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The World Football League Website presents an interview with former WFL Rookie-of-the-Year and Memphis Southmen and Philadelphia Bell running back JJ Jennings

The World Football League Hall of Fame talked with JJ Jennings one evening in August regarding his career in the World Football League with the Memphis Southmen and the Philadelphia Bell. JJ, now living in Connecticut, is an executive with the Xerox Corporation and fondly looked back on his WFL playing career. Originally, he signed with the Toronto Northmen (who later moved to Memphis) and was named co-MVP with Tommy Reamon (Florida Blazers) and Tony Adams (Southern California Sun). JJ rushed for 1,524 yards in his first WFL season, scored 11 touchdowns, and was the league's sixth leading scorer.

HOF: You led the nation in scoring at Rutgers with 128 points. Memphis selected you in the 10th round of the WFL college draft, were you drafted by a NFL team and what made you choose to sign with the WFL?

JJ: I was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the seventh round. The funny thing is, back then, the team was called the Toronto Northmen, and I loved the city, liked the people. I went up there and was very impressed with the organization, I felt we had one of the best organizations even after when we moved to Memphis. I was really looking forward to playing in Toronto.

HOF: You mentioned that the franchise was a good organization. What was your impression of owner John Basset?

JJ: Top shelf all the way. Even when we were in Memphis, it was first class all the way. Even the players who had NFL experience said that the Southmen operation was first class, a sound outfit. With all the problems in the WFL we had first class travel, hotels, everything.

HOF: What was your reaction to the Toronto Northmen moved to Memphis?

JJ: I loved Toronto. The diversity, the people, then I found out we were going to Memphis. I had played college baseball in Memphis and remembered there was some racial tension and that made me a little nervous about the situation.

HOF: When did you first hear the team was transferring to Memphis?

JJ: After I signed. In the newspaper I had read that the Canadian Football League had gone to the legislature or government up there and passed a bill that only CFL teams could play in Canada. There was probably a month after I signed a contract.

HOF: Did you sign with the team before the Northmen announced the signing of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield?

JJ: I did. The team announced that they had signed during training camp. In the season I remember I was having a good year and Memphis reporters would ask, "how will the signing effect you?" I just tried to block it out of my mind cause I felt that something would happen to me. I thought that it (their signing) was good for the league, and I hoped I would stay with the team. I was later told that, "for the betterment of the league", I was traded to Philadelphia, that was before the 1975 season.

HOF: When the Southmen opened training camp what was your impression?

JJ: It was strange. I was young. I had played against some of the guys, being from the Ivy League, and I knew some of them a bit. I had met some people with CFL and NFL experience, and the coaching staff, and I was beginning to get used to the situation-the players were bigger and faster than I was used to. There was also the heat. I'm from Massachusetts and one of my first impressions was the linemen falling down in the humidity. They had towels draped around their heads and, at times, they would be bent over huffing and puffing, trying to catch their breath. It was hot. The coaches did a good job starting practice early and then scheduling a second session later in the day so we weren't totally in the brunt of the heat.

HOF: What was your impression of head coach John McVay?

JJ: Very smart, calm man. I was very impressed with him. He had a great coaching staff and it was reflected in our record.

HOF: The Southmen opened their WFL season against the Detroit Wheels. 30,122 fans were watching at Memphis' Memorial Stadium. What was your reaction to your first professional game?

JJ: Nervous. I didn't know what to expect. New league, new fans, new everything. After you get hit you forget all of that. We had a good crowd, and I remember Elvis Presley was in the stands. Something came out in the paper that he said I was his favorite player. I scored the first touchdown for the Southmen; I have a picture of it. It was a trap play, we ran that thing all year long, and I walked in untouched.

HOF: Were there any players that you were close to?

JJ: I think we jelled as a team. It was a very close-knit team, offense and defense. I think that was the key to our success. I got along great with the running backs I played with, John Harvey and Willie Spencer. Our quarterback John Huarte and he was a ball-control player and we liked that. Usually in the second half Danny White would come in and he liked to throw the ball so we wouldn't get as much chances to carry the football. We all hung together, went out after the games and partied, not too many guys went their separate ways.

HOF: You mentioned the difference between John Huarte and Danny White. Was it difficult for the offense to adjust to the changing of quarterbacks?

JJ: Yes. It did in my case. Being a running back I liked to carry the ball once in a while. Danny needed to show off his wares, he was a passing guru. That's why I liked John Huarte. I caught plenty of passes from Danny White, but we liked John and the ball-control offense.

HOF: What was your impression of the WFL football?

JJ: The color was different. In fact, I tried to make some spaghetti sauce the other night and it came out looking like the WFL football. It didn't affect me. Those orange strips, to me it was just a football, it was just like anything, you could get used to it after a while. I'm not a quarterback so I don't know anything about strings or the thickness of the ball. When you carry it you gotta hold on to it. The league tried to design some new things; the Dickerrod, the ball, and the rule changes. I never had a problem with the football. I thought it was easier to see at night. I caught 40 or 50 passes, and I think the fans thought it was easier to see as well. I grew up watching the New York Titans of the AFL and they used a white football. They called it a "nightball" and it was great to watch that thing go flyin". I thought the Dickerrod was a good idea, and I was surprised that it didn't carry over to the NFL. An engineer designed it and it was a better way to measure things. In the second season the league tried something crazy with these pants that were supposed to tell the fans what position you played.

HOF: Did you feel the WFL rule changes opened the game up more for scoring?

JJ: Yeah. I liked the "action point", and the fans liked it. The WFL moved the goal posts to the back of the end zone and I thought that was a great idea. The kickoffs from the 30 yard line, the no fair-catch rule on punts, one foot in bounds, all opened the game up a bit.

HOF: The Memphis Southmen, after a 3-2 start, won 12 games in a row. What was it like on the team during that winning streak?

JJ: We had a streak going and we lost to the Portland Storm on national television. Wally Highsmith, who's son was Alonzo Highsmith who played in the NFL, was a leader on the team, he had played many years in the CFL, and he would call practice the next day after a win to keep the thing (the momentum) going. We were playing three games in eight days due to the length of the season. We were a close group. There wasn't a lot of changes like on the other teams. We didn't bring in guys in the middle of the season, like some of the other clubs. There wasn't any tryouts during the season.

HOF: The Southmen were in a tough Central Division with the Birmingham Americans. Throughout the season a bitter rivalry developed between the two teams, what do you remember about the Americans and the rivalry the teams shared?

JJ: I remember the first time we played in Birmingham. Legion Field was filled. I had never played in front of 65,000 people in my life and I think I had said something in the newspaper that made the fans pretty mad at me. They were screaming and throwing things and calling me names. We went down there and they kicked our ass. There is a natural rivalry between Birmingham and Memphis. The fans in Memphis came out for the game when we played them in our town. Memphis always supported the team.....I think we average about 25,000 fans a game, but the attendance waned a bit towards the end of the season. I thought the fans in Memphis were great. One thing I noticed is when I was traded to Philadelphia in '75, the fan support wasn't there. I think we averaged, maybe 10,000 a game at Franklin Field.

HOF: On August, 1974, the Southmen hosted the Jacksonville Sharks at Memphis' Memorial Stadium. That was the game when you became the first runner to break the 1,000 yard barrier. Was that a big moment in your career?

JJ: I have a picture of me with the linemen, holding the ball. That was a big game for me. Tommy Reamon of the Blazers won the rushing title but I carried the ball less and had a higher average-yards-per-carry. We were winning so many games by a large score that I didn't play a lot in the second quarter.

JJ rushes for his 1,000th yard against the Jacksonville Sharks

HOF: The Memphis running game featured yourself, John Harvey and Willie Spencer. What characteristics did they possess that made them great players?

JJ: Combined I think we gained 3,000 yards. I knew that Willie was going to run the ball right up my back once I hit the hole and threw a block. John was a looser, OJ Simpson type of runner. Willie and I got to be really close. He was quite a personality; we were the youngest guys on the team. John Harvey was a little older and from the CFL.

HOF: What do you remember about living in Memphis the most?

JJ: I never met more entertainers in my life. Paul Miles had a condo and I would go there and Issac Hayes was there all the time with his body guards. We would be all around, partying, and having a good time. I used to live on Graceland Avenue just down the street from Elvis Presley, some people still have a hard time believing that one.

HOF: When the other teams in the WFL started to have financial problems, and the papers reported the possibility of teams going out of business, did you ever have regrets about signing with the league?

JJ: No, I never thought that. I thought I had better opportunities in the WFL. I never got down and timed well in the forty and things like that. It was a good organization, a first class set up, and we prayed it would last forever.

HOF: What did you think of the WFL having a national television contract?

JJ: For me it was great. The only time I had been on television was during the WFL season, and then they asked me to talk about the games. Anytime you play on national television you get "up" for the game. NFL players today, when they play on Monday night, its always a big deal 'cause millions of people are watching. I enjoyed it. My family would watch the games and I would talk to them the next day.

HOF: Memphis went through the season and ended at 17-3, the best record in the WFL. Everyone was expecting a Memphis-Birmingham World Bowl but you lost to Florida 15-3 in the playoffs, what happened?

JJ: We didn't play as well as we should have. We made some costly mistakes, a fumble, and not picking up a late first down when we needed to. I ran the ball two times and didn't get that first down. The defense (of Florida) was tough. We had some distractions, not about getting paid but the amount of pay for a playoff game. A lot of the guys were expecting to get paid what was specified in their contract. The fans didn't come out, we only had about 10,000, and that affected the players a bit. This was during the time when the league was getting a lot of bad publicity and the fans didn't come out.

HOF: Was the WFL's twenty game season a challenge?

JJ: I think it was. Not really for me. Some of the players had families and wanted to get home. I think it was tough with injuries as the season went on, its hard to play so many games and stay healthy.

HOF: Many WFL writers felt that the league would have been successful if they had embraced an eight-team, 14-game schedule. Do you feel the same?

JJ: I think so, in the right locations. There were certain franchises that couldn't make it through the season and some of the stronger owners helped finance the struggling teams. We, Birmingham, Hawaii, Southern California and Chicago were strong financially.

HOF: How did it feel to be awarded Rookie-of-the-Year?

JJ: It felt good. There were so many good young players. I think if the Southmen had won the World Bowl I would've won the whole thing. Tommy Reamon had more yards and more carries than I did. The league wanted me to go down to Birmingham for a half time celebration but I was in the hospital to have my tonsils removed. I had played half the season in pain and they had to come out, so I missed it. I never did get my money. I think it was $3,000 or so.

HOF: Who were some of the players on the Southmen that you admired and respected as athletes?

JJ: Well most of them did play in the NFL. Gary Shirk, an undersized tight end. His toughness. He was about 6-foot-2 and tough. Probably the toughest guy on the team, and he went on to play for the New York Giants. Willie Spencer. He was just rough around the edges. John Harvey. Fast, a slasher. He had a bad rep coming in and going out to, but he had a career with Cleveland. He had talent. Ed Marshall. He was a great receiver. On the defense, Bob Lally. He was a big, strong, fast player, and smart. David Thomas. We called him "peanuts", he was a great back. He went on to play for Washington. Lucious Selmon. A quiet guy got just the job done.

HOF: Who were some of the WFL teams that you felt were strong?

JJ: The Birmingham Americans. They were tough. Tiny Andrews and Alfred Jenkins, that guy could fly and Matthew Reed at quarterback. That was a well coached team. Southern California Sun. They had two young great backs, Jimmy Mc Alister and Kermit Johnson. They were tough to play against. Well coached.

HOF: In 1975 you were traded to the Philadelphia Bell what was your reaction and when did you find out about the trade?

JJ: I found out during the preseason. Southmen GM Leo Cahill asked me to come into his office and he told me I was traded to Philadelphia for the "betterment of the league". They thought that since I was an All-American from Rutgers I might be able to help put fans in the stands in Philly. That's the way it was explained to me. The day before training camp started, Cahill told me about the trade. I went out for a few drinks with a buddy who had driven down to Memphis with me, and Larry Csonka was at the bar. We ended up talking for awhile and he said that he was sorry that things didn't work out, Csonka was a great guy. He seemed enthusiastic about playing in Memphis, it was something new, the money was big (for those days), and they got a good package from Basset to come to the WFL.

HOF: What was it like joining Philadelphia and the running backfield of John Land and Claude Watts?

JJ: They welcomed me in. But it took a while to get adjusted. I liked both those guys a lot.

HOF: What was the difference between Memphis and Philadelphia?

JJ: It was a completely different situation than Memphis. The team wasn't as close, I was an outsider, but eventually I was accepted. The Bell didn't draw the crowds like we did in Memphis. Philadelphia was a big city that had competition from several professional sports teams. In Memphis we were it, there wasn't anything else. People would recognize you in Memphis at restaurants and when you went out.

HOF: What were some of the most vivid memories from playing with the Bell?

JJ: We were playing a road game in Anaheim, against the Sun, and we came out of our hotel rooms and there were two yellow school buses parked. We all looked around at each other, got on, and took the buses to the stadium. When we got there a security guard didn't believe that we were a professional football team, he wouldn't let us in. Finally, Louis Ross opened up his shirt to show a Philadelphia Bell t-shirt and the guy let us in. It was kind of comical at the time.

One time after practice at Franklin Field, I climbed up a statue of Ben Franklin and put some wine bottles in his arms, crazy stuff like that. I remember that a Bell player, while we were playing down in Birmingham, threw all the furniture out the hotel window, called down to the front desk and said, "Weve been robbed!"

For me Philadelphia was more wild and crazy, the team was a bit looser.

JJ Jennings carries the ball against the Hawaiians after his trade to Philadelphia

HOF: In 1975, when you were playing with the Bell, the team defeated Memphis 21-15 in Philadelphia. How rewarding was that for you?

JJ: It was great to win. I went over to the hotel and hung out with those guys. When they came to play they gave me my championship ring. The Southmen won the Central Division and we received rings for that.

HOF: Where were you when you heard the league had folded?

JJ: I think I heard it on television. I do remember Willie Wood leaving a message for me. All I could do was think, "What do I do now?" Montreal of the Canadian Football League owned my rights so I went up there with them for some practices, Marv Levy was the coach of the team. Kansas City called. It was a real hard situation. To tell you the truth I went out to get some drinks at the local establishment.

HOF: The Pro Football Hall of Fame has a WFL exhibit that features your Memphis Southmen helmet how does that feel?

JJ: When I first heard of it I didn't realize the WFL had a Hall of Fame. Then I realized it was the Hall of Fame in Canton, I was surprised. I need to make a road trip out there to check it out. I've been telling my friends about the exhibit and this web site.

HOF: When the WFL folded, and Memphis and Birmingham were trying to get into the NFL, did you think John Basset had a good chance to get into the NFL in 1976?

JJ: Yes, I definitely did. There was talk of both teams entering the NFL, like the ABA and NBA had merged, but in the end it didn't work out. I thought if any owner could do it, John Basset could.

HOF: How would you summarize your experience in the WFL?

JJ: I loved every minute of it. It was a great league. It gave a lot of players the chance to show what they could do. The media supported us in some of the smaller markets like Memphis, Birmingham, Hawaii, Shreveport and Charlotte, it was harder for the WFL in New York and Chicago. The WFL was a great experience for me and I look back fondly at all those days.

NOTE: The JJ Jennings interview was conducted by Jim Cusano and Richie Franklin. This interview appeared on the former WFL Hall of Fame Website, and is used with permission. This interview is the property of the World Football League Website and may not be used without the permission of the Website owners.