Welcome to the World Football League Website

WFL Magazine Archives

Football Digest, June 1978

WFL Flashback

By Norm MacLean

That 'other' league only lasted a year and a half, but it left an impression on the NFL and its fans Larry Csonka, the unhappy New York Giants fullback, said it quietly, "Sometimes I wish the World Football League was still around. That was good football, too. I enjoyed playing there and, if the WFL had succeeded, I would still be playing there."

Which is more than the sparingly employed Zonk had done this past season with the New York Giants, despite a $1.5 million contract. Csonka's passing thought brought back memories of Gary Davidson's great experiment - and what might have been.

It all started on July 10, 1974 when the Hawaiians travelled to Orlando, Florida to play the Florida Blazers before 18,625 fans. That was the summer of Pete Rozelle's discontent, replete with the NFL Players Association strike and a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the NFL.

Davidson, a Newport Beach, California attorney, had been instrumental in the formation of the American Basketball Association and had started the World Hockey Association. Both leagues had quadrupled the pay scales in the established National Basketball Association and National Hockey League. Now it was the National Football League's turn to feel the impact of the California carpet bagger.

Wheeling and dealing, he sold franchises for as little as $250,000, usually pocketing half the fee as a commission for himself and certain staff members. When the shouting was over and the preseason shuffling finished, the 1974 WFL had the Birmingham Americans, Chicago Fire, Detroit Wheels, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Sharks, Memphis Southmen, New York Stars, Philadelphia Bell, Portland Storm, Southern California Sun, Florida Blazers and the Hawaiians based in Honolulu.

Davidson swung a nationwide television deal with TVS, an independent network headed by Eddie Einhorn. In the summer of 1974 if you wanted to watch pro football, the WFL was the only game in town - at least, early on.

Almost immediately, the WFL was star-struck. On July 11, during the halftime of their first national TV game between New York and Jacksonville, a power failure struck the Gator Bowl and plunged the stadium into almost complete darkness. Eventually technicians repaired the problem and the Sharks turned on the juice to beat the Stars 14-7. It wasn't really that bad, as 59,112 fans were in the Gator Bowl.

With all the joking about the WFL, the fledging loop did force new thinking in certain NFL establishment minds. The new league tried to do something to combat the sameness of pro offenses, and they tried to combat the then prevalent field goal from the 30-yard-line in.

They adopted ten rules which differed from the NFL norm. They were almost all aimed at giving the fan more for his money.

1 - The ball was to be kicked off from the 30-yard line to insure more runbacks.

2 - The goal posts were moved back to the end line of the end zone.

3 - Missed field goals will be returned to the line of scrimmage, except when attempted inside the 20-yard line.

4 - A one-point conversion, called the 'Action Point,' replaced kicking for the extra point.

5 - Receivers needed just one foot in-bounds for a completion.

6 - In the event of a tie there was to be a fifth quarter, split into two seven-and-one-half-minute segments to break ties.

7 - Fair catches were forbidden on punts.

8 - An offensive back was permitted to be in motion towards the line of scrimmage before the ball was snapped.

9 - The hash marks were moved in towards the center of the field.

10 - Any incomplete pass on fourth down pass inside the 20 returned the ball to the 20. This took the place of the NFL rule which stated that any fourth down pass inside the 20 returned the ball to the 20.

It is amazing how many of the above rules eventually were adopted, either in full, or in part, by the NFL.

Bob Keating, the Stars general manager, is now the assistant manager in charge of operations at Giants Stadium.

He couldn't help but look back and note, "Four of those rules were adopted, almost in total by the NFL. They kick off from the 35 now, not the 40 in the NFL. The goal posts were moved to the back line. The NFL does play overtime now. The NFL didn't go for the no fair catch rule, but they did change their rules to allow only two men down field on punts before the ball is kicked, in order to enhance the chances of a return. The WFL had a lot to do with those innovations.

Keating also pointed out that the biggest reason for the demise of the World Football League, at least in New York, was a housing problem.

"We had to play on Randalls Island, which became an Alcatraz for the Stars," remembered Keating, a class gentleman who did what he could for his players when the money started to run out.

"Reaching Triborough Stadium on Randalls Island was almost impossible - and to make matters worse, we literally played in the dark. Only one side of the field was properly illuminated, and that's because we added extra lights at a cost of $200,000 after the first game made it obvious that you just couldn't cope with the dark patches from the 20-yard lines to the goal line."

One wag claimed, "The Stars play at Triborough Stadium with eight small candles strategically placed, four on each side of the stadium."

In 1974, even the New York Yankees were without a home, as Yankee Stadium was being rebuilt. The Yankees played at Shea Stadium and the Stars literally starved to death on Randalls Island. After a time it became obvious to owner Robert Schmertz and president Howard Baldwin that staying in New York without a major league facility was suicide.

Yankee Stadium 1976 was too far in the future, so the Stars quietly packed their bags, almost in the dead of night, and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina.

In all, the Stars represented New York in 13 games before moving. When they went, almost all legitimate hope for the WFL's creditability as a major league vanished.

"New York is the wire service capital of the nation - and the media center. Without a New York team no league is major league," said commissioner Pete Rozelle of the NFL.

He was right. Before the season ended. Detroit folded, and Houston moved to Shreveport to be rechristened the Shreveport Steamer. The Florida Blazers played two thirds of the season without pay - and just missed winning the first and only World Bowl. Only two franchises, backed by John Bassett, and Philadelphia, didn't miss a pay day. Jacksonville, owned by Fran Monaco, folded completely.

Bassett of course, really made the whole thing happen when he signed Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to contracts starting in 1975. This happened in March 1974 when Davidson was still putting the pieces together. Most people forget it, but Bassett, a Canadian TV mogul, signed the Miami three in Toronto with the intentions of playing in the WFL as the Toronto Northmen.

The owners of the Canadian Football League kicked up a mighty fuss and led by legislation from Ottawa and the Canadian Parliament, the Toronto entrant was legally booted out of the dominion.

"Just as Bobby Hull's signing created the WHA, the signing of Csonka, Kiick and Warfield made the WFL," agreed Bassett.

Despite its later problems, the WFL did darn well in the summer of 1974. TV ratings were excellent and its product was pretty good. The three best teams were the Memphis Southmen, still waiting for Csonka and company, Florida and the Birmingham Americans, led by a retread NFL, and CFL quarterback, George Mira.

Attendance that summer was better than expected. The Philadelphia Bell worried the NFL sick when they announced crowds of 55,534 and 64,719, Birmingham, caught up in a Dixieland battle with Memphis in the overall standings, attracted 61,319.

But the spinning turnstile count dipped materially by the fourth week - and then the WFL's paper gate scandal broke. The Bell's third game attendance for a match with the Memphis Southmen, coached by John McVay and led by ex-Notre Dame and New York Jets stalwart John Huarte, attracted only 12,396. Something was wrong.

It finally broke - and the Bell admitted their stunning attendance was literally a paper gate. The Philadelphia team had papered the house for the first two games. For tax purposes there was a sale of 13,800 tickets for the first game and 6,200 for the second. Everyone else got in free.

Although the product on the field was still the same and the TV ratings remained high, this scandal damaged the WFL. The NFL strike finally ended and fans, long reared on that circuit, could now see preseason games at least, even if the first few were populated with no-name strikebreakers.

Before the WFL's first season ended, Davidson had been purged, and the playoff structure revised three times. The Chicago Fire, eligible for a shot at the playoffs, declined to play their final game when owner Tom Origer threw in the sponge and quit.

King Corcoran, the hero of the CBS drama and minor league football with the Pottstown Firebirds, was an early WFL hero, but in the end the most credit had to go to Jack Pardee's Blazers. Tommy Reamon, a rookie running back, captured the new league's rushing title with 1,576 yards, edging J. J. Jennings of Memphis and Jim Nance of Shreveport.

Reamon caught on with Kansas City in the NFL, then was traded to the Chicago Bears and his old coach, Pardee last year, but was finally cut.

Tony Adams of the Southern California Sun captured the passing crown, with Corcoran second. Tim Delaney of the Hawaiians led the receivers with 89 catches and Ed Marshall of Memphis was the leading scorer while playing wide receiver. Another big name was Greg Latta of Florida, who has since made it to the NFL and the Bears, also under Pardee, despite a penchant for missed blocking assignments.

In the playoffs the Hawaiians knocked off the Sun 32-14, in the first round after Southern California's players threatened not to play unless they were paid. Florida, never considering should be paid, beat Philadelphia, 18-3. In the semi-finals, Birmingham wiped out the Hawaiians bid, 22-19, and Florida topped favored Memphis, 18-15.

The World Bowl was almost never played, and when it was over the sheriff confiscated the uniforms of the winning Birmingham Americans. Played in Birmingham, it was a super show, far better than most dull NFL Super Bowl games in recent years, with the exception of the Pittsburgh-Dallas affair in January of 1976.

The Americans won, 22-21, over the Blazers, who made a stirring comeback which just fell short. Birmingham lead 22-0 at the end of three quarters, but the Blazers got three TD's in the final period and then staged what appeared to be the winning drive when Reamon plunged into the end zone, and fumbled. The official ruled he had fumbled before he crossed the line, even though instant replay showed Reamon's progress had indeed crossed the goal line.

Jack Gotta, the coach of the Americans, and his team might have been rulers of their own football "World," so to speak, but Florida cornerback Billie Hayes stole the ball used on the final play and raced with it to the Blazers' dressing room.

"We knew we aren't going to get paid, we may as well keep the ball. "Reamon scored, we were robbed, but I got the ball from the World Bowl game," said Hayes.

It was to be the only World Bowl game ever. The WFL had lost more than $20 million in 1974, but under the leadership of a new conservative president, Hawaii-based Chris Hemmeter, WFL II opened on schedule in 1975. The monstrous 20-game schedule had been reduced to 18 games - and on hand were Csonka, Kiick, Warfield, Calvin Hill of Dallas and John Gilliam of Minnesota.

The most important thing was the Hemmeter Plan, which kept player salaries at a workable level, with the exception of certain contracted stars - and which required financial guarantees from the member teams so that the WFL would be able to complete its appointed season on schedule.

Everything worked well, except one thing. The public just didn't seem to care anymore - and TVS didn't renew its 1974 network deal. Joe Namath, set to sign with the Chicago Winds, reneged, and the WFL finally watched its weekly attendance ebb towards the point of no return.

They managed to get through the summer season (the year had been split into two seasons for playoff purposes), but on October 22, 1975 Hemmeter and the owners threw in the towel.

"The World Football League announced today that it has terminated football operations." The announcement was made in New York City by Christopher Hemmeter.

"Our decision is due primarily to our collective inability to penetrate markets in WFL franchise cities. The financial control concepts of the Hemmeter Plan have worked, and we believe that the future of professional sports lies in a type of revenue sharing plan. The Hemmeter Plan, however, addresses itself only to the application and conservation of capital, not to creating capital from the sale of tickets and television rights.

"Our gate receipts have been disappointing. Our league average through last week's game is 13,371 paid admissions. Furthermore, attendance over the past five weeks has declined 28% on a league-wide basis, causing severe financial drains on each franchise.

"We were aware of the backlash we would face as a result of the problems of last year's league (WFL 1974), but our most conservative projections never suggested that our game attendance in many of our cities would be less than 10,000 fans.

"As of today, our players have been paid in accordance with their contractual obligations. The league is current in meeting all its obligations."

These excerpts from the WFL's final communiqué told only part of the tale. In WFL I, more than two-thirds of the players weren't paid their full salaries, with disaster stories about players being released in Hawaii who didn't have the money for air fare to the mainland and home, being common.

Art Cantrelle, second to Anthony Davis in rushing the ball in 1975, was completely dejected when the news of the demise of his WFL reached Birmingham. Cantrelle, the Birmingham Vulcans big runner, said, "My father was shot to death in a barroom brawl, my sister died in an auto accident. I put in a stretch in reform school. Playing in the WFL was duck soup in comparison."

Cantrelle should have known that the handwriting was on the wall when the 1974 Birmingham Americans, the WFL champs, had to refinance and, as a result, became the Vulcans.

The WFL developed a surprisingly good caliber of play, which Csonka still boast.

Warfield, however, felt, "The-WFL made me realize how good Miami had become in execution. I wasn't happy playing when the execution was poor."

Still, the NFL has kept memories of the WFL alive by signing "Wiffle" players in carload lots. And the Chicago Bears noted the great job Jack Pardee did with the Florida Blazers and made him their head coach. The New York Giants tapped John McVay, the coach of the Memphis Southmen to lead them.

McVay brought seven Southmen with him and overall hired 11 WFL players. They were: offensive linemen Ron Mikolajczyk, Ralph Hill, and Bill Ellenbogen; wide receiver Ed Marshall; tight end Gary Shirk; defensive backs Bill Bryant and Larry Mallory; linebacker Frank Marion; running back Willie Spencer and Larry Csonka and defensive lineman J. T. Tuner.

The Los Angeles Rams tapped the Southern California Sun for Rhodes scholar Pat Haden, their present No. 1 quarterback. Csonka signed with the Giants, Warfield with the Cleveland Browns and Kiick with the Denver Broncos, who cut him last season.

Hill became a millionaire while warming the Washington Redskins bench. Ted Kwalick returned to the NFL with the Oakland Raiders not his old team the San Francisco 49'ers, but he has not found happiness playing behind Dave Casper. Quarterback Danny White, who replaced Huarte as No. 1 with Memphis in 1975, is the Dallas Cowboys punter and heir-apparent to Roger Staubach.

Davis, who rushed the ball for 1,200 yards in 239 attempts with the 1975 Sun, is playing with Tampa Bay, after failing with Toronto of the CFL. Greg Latta, the tight end and James Scott, the wide receiver, are key members of the Bears. Norris Weese is back-up to Craig Morton with Denver and Jack Dolbin, the skilled wide receiver, is one of their clutch performers, although Haven Moses would have to rate ahead of him.

Dave Roller was thought to be small for the NFL as a DT when he played with Southern California, but he has made a place for himself with Green Bay.

Tony Adams started a few games last year for Kansas City at quarterback - and is thought to be the regular signal-caller in the future. John Matuszak, a central figure in the WFL-NFL war in 1974 when he jumped from the NFL Houston Oilers to the WFL Houston Texans, is now a key member of the Oakland Raiders. Without him, coach John Madden couldn't have formed his three-four defense in 1976 when injuries struck.

Last, but far from least is Ron East, a DT for Seattle, who quipped when he saw this reporter in New York, "the last time we talked you were in Hawaii with the New York Stars. I borrowed $10 from you because we hadn't been paid. Now, no matter what, we get paid. But, I still can't forget the WFL. And I'm not sorry I played in it."

If the WFL has a coat of arms it might have been empty seats, free tickets and a blob of red ink on a tax form. But it was an attempt, conceived at a time when the economy of the United States had taken a dangerous dip, to create a second professional football league.

The difference between the WFL, and the American Football League was the stature of its investors. Only Bassett could compare with the Giants of American industry, such as Bud Adams and Lamar Hunt, who bankrolled the early AFL. Hunt could probably buy and sell everyone in the ownership ranks of the WFL all by himself. TVS Network hardly ranks with NBC as a television angel to feed off in the initial five years, which is the real reason the AFL survived until the merger.

Is there room for a new WFL in the United States in the future?

Most likely not. The major markets and even smaller ones are all spoken for by NFL teams.

But the World Football League will never be forgotten by those who played in it, or bought tickets when they couldn't get them free. While it lasted it was pure Americana; men seeking to strike it rich, in fame, fortune and adulation - and instead finding the dregs of payless paydays and empty stadiums.