1974 WFL Team Pages
The Chicago Fire joined the ranks of the World Football League in 1973 when millionaire builder Tom Origer purchased the franchise rights for the "City of the Big Shoulders." Origer, who read about the league in a newspaper, became intrigued with the idea, and after discussing it with friends and family, decided to purchase the franchise. He relished the thought of compensating for a childhood disappointment in athletics. "I wanted to play football at Amundsen High School in Chicago, but I had a heart murmur. I admit that owning the Fire is fulfilling some frustration for me. However, I was smart enough to start shopping around for a pro franchise after I had made a couple of dollars. Tom Origers' "couple of dollars" was actually $440,000 to be exact, and that check was made out to Nick J. Meleti, who owned the rights to the Chicago territory and the Cleveland Crusaders of the World Hockey Association.
The football climate in Chicago was right for a change. The N.F.L. Bears had fallen far from their glory days of George Halas and his legendary champions. Many football fans in the city were tired of the Bears constant losing seasons, and Origer felt that this climate would create a great opportunity to battle for the Chicago football fan and perhaps develop a possible comparison of a Cubs - White Sox rivalry. Origer hired Al Lange as his executive vice president and Bill Bryne as the director of player personnel, and then searched for a head coach. North of the border in Winnipeg, Canada the Fire found their man. Jim Spavital, the coach for the Winnipeg Blue Bomber of the Canadian Football League, was signed after Fire owner Tom Origer received a recommendation from then CFL coach Jack Gotta. Spavital, a coach in the CFL for many years, had a reputation for having great offensive teams. Spavital hired Jim Crossland as his Defensive Coordinator. Crossland, designed the "Okie" defense which employed five down men with two linebackers in support. The "Okie" defense allows maximum pass rush on opposing quarterbacks and would be the signature defense of the Fire. The Fire also added Chuck Dickerson (Defensive Line), Tommy Hudspeth (Offensive Backfield), Joe Spencer (Offensive Line), and Steve Tensi (Receivers) and brought in Dick Hoover (Trainer) and Pat Marcuccillo (Equipment Manger).
On February 8, 1973 the Chicago Fire made sports history. Tom Origer and Al Lange announced in New York City the Fire had signed N.F.L. veteran quarterback Virgil Carter to a three-year, $100,000 contract. Carter was the first legitimate NFL player to jump to the new WFL. The Fire then followed the Carter signing with the signing of collegian running back Mark Kellar, wide receiver Jim Seymour, former Bear tackle Steve Wright, Name Wake Forest All-American kicker Chuck Ramsey and linebacker Rudy Kuchenberg. Official reports had season ticket sales reaching 20,000 on the eve of the W.F.L. season.
Veteran quarterback Virgil Carter was the wheelhorse of the Chicago Fire offense. In his final year with the NFL he threw over 500 passes and was only intercepted 15 times. He also completed 62.2% of those passes. The main targets for Carter were speedy 5-foot-10 Jack Dolbin (a teammate of Philadelphia Bell quarterback King Corcoran on the ACFL champion Pottstown Firebirds) and the fleet-footed James Scott. Jim Seymour (the first ever WFL player) added veteran experience to Steve Tensi's squad. The Fire backfield centered around college star Mark Kellar. Kellar, from Northern Illinois, led the nation in rushing with 1,719 yards in 1973 and was nicknamed "Baby Bull" for his straight ahead, hard charging running style. Ex-Bear and Dallas Cowboy Cyril Pinder added valuable experience to the running game, as did Bob Wyatt. Guarding Virgil Carter and opening holes for the running game was a trio of veteran linemen; center Guy Murdock, veteran tackle Steve Wright and guard Dave Bradley.
On defense the Fire signed N.F.L. veterans Ron Porter ( Baltimore and Minnesota), Rudy Kuchenberg and Chuck Bailey to contracts. Rookie Glenn Robinson spurned the NFL's Baltimore Colts and also signed with Chicago. Scott Lewis of Grambling was signed to add speed and depth to the defense. The Chicago secondary consisted of standouts Harry Howard, a rookie from Ohio State, and Joe Womack at cornerback. Chicago also signed Wake Forest All-American kicker/punter Chuck Ramsey to handle the kicking game.
One day, from the teams' offices, owner Tom Origer sat looking out his window contemplating the beginning of the WFL season. He told Chicago Tribune writer Clifford Terry, "I've never seen something like this put together." "It was spontaneous combustion, like an A-bomb. These clubs are good, and I'm really worried. I thought at the beginning that we were so far ahead of the others. Well, we're not. Southern California should be the best this year, and Birmingham and Hawaii have good players signed. By next year or the year after, they'll be able to beat two-thirds of the NFL clubs." He later told Chicago Tribune writer Robert Markus he was ready to invest $4 million in the WFL, but wouldn't pay "box car" figures for marquee players. Origer was interested in Bear linebacker Doug Buffone, but wasn't interested in his asking price of $300,000 for three years, and a $100,000 signing bonus. The Fire also wanted to sign running back John Brockington from the Green Bay Packers, but he was asking more than $1 million to sign for three years. "I thought about things like how many season tickets his name (Brockington) would have sold", Origer reflected. "Would it have sold 5,000? I just don't think any player is worth what Brockington was asking." Origer, on the eve of the teams' first game commented that all the Fire needed to do was win, and put a good product on the field. "If we average 30,000 we might break even. 35,000 and we'd have a small miracle. Less than 30,000 and we will have done a lousy job", claimed Origer. The Chicago Fire set out to make a name for itself and the WFL.
On a humid Chicago night, 42,100 screaming Chicago Fire fans waved red and black flags as the Fire, and the WFL, became a reality. In the pregame festivities, a hot air balloon with a huge Chicago Fire logo lifted off from mid-field. The Fire-ettes, Chicago 's cheerleaders, entertained the crowd as the players for the Fire and the Houston Texans were announced. Soldier Field took on a carnival atmosphere as clowns and acrobats, dressed in fire fighting garb, entertained the crowd. Virgil Carter, the Fire's famed quarterback, passed for a touchdown and Mark Kellar ran effectively throughout the game, getting crucial first downs and tough yardage. The city of Chicago, which already had the moody Dick Allen playing baseball for the White Sox, found another hero in wide receiver James Scott. Scott was found in a Gladwater, Texas hotel room and flown home in time for the game- he caught a touchdown pass from Virgil Carter. The Fire defeated the Houston Texans 17-0 and was 1-0.
28 miles north of Chicago, at the Fire's Lake Forrest College practice facility the "Fire-men" (as they were being called by local media) prepared under the July sun for their next game against the Jacksonville Sharks. The Sharks, winners of their first game (14-7 against New York), boasted former University of Name Florida running back "Touchdown" Tommy Durrance. The "Okie" defense would have its work cut out for it. Shark quarterback Kay Stephenson would be throwing passes behind a veteran offensive line and the defense would feature cornerback Alvin Wyatt, rookie Mike Townsend, defensive end Ike Lassiter and rookie linebacker Glenn Gaspard.. Before the game coach Spavital told reporters, "I'm pleased with our passing attack, but now we have to get our running game on the move."
Wednesday, July 17th, Soldier Field, Chicago. 29,508 fans sat under beautiful summer skies and watched as the "Fire-men" ran out of the tunnel under a cloud of red and black balloons. The fans shouted, a fire alarm sounded, and the "Fire-ettes" danced up a storm. The Fire and Sharks played a hard fought match, but the strangest play of the game came when the Fire lined up for a field goal attempt before half time. On the field, big Mick Heinrich hunched his big frame over the ball. Looking between his legs, at the field that was upside down, Heinrich waited for Joe Womack, the holder, the call the signals. Before the snap, Heinrich lost a contact lens, and sent the ball rolling to Womack. Kicker Chuck Ramsey stopped in mid-stride and looked up at the hard charging Jacksonville defenders. Womack picked up the ball and ran for his life, dodging a diving Shark defender. Womack, running to his right, was yelling "Ice, Ice" which meant for his teammates to set up blocking for a possible run. "Nobody heard me", said Womack after the game,. "the crowd was screaming. So I just took off!" Womack bolted into the end zone for a touchdown to give the Fire a 15-8 lead.
In the fourth quarter, with Jacksonville leading 22-15, the game took a turn towards the surreal. With 8:20 left, firefly receiver Jack Dolbin was involved in a pass interference call about 8 yards down field that raised more than one eyebrow. "It was a comeback pass," said Dolbin. "I was hit when I ran back the first time on a fake, then hit again when I moved outside. The guy defending me was beat and knew it, so he bumped me." The WFL rule book stated that the bumping rule applied to within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage. The WFL had announced that they would change the "bump" rule to go outside 3 yards of the line of scrimmage, the next week, leaving the flag to stand and give the "Fire-men" a crucial first down and keep the drive alive. From the one yard line, "Baby Bull" (Mark Kellar) ran around the left side of the Jacksonville defense, knocking a Shark right flat on his back in the end zone. The game was tied 22-22. "I'm not a speedster and everybody knows that," said Kellar in the Fire locker room, "They have time me in the 40 with a calendar." Soldier Field was bedlam. The P.A. speakers blasted Johnny Cash's song "Ring of Fire" after the Fire touchdown. Sirens blared and red lights were flashing- the crowd was turning into a uncontrollable mob. Fire owner Tom Origer loved every minute of it.
Late in the game, the Fire again drove on the Sharks. With Mark Kellar and Bob Wyatt running the ball and Virgil Carter passing, the "Fire-men" reached the Jacksonville 13. With time ticking down, and the Chicago faithful growing louder and louder, Mark Kellar crashed up the middle to the Shark 9. Kicker Chuck Ramsey had been watching and waiting for his chance. Spavital gave him the nod. The noise of the Chicago fans was deafening. Ramsey ran onto the field with only: 06 remaining in the game. The Fire and Sharks lined up. Mick Heinrich made a perfect snap and Ramsey launched a 26-yard field goal to win the game 25-22. As soon as the kick was good the Fire bench emptied as players swarmed around Ramsey and celebrated at mid-field. Sirens went off, and the "Firemobile" (a miniature car that was actually a Chicago Fire helmet) looped around the team- lights flashing. On the sidelines, a dejected Bud Asher couldn't believe it. The Fire were 2-0, Jacksonville 1-1.
Chicago was ablaze with the WFL and the Fire. The city finally had a winner and the football faithful of Chicago lined up to pay homage to the team. Fire tickets were selling fast, and fans were paying cold hard cash for every seat- something that would not be repeated in every city of the WFL. At 2-0, the "Fire-men" went on a road trip that would take them to Portland, Oregon and Honolulu. Feeling good about their home wins and their fan support the Fire looked forward to traveling out west. In Portland, Oregon the Fire was the guests for the Storms' first home game. The city of Portland was anticipating a great game. Although the team played its first two games on the road, ratings from TV were in record numbers. The Fire came to Portland with red hot Virgil Carter leading the charge. Wide receiver James Scott had 14 catches in his first two games, and "Baby Bull" Mark Kellar was running hard.
19,358 fans in Civic Stadium watched as the Fire took advantage of several Storm turnovers en route to a 29-22 win. Carter hit on 10 of 18 attempts for 206 yards and the Fire capitalized on a fumble and a blocked field goal attempt to win. Chicago blazed out to a 22-7 lead before the Storm could get its offense going. Mark Kellar ran for 73 yards on 18 carries, and James Scott caught 3 passes for 87 yards and Jack Dolbin caught 3 for 58 yards. The Fire defense limited Storm quarterback Greg Barton to completing 9 of 14 for 93 yards.
3-0, Chicago traveled to Hawaii for a Sunday afternoon game. Under the Island skies, the Chicago team started a fire that consumed everything in its path. The Fire routed the Hawaiians 53-29 as Mark Kellar scored five touchdowns (a WFL record) and Virgil Carter completed 17 of 25 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns. The Fire started the blaze early. Virgil Carter hit James Scott with a 31-yard pass. Pinder ran for 29 yards, then 7, and Kellar rammed it over from the four yard line. Chicago added the action point and led 8-0. Kellar scored the Fire's next two touchdowns and the Fire converted the action point after Carter hit Jack Dolbin on a 33-yard touchdown pass. Before many of the Hawaii fans had actually found their seats Chicago led 30-0. The rest was history. The Hawaii offense went up in flames, and Chicago 's defense limited the Hawaiians to only 21 yards rushing the entire game. In a rowdy Fire dressing room coach Jim Spavital said the difference in the game was a "few breaks in the first half." Virgil Carter added, "Honestly, I thought Hawaii had a pretty good team. Unfortunately, they just ran into us when we put it all together. In other games we were in positions to score, but didn't and wound up with 20 points. This time we did and got 50. If we played like we did against Portland (last Wednesday night) they might have beat us."
The Chicago Fire returned to the " Name Windy City " after their successful road trip. At 4-0, the team surprised Coach Jim Spavital. Owner Tom Origer was also pleased with the west coast trip and praised his players for their performance while playing two games in four days. Origer was also pleased with the support of the local fans and the media. The Fire drew 42,000 for their game against Houston, and 29,000 for Jacksonville. With the Fire at 4-0, the Florida Blazers came to town.
A Soldier Field crowd of 31,193 packed the stadium on the shore of Name Lake Michigan as the "Fire-men" hosted the Blazers. The cigar-chewing owner of the Fire, Tom Origer, sat high above the field over the thousands and wore a huge grin. What he was about to witness could have made him turn in his cigar for a couple of hard drinks.
The Blazers opened up the scoring with Rod Fosters' dramatic 86-yard punt return through a sluggish and poor-tackling Chicago special team. The action point was good and the Blazers led 8-0 at the end of the first quarter. The Fire came back, ignited by a 20-yard Kellar burst up the middle where he dragged linebacker Eddie Sheats to the Florida 3. Then Kellar took the snap, lowered his head, and rammed through a sea of red jerseys and bent the Blazer defense to his will for a Chicago touchdown. The action point pass was deflected by Miller Farr, and fell incomplete as Florida held a 8-7 led. Then Florida came right back. In the Blazer huddle, quarterback Bob Davis called for a pass. As he came to the line, the Fire defense, wild-eyed, and ready was like a herd waiting to charge. As the lines collided, Davis dropped back and hit receiver Matt Maslowski at the Chicago 22. Maslowski, after the leaping catch, regained his balance and straddled the sideline down to the Chicago 3. Tommy Reamon then ran for a touchdown and made it 16-7 Florida.
On the turf of Soldier Field, Virgil Carter leaned on one knee scanning the players in the huddle; Guy Murdock, Mike Sikich, Dave Bradley, Steve Wright, Glenn Hyde were the offensive line, Mark Kellar and Bob Wyatt the running backs, James Scott and Jack Dolbin receivers with tight end Don Burchfield. Carter called for a "go" pattern. The Fire broke the huddle and came to the line. The crowd filled the Chicago night with noise. Under the lights Carter scanned over the Florida secondary for a weakness in the coverage. Miller Farr, Billy Hayes, RickieHarris and Chuck Beatty stood ready, motionless, with their sights on Carter. Carter called "set" and the entire line snapped into their full stance with the precision of a drill team. "Hike", Carter took the snap, and faded back. The sound of fury filled the air, as Louis Ross came in from defensive end, Carter heaved the ball to a streaking Jack Dolbin. Dolbin hauled in the pass and ran into the end zone. The score was now 16-14 Florida. Soldier Field exploded. The roughshod Fire, refusing to die, was once again back in the game.
The Fire defense held the Blazers in check. Mick Heinrich and Chuck Bailey pressured Bob Davis, and the Blazers' running game was held to minimal yardage by Rudy Kuchenberg, Ron Porter, Chuck Kogut and Ken Sanduck. After a tough series, and a holding penalty, Blazer Billy Hobbs was forced to punt from the back of his end zone. The "Fire-men" brought the rush, and Hobbs barely got off the punt. With only three minutes remaining in the half, Carter again ignited the Fire.
Virgil Carter hit receiver James Scott with a 20-yard pass down at the Florida 2. Chicago then ran two plays straight at the Blazers and was knocked back. With: 37 remaining, Carter took the ball and faded back. Once again, Blazer Louis Ross crashed into lineman Glenn Hyde, throwing him off balance and driving him back under a rush of sweat and fury. Ross got around Hyde and dove into Virgil Carter. As Carter felt the force of the hit, he let the ball go over the out-stretched hands of another defender. The pass threaded through two Blazer defenders and into the sure-hands of a diving James Scott in the back of the end zone. Chicago led at half time 21-16. Chicago rushed for 110 yards in the first half and planned a heavy diet of the "Baby Bull" for Florida linebackers Mike McBath, Larry Ely and Billy Hobbs.
In the third quarter it was a different game. Two huge Fire mistakes sent the game out of control. On fourth down at the Chicago 42, Chuck Ramsey's punt attempt was blocked by Blazer cornerback Lenard Bryant, who picked up the ball at the 6 and ran it in for a score. Less than two minutes later, Virgil Carter dropped back to pass and was crushed under the pass rush of Mike McBath and Ernie Calloway, but threw a desperation pass. The pass landed squarely in the hands of linebacker Billy Hobbs who ran through the confused Fire offense for another touchdown. Suddenly, Florida led 31-21. In the press box, Origer let out a blast of obscenities that had his assistants scrambling. As quick as lightning strikes, the Fire was out of it. Demoralized, the Fire went on to lose 46-21. In the Fire locker room, Coach Jim Spavital told the Chicago Tribune, "I blame myself. We made every possible mistake out there tonight. Special teams really let us down with the punt return and the blocked field goal" Fire linebacker Ron Porter added, "I've never played on a team that was sharp all the time. I was with a great Minnesota team that lost to Atlanta and never should have."
The Fire was 4-1 and in a battle for the premier spot in the WFL's Central Division. After the Florida debacle, the "Fire-men" were looking to get back on track against the Philadelphia Bell. The "King and his Court" came to the city of Chicago. Bell quarterback "King" Corcoran came to Chicago as one the WFL's premier passers. The Bell also ran a complicated offense with many different formations and patterns. Coach Ron Waller's teams loved to wreak havoc on defenses. The Fire would be put to the test. 27,607 fans packed Soldier Field in Chicago. The Fire hot off their first loss of the year came out flat against a dangerous Bell team. Corcoran led the Bell down field, and Claude Watts scored form the six to give Philadelphia a 8-3 lead. Chicago came back, and Virgil Carter hit Cyril Pinder with a 6-yard touchdown pass and Mark Kellar added a one-yard run as Chicago took a 18-15 lead to the locker room at half time. The Fire went on to win a cliff-hanger 32-29.
With his team back on the winning track, Jim Spavital and the Fire traveled to Ypsilanti, Michigan to play the Detroit Wheels. After a scoreless first quarter, the Fire erupted for 28 points in the second quarter and then held on to defeat the Wheels 35-23. The Fire got on the board when Cyril Pinder dove over from the three yard line for a 7-0 Fire lead. Then Mark Kellar runs through the Detroit defense for a 15-yard touchdown, and Chicago lead 14-0. The Wheels, playing without starting quarterback Bubba Wyche, drove down the field and on a Eric Guthrie pass to Jim Rathje cut the lead to 14-8. With 10,300 Wheels fans on their feet, Mike Livingston kicked off to the Fire's Walter Rhone. As the ball came towards Rhone on the Fire 10 yard line, he gathered it in, burst through a wave of Wheels' defenders, cut to the sideline and out ran the last Detroit defender for a 90 yard kickoff return and a 21-8 Chicago lead. The Wheels fans were silenced. The Fire ran up a 35-8 lead before Detroit scored two late touchdowns, but the game was over. The Fire improved to 6-1.
On August 29th the Fire hosted the undefeated Birmingham Americans at Soldier Field. The Americans 7-0 came to Chicago as the first-place team in the WFL and boasted the hot-hand of quarterbacks George Mira and Matthew Reed and the powerful running attack of Paul Robinson and Charlie Harraway. In the WFL's first "showdown" game, 44,732 fans filled Soldier Field and a national television audience of millions of other football fans watched the Thursday night match. The WFL had arrived in Chicago, and the attendance proved that they could be considered "major league". The Fire, in their biggest game of the young season self-destructed. Birmingham defeated the Chicago 22-8, and despite the close score, dominated the game.
The Americans rolled up a 8-0 lead when Jimmy Edwards ran for a two yard touchdown, after the Americans drove down field using their running game and punishing the Fire defense for 57-yards in 12 plays. After a short punt by the Fire's Chuck Ramsey, the Americans drove 69 yards in 11 plays and George Mira scrambled out of the pocket and hit Paul Robinson for a 19-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Down 14-0 the Fire began to self-destruct. On its next offensive series, American linebacker Warren Capone intercepted a Virgil Carter pass, and the following series Jay Casey recovered a fumble for the Americans. With little time remaining in the second quarter, the Americans elected to go for more points and try to put the game out of reach. Jack Gotta called for a pass. American quarterback Matthew Reed threw deep to Alfred Jenkins but Fire defensive back Harry Howard intercepted the ball.
On the sidelines, Fire coach Jim Spavital and his players seemed to come to life. Quarterback Virgil Carter told reporters after the game, "that (the interception) got us going". The Fire offense ignited. Carter hit Don Burchfield for 17 yards, then James Scott for 20. Birmingham's' front four were putting pressure on Carter, but he simply rolled out to his right or left and picked apart the frantic American secondary. With Chicago on the Birmingham 28 yard line and only :02 showing on the clock, Virgil Carter threw a perfect pass to Scott in the end zone for a touchdown and cut the lead to 14-8.
In the third quarter, the Fire defense began to shut down the Americans. Rallying behind the Fire's late touchdown before half time, Chicago limited the Americans running game and kept receiver Alfred Jenkins in check. The Fire offense although again self-destructed. With third down at the Fire 28 trailing 14-8, Virgil Carter sprinted out as he was doing all evening and spotted Jack Dolbin outrunning his defender and hit him with a perfect pass that bounced through his hands. Dolbin, in the open field could have tied the game. On another play a Carter pass bounced off of Dolbin's chest, and a pass to Mark Kellar, with a huge wall of Fire blocking in front of him, skipped through his hands. Kellar, at midfield, stood head down, and starred at the ball in disgust. James Scott also dropped a first-down pass that hit him in the hands. Throughout the game, Jack Dolbin and James Scott, the leading receivers in the WFL, were dropping passes that they had caught with ease for seven weeks.
In the fourth quarter, the Americans embarked on a 66-yard, 9 play drive that ended with running back Art Cantrelle scoring on a sweep for a 22-8 Birmingham lead. At the final gun the Americans remained undefeated. Birmingham simply wore out the Fire defense. As much as the Fire receivers had stone hands, the defense played one of its best games of the season. The Fire defense was just on the field too much. "Our defense did the job," said linebacker Rudy Kuchenberg, "But we're a team and WE lost as a team." In the Fire locker room, coach Jim Spavital said, "I think we have the best receivers in the league. We must have dropped seven passes out there. Two receivers leading the league and all of a sudden they start dropping passes. We wanted to do what we normally do, but they took everything away from us. Losing Cyril Pinder midway through the second period (following a 38 yard run with a Carter pass) didn't help." Spavital added, "I felt we wouldn't have to do anything to get them up for the game, being Birmingham was undefeated and it was for first place and everything. I tried to play it down, figuring that in a game like this the players would get themselves up. Then too, I was afraid since we have three more games coming up real quick that we might get on a roller coaster and go up and down too quickly. If I had it to do over, I'd sure talk to them."
The pressure of the game showed the most on the face of Fire receiver Jack Dolbin. In front of his locker, face in hands, his uniform still on, Dolbin was crying so hard he could hardly talk. "I wanted to have a good game so badly," he whispered. "I can't explain it, I can't explain anything. All I know is I was dropping passes out there, and I had no excuses." The entire Fire team had to face the sad music; they dropped an important game that they all knew they could have won.
The Fire, 6-2, would then embark on a three-game, thirteen day schedule that would be the ultimate "trail by fire" for the team. Chicago was about to test its limits against the WFL. Chicago 's first game in thirteen days took them to sunny Southern California to play the Sun. The key to the game would be the pass rush of the Sun. Linebackers Jim Baker, Eric Patton, Ken Lee and Jim Buckmon would have to put pressure on Virgil Carter to stop Chicago. The Fire would counter with "Baby Bull" Mark Kellar.
27,133 at Anaheim Stadium welcomed Chicago with a chorus of boos and cat-calls. The Fire answered back with touchdowns and field goals. Quarterback Virgil Carter, set up behind a formidable pass-blocking wall of Al Jenkins, Dave Bradley, Guy Murdock, Mike Sikich and Steve Wright, and knocked out the Sun in the first half. Carter drove the Fire down field at will and hit Jack Dolbin, Jim Seymour and James Scott with first half touchdowns. Chicago ran roughshod over the Sun, building a 25-15 half time lead. In the second half, a Fire defense anchored by linebackers Rudy Kuchenberg and Ron Porter shut down Sun quarterback Tony Adams on six consecutive series. Fire tackle Chuck Bailey was another figure in the game, sacking Adams twice. Mark Kellar, who ran like a 22-year old Jim Taylor, was the blood and guts of Chicago 's second half offense. Kellar's bull-like charges at the Sun line enabled the Fire to retain possession most of the half. Kellar added 118 yards on 30 carries and Chicago whipped Southern California 32-22. The Fire registered 24 first downs to the Sun's 13, ran for 174 yards to Southern Cal 's 92 and improved their record to 7-2. Fire coach Jim Spavital, drenched in sweat, whipped his forehead and said wearily, "It (the game) was the toughest, hardest-hitting game we've been involved in." The Fire had come back from their loss to Birmingham in grand fashion, but the team was about to make WFL history and its legacy would not be easy one. The Chicago Fire celebrated their last WFL victory.
At the end of nine weeks of play, the Fire found themselves with a 7-2 won-lost record and poised with the Central Division elite, Birmingham and Memphis. On September 7, 1974 the Fire faced the 9-0 Birmingham Americans in what was to be a pivotal game in their brief history. Playing through the torrential downpour of Hurricane Carmen, 54,872 fans at Legion Field watched as the American kicker Earl Stark kicked a 32-yard field goal with 52 seconds remaining to defeat the Fire 41-40. Chicago quarterback Virgil Carter threw five touchdown passes; three to James Scott and one each to Mark Kellar and Jim Seymour. The Fire fell to 7-3.
The Chicago Fire started their second half of the W.F.L. season full of optimism and a 7-3 won-lost record. Then their flame dwindled. On September 11, 1974 the Fire hosted the Southern California Sun. The running of Mark Kellar and the defensive coverage of cornerback Harry Howard proved to gain the players "most valuable game honors". With the Fire leading 28-23, most of the fans began leaving Soldier Field anxiously awaiting next week's showdown with the Memphis Southmen. With two minutes remaining, and the Sun backed up against their own 22, Tony Adams mounted a desperation drive. With the Fire defense crashing in from all sides, Adams hit James McAllister with a 8 yard pass and a first down to keep the Sun's slim chances alive. In the huddle, Adams told his players that this play was "the one". He instructed his receivers to "go deep" and he would throw as long and as hard as he could. The Sun broke the huddle. Only scattered cheers rose out from the 5,000 fans that were still in their seats as Adams and the Sun came to the line. The Fire front four hunched over into their "bull-like" stance. Adams called the signals from the Sun 44. A silence fell over Soldier Field. Adams took the snap and was under the charge of the Chicago defense when he heaved a 56 yard pass into the Soldier Field lights. Down field, a streaking Keith Denson was followed in hot pursuit by Fire cornerback Walter Rhone. Denson and Rhone were at break neck speed and charging down the field as the gold WFL football came out of the lights and into their field of vision. Both players leaped high in the air, with everything in their power, and a diving Keith Denson caught his first WFL pass falling backwards over the end zone marker and with Fire defender Walter Rhone draped around him. Denson fell into the end zone for a remarkable touchdown and the Sun won the game 31-28. In a silent Chicago locker room after the game, the Fire players sat around shaking their heads. Coach Jim Spavital could only say, "A good team doesn't let things like that happen." The team, the fans, and owner Tom Origer were in complete shock. The Fire, never know for protecting a lead, was reduced to smoldering ashes with the Memphis Southmen coming to town.
The loss to Southern California was even more damaging than Chicago would realize. Running back Mark Kellar was experiencing pain in his foot. Trainers and team doctors examined Kellar and found that he was suffering from a broken bone that would sideline him for the season. James Scott, one of the WFL's top receivers, sustained a knee injury that would also end his WFL season. As the Fire management pondered the impact of losing their top specialists, the team prepared for the Memphis Southmen.
26,678 fans came out to Soldier Field to cheer on the Fire. The ugly signs of a season lost began to show. Disinterest and disgust surfaced for the first time as the Fire was humiliated 25-7. In the third quarter, fans bounced a red-and-black beach ball for entertainment before it was confiscated by an usher and in another section of the stadium a near riot broke out when a security guard confiscated beer from a crowd of Fire fans. The fans even booed Virgil Carter, the engineer of many of the Fire's wins. Memphis gained 25 first downs to Chicago 's 13 ran for 252 yards and bulled their way to a 25-0 lead before Chicago even got on the scoreboard. Late in the fourth quarter, Carter completed six passes in a row and hit Jack Dolbin for the only Fire touchdown. He also took a savage hit from Southmen Festus Cotton, and rising to his feet, felt a sharp pain in his passing hand.
The Fire suffered another collapses in the defensive secondary. Harry Howard and Joe Womack took themselves out of play on several third down situations, leaving Memphis to gain crucial yardage. After the game Spavital was obviously agitated for the first time this season, "I'm tired of calling it rookie mistakes; we simply let them come up with big third-down plays too often. After 11 games, you're just knot supposed to be making these kind of mistakes."
With the Fire at 7-5, and losers of three games in a row, the coaching staff brought in several players from NFL camps to improve the team. The Fire added ex-NFL great Leroy Kelly at running back and defensive back Craig O'Sadnick from the St. Louis Cardinals. Spavital added, "Having so many new people in at one time tears us up. Team unity wasn't there. Some of these guys had only worked out a couple of days with us. We made some good changes, but guys are always looking over their shoulders to see if they'll be around next time." The Fire suited seven new men for the Memphis game, including Leroy Kelly. Kelly came into the game with two minutes left in the half and promptly missed a block that led to Virgil Carter being sacked for a 13 yard loss. "Kelly will be ready for next week," vowed Spavital.
During the week, quarterback Virgil Carter began experiencing difficulty with his passing hand. As the pain increased the Chicago coaching staff became more worried. A watchful eye was kept on Carter during the teams' practice as the Fire tried to "break in" several new players. The Chicago locker room looked "like a train station" claimed offensive tackle Steve Wright. Players were coming and going as the coaching staff searched for the answer to the teams' three game losing streak. Defensive back Ralph Anderson was brought in from the New England Patriots, receiver Lonnie Crittenden was seeing more playing time at receiver with Scott out for the season, Mike Reppond was also brought in at wide receiver and linebacker Tom Roussel was contributing on the defensive line. Quarterback Leo Hart was signed as an insurance policy against Virgil Carter's ailing hand.
Chicago traveled to Orlando, Florida to face a tough Florida Blazer team. In Orlando, the Fire season continued to go up in flames. Without a passing attack, or any pretense of a secondary, the Fire were routed by Florida 29-0. The injury riddled Fire received more bad new as quarterback Virgil Carter left the game in the first half with pain in his index finger of his passing hand. Jim Spavital and his staff hoped he would be all right for the Florida game but he clearly wasn't. After four passes Carter left the field, it would be his last WFL game. Without Virgil Carter, the Blazers rushed the Chicago line and defended the run. Leroy Kelly, in his first start of the season, rushed for 87 yards on 17 carries. Back up quarterback Leo Hart completed only 9 of 32 passes for 110 yards. A sweaty Spavital moaned following the Fire's fourth straight loss; "Virg should be ready next week. We'll be looking at his finger again to determine how bad it is. But he should be back. My God, I hope he can come back."
The Fire secondary made quarterback Bob Davis look like Joe Namath. Davis completed 18 of 25 passes for 297 yards and three touchdowns. This week's Fire victims were cornerbacks Walter Rhone and Randy Richardson. Spavital planned on looking at even more players in a frantic effort to improve the team, a tactic that is beginning to grate on the Fire veterans. Chicago players have been grumbling the last few weeks about the frantic changes in personnel. The Fire coaching staff seemed to be in a panic. The Fire, now 7-6, was fading fast from the WFL playoff picture, and the harsh reality was reflected in the empty seats of Soldier Field.
In the throws of a fading season, Spavital said, "We've got to continue to improve ourselves; we'll probably make some more moves. Look at Minnesota (of the NFL) they brought in three guys yesterday."
The physical report on Virgil Carter was crushing- a broken finger that required surgery. Carter was lost for the remainder of the WFL season, as was Mark Kellar and receiver James Scott. Tight end Don Burchfield was also hurt. The once lethal Fire offense was now led by quarterback Leo Hart, running back Leroy Kelly and receivers Jack Dolbin and Lonnie Crittenden. The offensive line had two new starters, one due to Steve Wright's retirement, and the defense lost safety Joe Womack to injury. The Chicago roster began to look more like an emergency ward waiting list.
The bruised and battered Fire returned to Chicago for a game against the Chartotte Stars (who had just moved from New York ). The game, originally scheduled for Wednesday, October 2nd was switched to October 3rd to accommodate TVS' "Game of the Week". Officials at TVS, scared at the prospect of thousands of empty seats in Detroit for the Wheels-Bell game, switched the televised game to Chicago. Many of the Chicago area fans weren't notified of the change in dates and on October 2nd 5,000 Fire fans came out to Soldier Field. A security guard, refusing to open the gates, convinced the crowd that the game was the next night. As the fans disappeared into the Soldier Field parking lot, one fan turned around and shouted, "Yeah….but with all the fuck ups in this league I hope the teams show up!"
On October 3rd the fans did show up. 22,354 Fire faithful came out to see the Fire against the now Charlotte Stars. When former Fire quarterback Virgil Carter was undergoing surgery for his injured passing hand, Bill Cappleman was signing a contract to quarterback the Fire. "I've only been here eight days and I signed my contract at 3 o'clock this afternoon," Cappleman told reporters. Bill Cappleman had played for the Detroit Lions of the NFL before being released, and offered a glimpse of veteran experience over center that the Fire desperately needed.
Under the Soldier Field lights, Stars quarterback Tom Sherman shot up the Fire's secondary completing 7 of 13 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns, for an average of 30 yards a pass. Sherman hit Al Barnes and Bert Askson on touchdown passes of 63 and 45 yards in the second half. Cornerback Larry Shears intercepted a Cappleman pass and returned it for a touchdown and a 33-15 Charlotte half time lead. The Fire secondary was playing as a unit for only the second game, lining up Randy Richardson, Ralph Anderson, Craig O'Sadnick and Harry Howard. The results were the same. The Fire lost their fifth straight game 41-30, and stood at 7-7 for the season.
On October 4, 1974 Fire owner Tom Origer, frustrated with his team and the fading glory of the WFL, fired a shot heard around the league. Overcome with frustration and a five-game losing streak, storm clouds began to hang over the Chicago Fire and a furious wind blew in from Lake Michigan. Origer, assessed with a $60,000 fee to assist the financially failing Detroit Wheels had had enough. Gary Davidson and his "cronies" were wasting too much money and someone had to make a stand. In an interview with Chicago Tribune writer Robert Marks, Origer, who always believed the WFL should have began as an eight-team league, disagreed openly with Davidson. He claimed that Davidson simply wanted the "up-front money" for the league franchises. "Anybody who can scrap up $250,000 gets a franchise in this league", claimed Origer. He added, "They cared more about that than they cared about themselves." He also attacked Davidson's integrity regarding back ground checks on potential owners and called for his immediate resignation. From a 10th floor Drake Hotel suite in Chicago (where Davidson was preparing to attend the Fire-Stars game) Davidson denied most of Origer's contentions. "Tom has been involved long enough to know there are enough pressures in the league right now that we don't need any problems created by internal disagreements," said Davidson. "Tom and I agree on most things but he tends to make public statements that mislead people and it hurts the league."
On the field, the Chicago Fire hosted the Florida Blazers. 23,298 watched in Soldier Field as the game was scheduled between the two clubs when the WFL announced that the Detroit and Jacksonville franchises had folded. The Fire jumped out to a early 3-0 lead on a 22-yard Allan Watson field goal, and the Fire defense led by Rudy Kuchenberg, held Florida without a first down in the opening quarter, and cornerback Ralph Anderson intercepted a Bob Davis pass to kill another Florida drive. The Blazers did score in the second quarter. When the Fire was unable to capitalize on a Ron Porter fumble recovery, Lonnie Crittenden kicked a miserable 17 yard punt- Florida was in business. Quarterback Bob Davis scored on a one yard run for a 8-3 Blazer lead. In the third quarter the Fire defense again held, as the offense flickered. Florida added a Richard James touchdown and went into half time with a 15-3 lead.
The Fire and Blazers scrapped through a third quarter that was almost dead even. The Fire defense continued to play well, as the Florida offense committed five turnovers. Chicago came close to breaking the game open when quarterback Bill Cappleman threw a 69-yard touchdown bomb to Jack Dolbin, who had Billy Hayes badly beaten, but Dolbin dropped the ball. In the fourth quarter, the Fire defense, out of miracles, went up in flames. The Blazers scored 28 points and routed the Fire 45-17. Chicago had fallen to 7-8. Running back Leroy Kelly, the Fire's star player, left the game in the fourth quarter with an injury, adding his name to a long hospital list of injured Fire-men. As the final seconds ticked off the Soldier Field scoreboard, the few Fire fans (about 7,000) turned their backs and headed home. The Fire had lost their sixth game in a row with no end in sight.
On October 16,1974 the Chicago Tribune featured a photo of boxing champion Muhammad Ali standing over George Foreman as he fell to the canvas after a savage left-right combination in the eight round. Foreman was counted out. The photograph couldn't have been more appropriate. In bold letters below the photograph read the words, "FIRE STAYS IN WFL; DAVIDSON RESIGNS". Tom Origer, just a few days earlier, had delivered his own knock-out punch. Threatening to withdraw his franchise, Origer told his fellow owners he could not exist with the fast-talking commissioner. "If they (the WFL) had stayed on their self-destruct course, I would have said the ‘hell with it,' Origer said. The Fires' executive vice president Al Lange added, "Owners and people with money will be making the decisions now." The WFL also added it would move its headquarters from Newport Beach, California (dubbed " Name Fun Type City" by the owners) to New York city in 1975. In a final comment to the Chicago Tribune Origer added, "There's been a lost of money bleeped away by the league, and the owners knew that. I don't have to tell the owners that they've been paying the money. I think there'll be some real belt-tightening now and the budget will be chopped drastically."
With the new ownership in charge the WFL seemed to have a new lease on life. The Fire continued to lose. The offense was a complete disaster. Bill Cappleman and Leo Hart couldn't move the team. Leroy Kelly ran for daylight, when their was daylight and the defense was simply awful. As the Fire's chartered plane landed in Charlotte, Coach Jim Spavital hoped for a small miracle- that the Hornets wouldn't show up. The Hornets, led by Don Highsmith, routed the Fire 27-0. Chicago lost their seventh game in a row, and in an awful chain of events, their top receiver Jack Dolbin, to an injury. Jack Dolbin would be lost for the season.
The once proud Fire was crumbling. and seemed to be at the brink of absolute collapse. Injuries had shattered the team, and the once promising fan support was disappearing. The next week the Fire was bombed by Hawaii 60-17, for their eighth loss in a row, and a 7-10 record.
In a emergency meeting of WFL officials, Tom Origer took a second shot at the WFL. Headlines in the Chicago Tribune read, "ORIGER SETS TO PUT OUT FIRE". The Tribune reported that Origer had sent a letter to the various WFL owners stating he was resigning from the league for "financial reasons". Origer had pitched an idea to his WFL brethren that they stop the season after 17 games and have Memphis and Birmingham play for the championship- it was turned down. Now Origer, facing three more weeks of competition, and no home games for additional revenue was "walking away".
While WFL officials met with Origer, a confused Chicago team traveled to Philadelphia to play the Bell. For financial reasons the Fire left Chicago that morning, landed, practiced, had their pregame meal and went to the stadium, and nearly beat the Bell. Philadelphia defeated Chicago 37-31, in the last minute with a short screen pass from "King" Corcoran to Claude Watts from their 5-yard line that turned into a 80-yard gain and led the winning score. The Fire offense, behind new quarterback Bubba Wyche, finally showed some life, but the defense couldn't stop the Bell offense.
Memphis defeated Chicago 49-24, for their WFL record eleventh loss in a row. Not even the lowly Detroit Wheels had accomplished such a feat.
Origer told the Chicago Tribune on October 29th that he was owed no money and was not headed to the poor house in his fire-red convertible. Origer stated three options left open to him: First, he could find investors willing to come in for as much as 50% of the franchise. Second, he could sell the team outright- not only to Chicagoans (it was rumored that a groups from Indianapolis, Tulsa , and San Antonio were interested) and third, as a last resort, draw on a $150,000 letter of credit assigned to him by Memphis, Philadelphia and Hawaii owners. Origer claimed, "the money isn't a handout. I wanted the league to end the season after 17 games, they wouldn't go along with it. I told them if they wanted me to continue they would have to post letters of credit for that amount. I should've asked for cash." Origer stated he has lost $800,000 this year and declared the WFL instability, along with the recession prompted him to pull out rather than spend more money in vain.
Disgusted with his teams' performance, a eleven games losing streak, and a 7-12 won-lost record, Origer refused to send the club to Philadelphia for its final game of the season, forfeited the game. The weary Fire owner, lost close to $1.2 million on the Fire and the WFL. That included the $440,000 he spent to purchase the franchise from Nick J. Meleti in October of 1973. Origer held to a "wait and see" attitude regarding the fate of the WFL. In several Chicagoland papers he was reported as saying, "It doesn't look good for the league at all. I've had a few people express interest in the Fire, but I'm not about to sell them a lemon. All they would be buying is another season of losses. Smart businessmen won't be buying loses the way the economy is now."
One day in November, the newspapers announced the Chicago Fire was officially dead. Despite the ghosts of a few thousand mourners in the stands of Soldier Field there seemed to be little who noticed.
*Virgil Carter was injured playing against Memphis and was lost for the season. He was replaced by Bill Cappleman and then by ex-Wheel Bubba Wyche.
*Mark Kellar was lost for the season against Southern California and was replaced by ex-NFL great Leroy Kelly. Wide receiver James Scott was also injured versus the Sun and replace by Lonnie Crittenden.
*Joe Womack was injured and replaced by Walter Rhone, and Tom Roussel and Chuck Kogut played at RLB.
*Chuck Ramsey was suspended and left the team. He was replaced by Allan Watson.
NOTE: The 1974 Chicago Fire team page was researched and written by Jim Cusano. This page appeared on the former World Football League Hall of Fame Website and is used with permission.
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