The Reverend Hugh W. Agricola, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Ala., has on occasion delivered the invocation before games played by Bear Bryant's University of Alabama football team. The Reverend is a great believer in the Crimson Tide and he is not above suggesting in his invocations that the Bear's will be done and that Alabama be given the strength to destroy some hapless foe. Last week he was again in the center of Birmingham's Legion Field, although this time the Reverend was petitioning the Lord on behalf of the World Football League. Just before the opening kickoff of the Birmingham Americans-Southern California Sun game he prayed, "Grant to these teams who are meeting here for the first time the zeal, energy and ability to make a contest worthy of this Football Capital."
For some that seemed a lot to ask. Critics, and not only those with a proprietary interest in the NFL, say the WFL is "minor league" and that it won't survive to play a second season. Quality, of course, like ability, is a relative matter. The fact is that 53,231 people, not including the Bear, came out to Legion Field to see what they could see and stayed to cheer and stamp their feet as the hometown Americans shaded the Sun 11-7. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Bell, which the league admits is its weakest franchise, attracted 55,000 people to JFK Stadium for a game with the Portland Storm. That figure included abut 10,000 outright freebies and many others had tickets on some kind of discount deal, but the crowd was remarkable nevertheless, particularly since almost 34,000 were in attendance across the street, witnessing a baseball game between the Phillies and the Dodgers in Veterans Stadium. An announced 258,624 people turned out for the six WFL games in the opening week of action, an average of better than 43,000. Gary Davidson, the league's founder, commissioner and chief optimist, admitted he was "awestruck."
In Jacksonville on Thursday night 59,112 watched the local Sharks edge the New York Stars in the league's first nationally televised game. TV watchers—in New York nearly 25% of the somewhat meager summer audience tuned in, according to early surveys—were reminded again and again by the announcers of the former NFL people evident in the game. For instance, the Stars had, among others, Wide Receiver George Sauer, who caught a touchdown pass, Running Back Bob Gladieux, Defensive Lineman Gerry Philbin and Head Coach Babe Parilli. The WFL had been publicizing such defectors from the old league right along, but the impact of television dramatized it.
Not everything went swimmingly, of course. In Orlando, where the Florida Blazers eked out an 8-7 win over the Hawaiians, the stadium was small (14,000 seats had been added in a hurry to bring capacity to 28,000), the crowd was modest (18,625) and last-minute preparations understandably rushed. City inspectors did not declare the new bleachers safe and sound until the day of the game, and when the man welding the goalposts was asked if they were guaranteed, he answered facetiously, "Only until I drive my truck out of here." The Blazers also had bench trouble. They had to carry the ones in the dressing room out to the sidelines for the game. In Philadelphia, the Bell found the stadium ticket booths locked and had to drill the locks off. A Southern California Sun assistant coach went on a hotel bedcheck the night before the game with an airline stewardess in tow.
And there was one big disappointment—low scoring. Despite a series of rule changes designed to give the offense a boost, only two of the 12 teams scored more than 17 points and in four of the six games the two teams together scored three touchdowns or fewer. At Jacksonville, Davidson accepted congratulations while mumbling, "I wish we'd get some more scoring." He'll get his wish. Defense always has the edge over offense early in the season, and few coaches took advantage of one new rule that offers the biggest advantage to the offense: allowing a player to be in motion toward the line of scrimmage before the snap of the ball—provided that he starts from inside the tight end, doesn't veer toward the line until outside the tight end and is at least one yard behind the line at the snap. Got it?
Despite the lack of points the fans seemed pleased, in good part because the home team won every game. Curiously, in the three games that matched a man with NFL coaching experience against one without it, the have-nots won each time. Florida's margin of victory over the Hawaiians was the "action point," another innovation. Touchdowns in the WFL are worth seven points, and a team may run or pass—but not kick—from the 2½-yard line for an eighth point. Blazer Quarterback Bob Davis passed to Running Back Jim Strong for the winning point in a game that almost certainly would have been a 7-7 tie in the NFL. Chicago, which already has baseball's moody Dick Allen, gained another reluctant hero in Wide Receiver Jim Scott. Scott caught 10 passes in the Fire's 17-0 win over Houston but had jumped the team eight days before the opener and was not discovered until 6:30 on the morning of the game in a Gladewater, Texas motel room.
Another instant star was Philadelphia Quarterback King Corcoran, a flamboyant type who had been cut from five NFL teams and sent packing with the satin sheets he sometimes brought along to training camp. Corcoran completed 21 of 38 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns and skillfully directed a complicated multiple offense to a 33-8 stilling of the Portland Storm.
The game between Jacksonville and New York introduced an instant head coach, Baron (Bud) Asher, whose previous team was New Smyrna Beach (Fla.) High School. Asher, once an NFL scout, was hired by pro football's smallest owner, 5'2", 125-pound Francis Monaco, whose wife Douglas is the team vice-president. Asher was a municipal judge in New Smyrna Beach and currently owns a hotel in Daytona, but he says, "Either you're a football coach or you're not. My record shows I am. I can get the football players you need, and I can coach them to win."
His first win was a tribute to his coaching. The Sharks and the Stars, tied 7-7, were heading toward pro football's first regular-season overtime game—still another WFL departure—when Jacksonville's Ike Lassiter blocked a punt with 2½ minutes to play. The Sharks' Rich Thomann scooped up the ball and ran it to the New York seven from where Jacksonville scored in two plays. After a post-game press conference (during which a grinning Asher held the diminutive Monaco in his arms like a groom carrying a bride across the threshold), the coach explained that the blocked punt resulted from a special rush he had installed specifically for the game. It seems that on a recent Saturday Asher had conducted a team workout in the morning, then boarded a plane to New York. He drove to a high school field out on Long Island where he bought a $2 ticket and sat in the stands as New York scrimmaged Philadelphia. Noting a weakness in the Stars' blocking alignment on punts, he was back in Jacksonville that night designing ways to take advantage of it.
The best match-up of the opening week was in football-happy Birmingham, where the Reverend Agricola made it rather clear whose side he wanted the Lord to take. "May the Sun of California never go down upon the wrath of Americans," he further prayed.
Certainly the Lord seemed to be with Birmingham. Running Back Charlie Harraway, the ex-Redskin who is probably the Americans' highest-paid player, says, "The Birmingham opportunity answered a lot of prayers I have said about things in my life. It was meant for me to come here." Wide Receiver Dennis Ho-man says he was once a hell-raiser but no more. "How can you be a witness for Christ holding a beer in your hand?" he asks. "I poured all my booze out. I know I got that garbage disposal drunk." Ho-man and teammate Denny Duron conducted nightly Bible readings at the team's training camp in Marion, Ala., where the team stayed until the day of the Sun game.
Nevertheless, would the good folks of Birmingham, who think Bear Bryant walks on water, support these parvenus? As one writer asked in The Birmingham News, "How can a dyed-in-the-wool Alabama fan root for somebody who once played for Ohio State or Nebraska?" Whether it was divine intervention or not, the Americans' only touchdown was scored on an interception by an Alabama graduate, Defensive Back Steve Williams (just as the star of Jacksonville's running attack was the University of Florida's Tommy Durrance).
With the good Lord going for them and the promised arrival next season of such NFL standouts as L.C. Greenwood, Ron Jessie, Jim Mitchell and Mike Montgomery—not to mention Kenny Stabler from Oakland a year later—the Americans look like a good bet for the future, as does the WFL.
Boasts Birmingham Coach Jack Gotta, "When Tampa and Seattle join the NFL in 1976, they'll be playing with our Cuts."