It must have seemed like fall came real early to Texas this year. On April 25 the San Antonio Toros, who may well be the best pro football team in the country outside of the NFL, began their season by whomping the Fort Worth Braves 38-21. It was the first game of the Trans-American League, a spring pro football league composed of Dallas (the Rockets, not the Cowboys), Texarkana, Fort Worth and San Antonio, which barely makes it Trans-Texas.
"You are seeing history made," Henry Hight, the Toros' principal owner, said the day of the game. In saner moments, Hight is a partner in an auto-parts business in San Antonio. He has owned the Toros for four years, during which time the club has compiled a 64-10 record and has been perennial champion of the Texas League, in which it plays, more prosaically, in the fall.
"I think we could give an NFL team a good game," said Hight. "I don't say we could beat Baltimore at its best, but we'd do O.K. against some of the others. But they won't play us. We had a game lined up against the Houston Oiler rookies a couple of years ago. They decided against it at the last moment."
He looked up into the stands of San Antonio's Northeast Stadium, where the game was to be played. A sprinkling of fans had filed in; Northeast seats 10,200 and by game time it was roughly half full—at a $6 top.
The Trans-American League is playing a nine-game schedule ending June 26. As an article in the Toros' program puts it, "Why?" The answer: "1) By playing football in the spring and early summer, the Toros will not be competing with the dozens of other high school, college and pro teams in the area. This lack of competition we believe will be reflected in larger crowds. 2) Recognition for the team and league. This is the first bona fide attempt to play spring football. The Toros feel this will bring added local, state and national attention. 3) For the players' benefit. The spring season will end at approximately the same time NFL camps are opening. It will allow the better players in the league to move directly on to NFL camps."
"We got two players who will have a tryout with Oakland this year," Hight said. "Joe Lewallen, a defensive tackle, and Jerry Oliver, an offensive tackle. I think they can play in the NFL. We don't have as many good players as the NFL does, but we got some just as good. I don't know why they call us 'minor.' Who's to say what's minor and what's major? The NFL owners? What happened to the American dream, where anybody can start small and build big?"
Hight's dream is to get an NFL franchise. Failing that, he would like to expand the Trans-American League and make it a third major league. "San Antonio is the 15th largest city in the country," he said. "Who's to say we can't support a major league team?"
Hight once flirted with the idea of jumping north of the border. "I talked to the commissioner of the Canadian League," he said. "He was interested. We could have worked out the travel all right. It could have been a hell of a deal. When word got out I was interested, I must have got 100 phone calls from Americans in the Canadian League wanting to come to the Toros. But the owners in Canada got a little leery. They figured they'd get beat because I'd get all the Americans and they've got quotas on how many Americans they can use. I told them I'd play a quota of Canadians, but it didn't work out. What I figured was, why should I get run out of my own country?"
Despite his ambitions, Hight is no NFL fan. "I'd like to shoot 'em," he said, meaning the owners. "We're all competing for the dollar and they won't play us. How good are they, anyway? I used to be in love with the Chicago Bears, and I figured when they played AFL clubs they'd kill 'em. But Kansas City murdered the Bears.
"I'm like a mouse fighting an elephant. I try all kinds of gimmicks to put some butts in those seats. I offered O. J. Simpson $15,000 a game to play for us. He asked me did I have the money and I said yes. I had to say yes, even if I didn't. It got a lot of ink."
Hight has plans to get more ink when the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Oilers play their annual exhibition game this summer. "They say it's for the Texas pro championship," he said. "I'm going to show up on the field with my club suited up and say, 'How about us?' I'll buy tickets for the players if I have to. They can't throw us out."
Many Toros have had NFL tryouts but only Tackle George Gaiser of Denver has made it. Quarterback Sal Olivas, who led the NCAA in total offense with New Mexico State in 1967, had trials with the Cowboys and the Bears but was turned down for medical reasons.
"I have an undeveloped vertebra in my back," he says. "I've talked to three orthopedic surgeons and they say it's all right to play, my back is strong. Maybe I'll sign a waiver on a back injury and see if they'll give me another shot."
One Toro tackle would just as soon stay where he is. "Every time I make a lot of money, my wife joins me," he says. "That's no problem here."
Alfredo Avila, a very good defensive back, also wants to remain in San Antonio, but his hangup is big cities. "I was raised in Donna, Texas," he says. "That's 7,000 people. I went up to the Redskins for a trial and the big city made me nervous. So I came home."
"We play for fun," says Jerry Bettis, a 5'8", 190-pound running back. He is an Air Force captain stationed at Lackland AFB outside San Antonio, and he has been in the minors for eight years. "The money doesn't matter," he says. "This is a ball."
The Toros and the Braves played like they were having one, which is a good thing, because they were making only about $100 a man. The football was crisp, quick and exciting and the fans showed their appreciation by shouting—a bit ambiguously—"Olé!"
Until he tired late in the game, Olivas threw very well. He had two interceptions in the second half and made the tackles on the interceptors, which can develop your vertebra.
The Toro defensive line averages 257 pounds a man, and it put great pressure on the Brave passers, wiping out one of them. Tackle Marc Allen, a wine salesman, has a fine initial charge plus moves; Lewallen is quick; Defensive End Bill Grindle would probably be playing for Denver if he hadn't refused to have his congenitally deformed elbow operated on; and Defensive End Clarence (Big Dog) Miles had a tryout with Green Bay a few years ago, but that was in the heyday of Willie Davis and Lionel Aldridge.
George Pasterchick, the Toros' coach, doubles as business manager. Lately he has had more to do as coach. In the spring the players are paid on shares of the gate, as are the officials. "A player like Sal Olivas will get, say, 2½ shares," Pasterchick says. "A lineman may get one or a little more. The gate is split 75% for the players, the rest for the clubs."
"Seven thousand, I break even," Hight said after the game. "Ten thousand, I make money. But this was the end of Fiesta Week [San Antonio's answer to Mardi Gras]. A lot of people were tired and they had spent a lot of money. If we play on Saturday night after a normal week, we'll get the 10.
"Why doesn't the NFL come to a man with experience? Like our ballplayers. They go to camp with an NFL club, they've been hitting, playing, they got experience. I'd like to have a league like this for owners. Teach them to lose money so when they come in they're used to it. When I read in the paper the Toros were for sale, I bid for them and I had lots of people coming round saying they were good for 10, 20 thousand. Then it came to the nitty-gritty and there were maybe three, four left. Training camp for owners would be good. I been through it and I know. How come the NFL doesn't know that? They made mistakes I could name but I won't."
Hight watched the last of the fans get into their cars. "Maybe next time I'll let them in free and sell parking space for two bucks a car," he said.