There is nothing left of the World Football League but the pieces—pieces of avarice, pieces of bombast, bits of buffoonery, scraps of melancholy, shards of black humor, shreds of dead dreams. All around there is breakage. Perhaps these pieces—disparate, disconnected, scattered—can be put together to tell a more coherent story of this shattered venture than ever existed while it was whole. Perhaps not. It is possible the WFL was not held together by enough intrinsic logic to qualify as coherent. Nevertheless, as a parting salute to an idea that was launched with all the promise of a zeppelin cast in zinc, here is the obituary of the World Football League, in random arrangement of the broken pieces—high points, low points, jokes—which all together may help illuminate the dark and crazy 15 months the WFL was with us.
King Corcoran was a flashy quarterback with the Philadelphia Bell who never viewed the WFL as a first-class operation. He recalled one day this season: "We were in a yellow school bus, clunking along to the stadium to play the Southern California Sun. My God, the bus shook and the back door was open. We tried to get inside the stadium, but the guard wouldn't let us past. He thought we were migrant workers—honest. Finally, Louis Ross, one of our defensive linemen, opened his shirt and showed the guard a Bell T shirt. Then, when we started to get out of the bus, the back door broke open and two or three players fell out like cartoon characters.
"To save money we always seemed to arrive at a hotel at one in the morning and then play the game, leaving as soon as we showered. Once we flew commercial to Portland and the flight back made eight stops. It was brutal. Then we got on a bus in Philadelphia and it broke down and we had to get out, carry our bags and hitchhike. Can you imagine the Eagles doing that?"
There were two World Football Leagues—WFL I was around in 1974, WFL II in 1975. The difference was profound. WFL I was flamboyant, colorful, frequently dishonest, a bad credit risk. It was led by the high-rolling California lawyer Gary Davidson, a small, slight man who organizes sports leagues as if they were neighborhood poker games—the World Hockey Association, the American Basketball Association, WFL I and, currently, World Professional Bowling. At the start the teams in WFL I were the New York Stars, the Chicago Fire, the Portland Storm, the Southern California Sun, the Washington Ambassadors, the Birmingham Americans, the Toronto Northmen, the Houston Texans, the Detroit Wheels, the Jacksonville Sharks, the Honolulu Hawaiians and the Philadelphia Bell. Davidson predicted that before the decade was out there would be WFL teams in Tokyo, Madrid, London, Munich, Paris, Dusseldorf, Rome, Mexico City and Stockholm. He was wrong, of course. WFL I not only failed to expand to the capitals of the world, it lost most of its foothold in North American metropolises: New York became Charlotte, Toronto became Memphis, Washington became Florida after a short stay in Virginia, Houston became Orlando, Fla., the Detroit Wheels went flat and the Chicago Fire was put out before the season ended.
December 1, 1975
WFL I launched several interesting innovations in the rules, including the seven-point touchdown, the "action point" (which was scored by a run or a pass, but never a kick); allowing an offensive back to be in motion toward the line of scrimmage before the snap; an extra period to eliminate ties; and the Day-Glo WFL football. Some WFL I people lied about attendance figures, bounced checks and produced first-class gallows humor. For example, the Portland Storm had been effectively reduced to a light breeze through inept management and various forms of payroll chicanery, and the players used to joke that a) they would receive food stamps on road trips instead of team meals, b) they would be required to save the tape used on their ankles so it might be used again and again, and c) to reduce fuel costs they would use paper airplanes to fly to their games. WFL I lasted through a 20-game season in 1974, then vanished in a tumult of bad checks and angry players, leaving some $20 million in debts.
In contrast, WFL II paid its bills on time, had an established credit rating and generally showed all the moves and color of a bank director's meeting. The new commissioner was Chris Hemmeter, whose plan to save the league had to do with paying players in relation to game attendance—or something terribly responsible like that. This made fascinating reading for followers of sowbelly futures and other mysterious financial doings. Hemmeter once defined the essence of his public personality by saying, "My thrill is getting on an airplane and not being recognized." WFL II plodded responsibly on through 13 weeks of the 1975 season before it died of not being recognized.
The owner of the Memphis Southmen, John Bassett, was always uncommonly open (if a little arcane) when he spoke about the WFL's possibilities. He told Kenneth Denlinger of The Washington Post, "If you want to look at the WFL optimistically, you can make a hell of a story. If you want to look at the situation pessimistically, you can make a hell of a story. If you want to look at things realistically, you've got a problem."
Later he told Skip Myslenski of Knight Newspapers, "Having a team in the WFL is kind of like having a blind date. Some guys end up marrying the girl they meet on a blind date, other guys go to the door, say they're sick and leave. Who knows?"
Reflecting on the dismal realities of '74 on the eve of the '75 season, Bassett said, "It's like a brand-new car. Once you've wrecked it, no matter how well it's fixed up it's never the same."
Jack Kelly, president of the Philadelphia Bell early in the WFL's first year, recalled an incident before a game between the Bell and the then New York Stars (later the Charlotte Hornets): "A police van backed into a chain link fence and broke it, and 5,000 people ran in for nothing. Then, when the ticket lines got too long, people were giving ticket takers a buck to look the other way. That was money that went in the ticket takers' pocket, money we never saw, money we really needed."
Mike Giddings, head coach of the Honolulu Hawaiians during both seasons, recalled, "The league always seemed a little tentative to me. Last year when we got to Orlando for our first road game, we went to the stadium and found them just cementing in the goal posts." After the Hawaiians' first road game of 1975, at Jacksonville, players were showering when a storm knocked out the electricity in their locker room. The players calmly assumed this was merely a cost-saving measure by the league, and Giddings quietly ordered a bus driver to pull up to the locker room windows and shine the headlights through them so they could finish dressing.
In November 1974 the uniforms and equipment of the Charlotte Hornets were seized by sheriff's deputies after a game with the Shreveport Steamer. A cleaner claimed he was due $26,216 for debts incurred when the team was still the New York Stars. The players worked out in shorts until team owners posted a bond for the uniforms in time for the next game, but not before a spate of bad jokes had been loosed, including one that the Hornets would be reduced to a single play from now on—a naked reverse.
The Detroit Wheels lasted a total of 14 weeks in WFL I. The team had a 1-13 record, which led Detroit News columnist Jerry Green to suggest they be renamed the Hubcaps, since they are so much easier to rip off. Though it was a Detroit team in name, it played all of its home games 37 miles away in Ypsilanti. The coach of the Wheels was a decent fellow named Danny Boisture, a businessman who had previously made his living selling screwdrivers and pliers to the automotive industry. Earlier in his career, Boisture had been the football coach at Eastern Michigan University.
One of a multitude of low points for Boisture and the Wheels was recorded by Jerry Green: "There were theatrics on the night of Aug. 14, 1974 in the stadium at Ypsilanti. A guy in blue made a one-hand stab. His graceful bit of acrobatics prompted the assemblage of 14,424—officially announced—to emit a throaty roar.
" 'Hey, what was all that cheering up there?' asked Dan Boisture in the locker-room postmortem that pro football coaches always conduct. This game had been a 37-7 loss to the Memphis Southmen, and he was not quite accustomed to cheers from the grandstand. But there had been the leaping one-hand stab by the guy in blue.
" 'Frisbee,' a sympathetic individual told Boisture. 'The fans were sailing a Frisbee back and forth throughout the third quarter.'
" 'Oh, that breaks our hearts a little,' said Boisture."
Heartbreak was the name of the game for the Wheels. They dealt in tough luck and ineptitude from their inception when they failed to sign 33 of their 36 choices in the original WFL draft. Four months before the first game, the Wheels sent out a public call for people—anyone—to play on the team. No less than 665 men turned up to try out. One brought his wife in a fur coat and another handed Boisture a note that read, "I'd really like to be a football player, but if I can't make the team, I'd settle for water boy." Not one of the 665 made the team—not even as water boy.
The Bell's Executive Vice-President, Barry Leib, assured himself a place in sports history after his team's first two games of 1974 when he announced paid attendance at JFK Stadium to be 55,534 for the opener and 64,719 for the second contest. This was considered astonishing, an enormously hopeful sign for the WFL. Unfortunately, a short time later it was revealed that most of the people in the stadium were there on free tickets—the house was papered. Actual paid attendance was 13,855 and 6,200. This came to be known as the Great Papergate Scandal. Leib confessed, "What can I say? I lied. I never thought those figures would come out. I admit I lied to reporters. I never regarded a reporter as a priest."
Rick Eber, a swift wide receiver for the Shreveport Steamer, had four catches for 91 yards, including the winning touchdown, against Philadelphia one afternoon in 1974. This was all the more impressive in that it was raining and the field was a swamp. Eber was playing with tacks taped to his fingers. "They're small tacks," he said. "I can close my hand and the tacks won't even break the skin. They just drag on the ball. I knew it was illegal, but we needed a win."
In 1974 the Birmingham Americans won the World Bowl (the WFL's Super Bowl) and led the league in attendance with a 43,000 per game average, but Owner Bill Putnam ran out of money because he was paying such ridiculously huge bonuses to NFL players who promised to jump to his team. (He gave Ken Stabler $110,000.) He owed everyone money, including the Internal Revenue Service, which tried to take over the player contracts and sell them to the highest bidder in order to get some of the money Putnam owed. The players were not paid for the last five weeks of the season. Before the championship game, which Birmingham won 22-21 over the Florida Blazers, Coach Jack Gotta paid for the team's pregame meal out of his own pocket. After the game, sheriff's deputies moved right into the locker room to repossess the uniforms as soon as the champions took them off.
The Chicago Fire was an amazing team. It drew 27,000 spectators per game during WFL I in spite of a 12-game losing streak. In WFL II the Fire was reorganized and renamed the Wind. The Wind's vice-president in charge of football operations, Frank Mariani, boasted at the time about "how beautifully organized" Wind was compared to Fire. After five games, however, the league front office ordered the Wind expelled, because two of its major investors had pulled out, and when Mariani was asked who these two were, he replied, "It was George and Rich from California. I don't know their last names, but one's an Arab and the other's a Greek."
Larry Grantham, formerly of the New York Jets and Florida Blazers, who was a coaching assistant for the San Antonio Wings, has this favorite anecdote from WFL I: "We hadn't been paid for some time and we were out on the field getting ready to play a game. We flipped the coin, won the toss and elected to keep the coin."
When the Chicago Wind was trying to sign Joe Namath, the team owner, Gene Pullano, and Namath's attorney, Jimmy Walsh, were hammering away at the deal. We can imagine this exchange taking place:
Pullano: O.K., four million.
Walsh: Five million. And the uniforms have to be green and white.
Pullano: You got it.
Walsh: And a blonde chauffeur for Joe, who's going to wear a tuxedo.
Pullano: You got it.
Walsh: And the car has to be a Rolls-Royce. A Silver Cloud.
Pullano: You got it.
Walsh: And it has to be a convertible.
Pullano (exasperated): Listen, I'll tell you what, I'll give you a can opener and you can cut the top off it, O.K.?
Eddie Einhorn had the WFL's television franchise in the 1974 season. He was not impressed with the results, although he did "finish in the black," and he did not renew the contract for 1975. Einhorn said, "It started off very strong. We sold over half of it before the season started because of all the hullabaloo. The ratings were good, and we expected a second wave of orders to come in and then we would make real good money. However, after about the fifth week the New York franchise moved. Then that scandal in Philadelphia. The first thing that got the credibility of the league in trouble was that phonying of the attendance. From that day, and the day the Stars moved to Charlotte, we never got another nickel's worth of business.
"At the end of the year no one was getting paid. This was in the paper every day. There was too much competition for the league to survive. By the time we got to the World Bowl we went from about an eight rating to a two. All of this I attribute to credibility. The credibility killed it. Also there is this big city prejudice, see. A person who lives in New York is insulted to go see San Antonio, a burg like that. He wants Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia. If the little burgs ever beat you, it's ridiculous. It's insulting."
Before the 1975 season, Einhorn said, "I went to a big meeting of all the owners at the Waldorf. Hemmeter had everyone there and they made the big announcement about how the new WFL was in existence. Then they said they were hoping to sign Joe Namath. As soon as it was over, I went up to Chris and I told him he had just buried himself. I said, 'Chris, you just did the worst thing you possibly could do. If you don't get Namath you're through. You've put all your credibility on your ability to sign Joe Namath.' I was right, of course. My clients all reacted the same way—they wouldn't buy time until they saw if Joe was signed. Now if the league had signed Namath—although, who knows, he might've got hurt in the first five minutes of play—that would have been the fluff needed to bring the thing back from the dead, at least for the start.
"So the people wouldn't buy it. You can't promise them Joe Namath and then give them some bum. They blew the credibility factor when they blew Namath. After that happened we couldn't sell a thing. We just let it pass. In the final analysis, the league had mediocrity written all over it. It had $250- or $500-a-game players written all over it. I think the lack of a national television package definitely hurt-their credibility, too. If a league's not good enough to have a national TV game of the week, a guy doesn't want to go. It's bush and he's not going to pay money to see it."
The caliber of football in WFL I and WFL II was not all that bad. Portland's Joe Wylie, who played previously with two NFL teams, said, "I felt the play in the WFL was high quality. It was good football. But some things were not NFL, that's for sure. The offenses in the WFL just were not as sophisticated. I played at Oakland and with the Jets, and their workouts were so developed. But in the WFL, how could you develop a system in one year when you're making so many changes? By midseason our playbooks were almost obsolete."
And Jerry Inman, a tackle with the Portland Thunder, said, "I went to the old AFL with Denver in 1966, and I'd say the caliber of ball we played here in the WFL was better than what we played there in the first three years of the Denver franchise. The caliber of ball here was excellent."
Such players as Memphis Running Back Willie Spencer and the Sun's Anthony Davis are clearly of NFL caliber ever though they never played there. But there also was a number of vagabond ballplayers in the league. The Bell's Corcoran was typical of this group. Before the WFL he worked for the Pottstown Firebirds, the Norfolk Neptunes, the Wilmington Clippers and the Lowell Giants. He also had tryouts with four NFL teams.
Defense was never a strong point of the WFL game. One weekend last October, the scores of the five games played were 42-38, 37-33, 29-16, 32-29 and 39-14. The highest scoring game in the league's brief life occurred in August of WFL II, when the Sun beat the Bell 58-39; Davis ran for 115 yards that day. It was also a most unusual game for WFL II in that it was televised—over Channel 29 in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Channel 29 cut the broadcast off the air before the historic game was over, pleading that it had a "prior commitment." What prior commitment? Nothing, really. The station merely played the national anthem and pulled the plug for the night.
John McKay, son of the USC coach and a wide receiver who was accustomed to college crowds of close to 75,000, recalled the scene that greeted the Sun at John F. Kennedy Stadium before that game with the Bell. "When we came out to warm up, I looked around and there wasn't one person in the stands. Not one. I thought, 'My God, aren't we going to have anyone?' I think we ended up with 3,100, or something like that."
The Philadelphia Bell was the worst draw in WFL II. At the team's home opener against the Hawaiians, the management featured Henri La Mothe, a diver whose specialty was leaping from the top of a 40-foot ladder into a small portable pool. Only 2,732 people turned up for the dive and the game. The diver survived, but ultimately the Bell fell on such hard times that the team had to fire all its cheerleaders because it couldn't afford to pay them the $10 a game it had promised.
Elvis Presley regularly attended games of the Memphis Southmen. Once, when country singer Charlie Rich stumbled through The Star-Spangled Banner and returned to his seat next to Presley, Elvis said, "That's a tough song, ain't it?" To which Rich replied, "It ain't no Behind Closed Doors."
Hemmeter, a colorless, clean-cut, 36-year-old, look-you-straight-in-the-eye Rotary Club type, devoutly believed that WFL II could become successful if only he could install "prudent business practices" and "a sound financial control concept." Referring to the helter-skelter shambles of kited checks and payless paydays that marked WFL I, the league president said, "I thought that righting a wrong would certainly be rewarded and we would attract strong public support due to our insistence on a businesslike atmosphere. This was not the case. The 1974 problems haunted us, the lack of credibility stayed with us. We found that paying bills was not enough to save the WFL.
"We failed in marketing. Possibly I was the wrong person to head up the league. Maybe pro sports are a little too swinging for me. I'm conservative and I don't have public appeal and flamboyance. We had excitement on the field, but the league lacked excitement. Most of us are bankers and we lacked charisma, mystique."
Interestingly enough, Hemmeter, a millionaire developer from Hawaii who owns 13 companies and expects to open his $150 million Hemmeter Center in Honolulu next summer, had designed one of the more charismatic offices in sport for his WFL headquarters. It had suede walls.
Before the 1975 season, the president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce invited between 100 and 140 would-be investors to meet with Hemmeter; 29 showed up. Then the Charlotte Jaycees sent invitations to 200 companies to come hear a sales pitch for the Hornets, and two people appeared.
During the early part of the season, the Hornets were evicted from the local baseball park, where they practiced, because the owner claimed they owed him $1,500. Hornet Owner Upton Bell said the payment was not due until the park was improved—it had only four showers, no goal posts and for a while there were no yard lines on the field.
Not everyone felt the WFL was a flop. One fan wrote a letter to the editor of the Shreveport limes: "Shreveport was just another city with bars, pool halls, bowling alleys and theaters drifting in the sieve. Then Shreveport was alive, a city that was breathing, pulsating, cheering, booing. 'Go! Go! Get 'em!...' I can't believe the time has run out so quickly and the ball game is over. Death is a blessing for some, and a heartache for some. When it strikes the young that have fought so bravely and gallantly, it is a heartache. Goodby Edd, Big Jim, Captain Taylor. God bless you and thanks for the memories."
During a Southern California Sun game with the Honolulu Hawaiians a fight broke out. Honolulu's Mike Giddings stormed onto the field yelling, "Anyone who's not back on the sidelines by the time I count to 10 is going to be fined." One player retorted, "Fined? Fined from what?" Whereupon both teams stopped fighting and began laughing.
The Hawaiians couldn't afford to hire an experienced trainer in 1975, so they took on George Kamau, an ambulance driver, who knew nothing about the job but said he was willing to learn.
The week before the last game with the Southern California Sun, the Hawaiians asked their players to take pay cuts to save the franchise. Both quarterbacks refused and quit. Two days before the game the team recruited Milt Holt, who had played at Harvard, and Jim Fassel, who had been a player-coach for the Hawaiians in their first year. Holt was taken from a desk job at Honolulu city hall and Fassel had been driving a truck in Los Angeles. The Hawaiians lost 26-7.
The Memphis Southmen was considered one of the best-run WFL operations. Despite the death of the league, the club remains eminently un-defunct. No one has been laid off, the phones still work—and ring constantly. Coaches are still out signing players and scouting new recruits. A week after the WFL died the club started a new campaign to sell season tickets, which was expected to produce 40,000 paying customers. The Memphis City Council unanimously approved a 50,000-seat expansion for the stadium, and most of the players have signed new contracts for 1976. They also still get paychecks every Thursday.
This all seems surrealistic until one realizes that the object is to reinforce John Bassett's application for a franchise in the NFL next year. Despite Bassett's hurry-up switch from Toronto to Memphis in 1974, the Southmen drew an average of more than 19,000 per game. The $3 million Csonka-Kiick-Warfield troika proved far more valuable as a publicity gimmick than as a game-winner (the team had a mildly impressive 7-5 record when the league folded). Csonka was hurt most of the season, Warfield caught fewer passes than a tight end named Ed Marshall from Cameron University via the Cincinnati Bengals, and Kiick gained less yardage than either John Harvey or Willie Spencer. People in Memphis are quick—and proud—to recall that their team rarely displayed the feckless buffoonery that characterized so much of WFL I. Perhaps they should not be allowed to remember only the bright aspects of their day in the WFL, however. The team was also called the Grizzlies, and it had a grizzly bear cub as its mascot. During one game the cub playfully chewed through the insulation on a wire lying on the ground; when he got to the core he gave himself a terrific shock that threw him over on his back—and also shorted out the stadium scoreboard for about 10 minutes.
WHEN THE AX FELL:
•The phones instantly went dead in the plush offices of the Southern California Sun. "They were ringing off the wall, then silence," said a secretary. "Dead silence. We couldn't figure it out. Then someone tried to call out. No dial tone." The phone company had cut them off to save large tolls which might not have been paid.
•The public-relations man for the San Antonio Wings, Don Dailey, drove a station wagon—one of six loaned to the team by Tom Benson, a local Chevrolet dealer—to a surprise meeting of the team's stockholders, where the death of the WFL was announced. Stunned, Dailey returned to the Wings' office, collected his personal effects and in 10 minutes was ready to load them into his car. Suddenly a man drove up, blocked Dailey's vehicle and declared, "Don't waste your time loading that stuff" into that car, buddy. We got orders from Tom Benson to pick it up—right now."
•Anthony Davis departed his team's abandoned headquarters, loaded up like a trash man with mementos of his days in the Sun. He had played 12 games, gained 1,000 yards, scored 18 touchdowns and received daily abject adulation from children who came knocking at the door of his house in Villa Park. As he left the Sun offices, Davis walked slowly by the giant magenta and orange-sunburst on the wall of the lobby, passing, without a glance, a three-foot-high golden trophy that had cost $2,000. It was to have been given at this season's end to the Sun's most valuable player and there were plates on it for names of most valuable players in the ensuing years through 1979.
•The most common answer to man-on-the-street interviews in San Antonio concerning the demise of the Wings was, "Who were the Wings?"
•Willie Wood, head coach of the Bell, spoke with grief: "I put my reputation on the line when I took this job. I committed myself to building something to try and win some games, and at the same time build something for the next three, four years. I don't think the team I took over was very good, but I tried, I tried to groove the spirit, add some players—we could have been on our way. I can't say I was shocked by what has happened. But I suddenly realized how hard I've been rooting for this underdog. I suddenly realized a whole lot of good people are out of work. I suddenly realized a great idea had gone to dust."
•When Hemmeter was informed that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had forbidden his league owners to sign any players from the WFL, Hemmeter said the decision was definitely pilo. This is an old Hawaiian word which means a foul, swampy odor.
•John Bosacco, the prevailing "governor" (as WFL II pretentiously labeled its owners) of the Philadelphia Bell, summed up the life and death of the league with stark and succinct candor: "It was on the operating table for two years. This was merely a form of euthanasia."