the team," accused Loudd of using racism as a crutch, but at least one local sports editor felt Loudd was justified. The sports editor was fired for his stand, and the local press, once sympathetic to Loudd, turned almost solidly against him.

So did his surviving partner, David Williams, who had Loudd tossed out of his Blazers' offices in one of his Holiday Inns.

Suits and counter-suits between Loudd and Williams were bandied about. By mid-September, Williams shut himself off from the team, and shut the team off from his bank account. Meanwhile, the WFL folded the Jacksonville and Detroit franchises, and Loudd had to get a court order to prevent the league from taking over the Blazers. Once the league had to rush funds to the team to get it aboard a flight for a road game, but within days payment was stopped on the checks. All Loudd could was look around for fresh angels, and promise the players, no longer drawing paychecks, that investors were on the way, Promises, promises. The Blazers theme song.

Yet through it all the team held together and kept winning, never once falling out of first place in the Eastern Division on their way to a 14-6 season. It was miraculous mostly in that the team showed up to play at all. You think that would happen in the ritzy NFL?

"I'll say this," said Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula. "If we stopped paying our players, they'd all be gone by the second payday."

Give the credit to Jack Pardee, the Blazers coach, and the Coach of the Year in the WFL. He held the team together. Ask the players.

"We've been lied to by the owners and the WFL," said quarterback Bob Davis in mid-October. "The only person who hasn't lied to us is Jack Pardee, and right now he's keeping us together."

It wasn't easy. There were repeated team meetings on whether to continue to playing or fold and go home like the players did in Detroit and Jacksonville. But the only player to jump ship was former NFLer Walter Rock, an offensive tackle. Everyone else stayed, played and prayed.

Pardee never directly asked his players to remain, but he pointed out the advantages in staying. He convinced them they were now free-agents, that they played for themselves, and that the better they played, the better it would be for them next season at contract time. If not in the WFL, then in the NFL. And one by one they lined up behind him in a to-the-last-fight situation similar to the Alamo. "To me coach Pardee has been the whole team," said fullback Jim Strong. "He puts something in you when you don't think you have any more. I couldn't say enough about him; he's a great man and a great football coach."

They've got to say something," Pardee said, shrugging off compliments with his usual self-effacing humor. "I told them I'd fire them if they didn't brag about me."

Despite Pardee's rapport with his players, there's little doubt that the season would have ended early had the Blazers not been winning. The financial situation was terrible. Players were forced to take money from their families; rent was defaulted; telephone bills went unpaid until phones were disconnected. The standing joke was that if the coin in the pre-game coin toss was anything more than a nickel, the Blazers' captain would pick it off in mid-air and head for the exit.

"It got to the point," Pardee said, "that when any of us tried to cash a check, and it was known we were with the Blazers, they immediately doubted it. You just about had to be liquid to endure it."

I even had trouble paying cash. I went into a store and handed the man a $20 bill to pay for the merchandise, but the guy even questioned that. He looked it over and made some remark about it possibly being counterfeit."

By the end of the season, Pardee said, he couldn't afford to fly his family to the World Bowl in Birmingham, and only a registered check as a gift from his wife's sister saved the day. But when his wife Phyllis called an airline for reservations, "they wouldn't take our check or our credit cards," Pardee said. "They said to bring cash...We put the registered check in the bank, but they wouldn't take a check on that either. Finally, Phyllis had to talk an officer of the bank into getting the money to pay the airline in cash...This is the type of problem and humiliation we faced in our community just trying to survive.

In all likelihood the Blazers went on playing because the WFL held out the carrot on the stick - the promise of $10,000 to each player on the winning team of the league championship World Bowl. And though the Blazers should have known better - especially guys like Larry Grantham who had seen similar economic misery with the old New York Titans of the old American Football League - they bought that promise from the WFL. The Blazers, it seemed, were the kind of guys who would buy a used car from Richard Nixon.

In the meantime, Loudd was always talking about finding new investors. He was making his goose chase phone calls from the team's headquarters at the officers club at McCoy Air Force Base, where the publicity room was a former coat room next to the former barroom.

The night the playoffs began, against the Philadelphia Bell on November 22, Loudd produced his main angel. A Cocoa Beach financier named Robert Prentice, representing an anonymous group, was introduced on local television as the Blazers' savior. Prentice brandished a check for $1.5 million on TV, later handing it to Bob Deutsch, Loudd's attorney. The check was drawn against a corporation called "TW Limited" of Nashville, and written on an account said to be on deposit at Nashville's first American Bank.

Perhaps buoyed by the news that back pay would be distributed in two days, the Blazers rang Philly's Bell by two touchdowns.

But the $1.5 million check was written against "insufficient funds." And the Prentice group ended up putting about $100,000 in to the Blazers.

The $100,000 didn't pay off the back debts that local Orlando creditors were suing the team for. Back pay was still back pay. Loudd had run out of promises and the players had run out of hope. By the time the Blazers were due to play the semi-final WFL playoff game against the Memphis Southmen - who had already beaten Florida twice during the regular season on their way to the best record in the league, 17-3 - even the carrot on the stick trick was exposed. A newspaper poll of the Blazers showed that virtually no one on the team believed that they would be paid at all. Newspaper stories circulated daily in every league city that the WFL was on the verge of bankruptcy. The winners of the World Bowl would get car fare home; the losers would be walking.

"There were too many discussions as to whether to continue playing or not," said defensive back Rod Foster, who had the good sense to get his bachelors degree in economics - from Harvard, no less - before joining the penniless Blazers, "At times several guys did threaten to leave, But once they realized the majority of guys wanted to play, I think everyone felt obligated to the team and to coach Pardee to perform if they possibly could."

"We've gone three months on rumors, half-truths, untruths and outright lies," said linebacker Larry Ely. "We finally decided to stop listening to all the bull. We're gonna shove it up the WFL's butt."

The Blazers started off poorly in their semifinal playoff meeting with Memphis, falling behind 15-0 at halftime and losing quarterback Bob Davis with an injury. But history tells you that Cinderella always makes it to the ball. Wait till you hear this one. The Blazers put in su-quarterback Buddy Palazzo, who hadn't thrown a pass all season. Palazzo completed 50 percent of his second half passes, and led the Blazers to an 18-15 lead with three seconds to go. Then Memphis lined up for a short field goal attempt, and Lou Ross, all six-foot-seven, 259 pounds of him, broke through the line and blocked the attempt. The Blazers had won.

Immediately after the game, Ross told a television audience that he had prayed before the game. "And my prayers were answered," he said, breaking down and weeping into the camera.

Inside the Blazers locker room, running back A. D. Whitfield thundered, "We're God's disciples. We're God's disciples, and we came here with a mission."

And Pardee, who has beaten cancer in his lifetime, spoke softly about his team of destiny. "Yes," he said. "I believe we are destined to win."

The league officers then managed to scrape together enough money to send the Blazers to Birmingham, where they were to play the Americans for the championship in the World Bowl.

The Blazers started out the game in glass slippers. The first time they got the ball, they marched the length of the field for an apparent touchdown. Tommy Reamon took the ball on a short dive and appeared to cross the goal line before fumbling. Television replays showed it again and again. They also showed the officials' ruling that Reamon fumbled first, and therefore never scored. The Blazers went down 15-0 at the half, 22-0 after three periods. But they had not given up through the whole thankless season and they were not going to give up now.

And then, just like the script called for, it was Hold on Mama, Here comes Hollywood time.

Davis threw a 39-yard scoring pass to Reamon, then came back within minutes with a 40-yard score to Greg Latta. With 4:14 to play, Rod Foster took a punt on his own 24-yard line, hit uo the middle, shook off some tacklers and went 76 yards to score Florida's third touchdown of the period and bring the Blazers within one point, 22-21.

The Blazers missed the "action point," which would have tied the game, and Birmingham ran out the clock.

The Blazers lost. Somebody had let them down.

Some postscripts are in order.

None of the Blazers has been paid for the last three months of the 1974 season and Pardee has charged that the WFL never gave the players their rightful share of the World Bowl proceeds.

Rommie Loudd is out of the WFL and into legal hassles, facing embezzling charges in Florida, and drug charges in Florida and Massachusetts. He has pleaded innocent to all charges.

In January, Jack Pardee was named head coach of the Chicago Bears of the NFL. He has told some of his Blazers players that he will try to take them with him.

There will be a WFL this year, but there won't be a team in Orlando. All that is left is some equipment and furniture that now belongs to Stanley J. Shader.