Saturday, October 24, 2015

Remembering The World Football League

I've written before I was obsessed with football as a teenager. NFL, CFL, USFL, college football. I couldn't get enough football.
My cousin Richard and I would exchange newspaper clippings about football in our respective areas. He lived in southern California, home of my LA Rams.
Richard news clippings were a treasure trove for me. I live in 49ers country. I hate the 49ers. Enough said. I always enjoyed Richard's mail.
One year we came to visit, Richard had something to share with me. He was very excited to show me. He went to a stack of football magazines he had and pulled out something I'd never seen before.
It was a magazine of the World Football League. There were helmet logos I didn't recognize, teams I've never heard of. This particular issue was of the Southern California Sun, who played at Anaheim Stadium in 1974 and part of 1975.
I was hooked. I went through that magazine cover to cover. Read and re-read the articles. I remember an article about Virgil Carter called "The Computerized Quarterback". Virgil Carter was from the Sacramento area who once played for the Cincinnati Bengals.
I also remember an article about head coach Tom Fears. He was a part of the famous LA Rams receiving corps in the 1950's with Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch.
I would discover very recently that Tom Fears was Mexican, making him the first prominent Mexican to play in the NFL and coach. He was the first head coach of the New Orleans Saints. (Why Mexicans aren't recognized for our contribution to the NFL is beside me. A future post very soon.)
Anyways, I wanted the issue. Of course cousin Richard being a football freak like I was, wasn't going to part with it. Every year we came the first thing I would do after hugging everyone hello was go to Richard's room and look at that WFL magazine. Until one day we went and I went looking for it. I couldn't find it. I asked Richard where it was. He had this look of disappointment on his face and he told me that my aunt Connie, his mother, threw it away along with other magazines that were piling up around the house. My heart still aches over that.....
So I declared myself a World Football League historian. But there wasn't much recorded history of the league by the 90's.
I did come across a book at the Sacramento Library called, "While The Gettin's Good". It was about the first year of the WFL. From what I remember it was basically stories of teams going broke. One team was so broke they had to borrow athletic tape to tape up ankles before a game. One story discussed how players on the Honolulu Hawaiians were living off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and living in tents on the beach. And the owner of the Hawaiians owned the Sambo's restaurant chain. (I miss Sambo's. In this overly politically correct world we live in, the restaurant chain would generate controversy due to the decor of the restaurant. A little Indian boy named Sambo and a tiger. Long story, Google it.)
It was a great book. It's impossible to find now. (Hmmmm? Road trip to the downtown Sacramento library!)
This was nearly twenty years ago. All I had to go off of was memories of cousin Richard's magazine. I was probably the only person who heard of the Philadelphia Bell, Jacksonville Sharks, Portland Storm, Houston Texans ( yes people, the NFL had to buy the current Texans name off the WFL owner), New York Stars, Chicago Fire (later Wind), Detroit Wheels, Florida Blazers and the Birmingham Americans were.
I would eventually discover the Birmingham Americans were the Green Bay Packers of the WFL.
As time would pass, in the current world I live in, we have an all football network, the NFL Network. I LOVE the old NFL Films movies. One show was called The Lost Treasures, and the WFL was featured! Jackpot!! Video proof of the league. (God bless your everlasting soul Steve Sabol.) This show was over an hour of interviews of former players, coaches, broadcasters, and fans with stories of there memories of the WFL.
Great stories about how the league was built on little cash flow, bad credit and bouncing checks. The powerhouse franchise was the Birmingham Americans. They still have fans who meet frequently and talk about old times along with former players. The Americans would win the first World Bowl in 1974.
I kept the show on my tivo until it was accidentally erased! (I'm currently researching Amazon about which Lost Treasures show it was on.)
I however cannot talk about the WFL without mentioning the greatest football player (in his own mind) Jim "The King" Cochran, aka The Poor Man's Joe Namath. He was mentioned in the show and he lived large.....on very small paychecks. When times got tough, he'd move the family to his mom's house.
(He was in another NFL Films feature called Pottstown, Footballtown USA. He was interviewed in present day along with footage of him as a young football player. He easily had the BIGGEST EGO of any athlete I've ever heard talk of themselves. Not in an offensive way, but The King loved The King! I'd pay top dollar for that episode.)
This past Thursday, October 22nd, marked the 40th anniversary of the last day of the league. The league folded halfway through the 1975 season due to financial reasons. It wasn't drowning in red ink, more like red paint.
Men who were supposed to be paid were playing football for nothing. Literally nothing. Some teams never paid their players. Tough game to play for free.
Forty years later, the NFL is king and taking over the world. Too bad the World Football League couldn't do it.

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