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William Oscar Johnson
December 01, 1975
When the ailing World Football League expired during its second season, the wake brought many memories and some good laughs
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December 01, 1975

The Day The Money Ran Out

When the ailing World Football League expired during its second season, the wake brought many memories and some good laughs

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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.

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."

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