Forty Years Ago, the World Football League (temporarily) Challenged the NFL: Read About The Cleveland Connections


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In October 1973, Gary Davidson announced the formation of the World Football League (WFL). It wasn’t Davidson’s first foray into forming a pro sports league. In 1967 he helped form the American Basketball Association to challenge the established NBA. Five years later he ushered in the World Hockey Association as a rival to the National Hockey League. A football league was the next logical step. Davidson phoned up his friends, including Cleveland’s Nick Mileti, who eagerly took a spot in the new league for a meager $250K. Mileti didn’t stay long though. He knew that he would never be able to compete with the Browns and wasn’t interested in owning a team in another city, so he sold his paper franchise to Chicago businessman Tom Origer for $400K. The team was christened the Fire.

The World Football League opened for business on July 10, 1974 and to the surprise of many, huge crowds turned up for games in Philadelphia (55,000), Memphis (30,000), Chicago (36,000), and Birmingham (53,000). The crowd in Orlando, Florida was less impressive as just over 11,000 fans filed into the Tangerine Bowl to watch the Florida Blazers take on The Hawaiians.  The next night, however, nearly 60,000 fans packed the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville as the hometown Sharks defeated the New York Stars 14 to 8.

Days later, it was revealed that the attendance in some cities was vastly inflated by free tickets, particularly in Philadelphia and Jacksonville. The WFL faced an immediate credibility problem that would soon be followed by severe financial issues. Teams folded and moved. Some played on, but without paying players. The first season ended with World Bowl I (and only). In that game the Birmingham Americans defeated the Florida Blazers 22 to 21 before a crowd 32,176 at Legion Field in Birmingham. After the game, sheriff’s deputies confiscated the Americans’ uniforms to pay the team’s creditors.

Early in the 1974 season, before it became apparent that the WFL was taking on water, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis saw an opportunity. In the 1986 book The League: The Rise and Fall of the National Football League (an inaccurate title in retrospect), author David Harris elaborates. Browns owner Art Modell told Harris of a meeting in 1974 at which Davis suggested that the NFL gobble up the more attractive chunks of the WFL thereby cementing the established league’s monopoly. However, Modell noted, no one took the idea very seriously.

Beaten and bruised, the WFL returned in 1975. Davidson was out as commissioner, replaced by Hawaiians owner Chris Hemmeter. The “New” WFL had a different financial structure, but in the end it didn’t help. Even before the season started Memphis Southmen owner John Bassett told Sports Illustrated: “”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.” Bassett’s team had actually done fairly well, drawing around 30,000 fans a game. After the league collapsed, Bassett along with the owners of the Birmingham Vulcans (formerly the Americans) applied for expansion status in the NFL, but were denied consideration. Bassett asked NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to at least put it up for a vote among the owners, which surprisingly he did. The Southmen and the Vulcans were unanimously rejected.

Bassett would return in 1983 in the United States Football League as owner of the very successful Tampa Bay Bandits. Unfortunately that league would be ruined by Donald Trump who, despite Bassett’s strong objections, led a suicide mission against the NFL.

As for the World Football League, many remember it as a humorous hic-up on the sports landscape, but several great players suited up for that ill-fated league, including many connected to the Browns.

Notable former Browns that played in the World Football League:

Gary Collins played wide receiver and coached that position for the Florida Blazers in 1974 after playing for the Browns from 1961 to 1972.

The great running back Leroy Kelly played his last professional season for the Chicago Fire in 1974 after 10 seasons with the Browns. Kelly amassed 315 yards and a 1 TD in his final campaign. Below, Kelly pushes a head for a few yards against Charlotte (formerly the New York Stars).

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Players who played in the WFL and went on to play for the Browns:

Gary Danielson. He didn’t see much action at quarterback for the New York Stars (later the Charlotte Hornets) or the Chicago Winds, who replaced the Fire in 1975. However, he managed to keep his football skills sharp enough to have respectable career with the Lions and Browns. Below, as a member of the New York Stars (who became the Charlotte Hornets) Danielson holds for kicker Moses Lajterman.

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Calvin Hill played for the Dallas Cowboys before jumping to the WFL in 1975. He played for Washington after his stint with The Hawaiians before joining the Browns in 1978. Below, Hill sweeps outside for The Hawaiians.

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Long before legal troubles consumed him, quarterback Dave Mays began his pro football career calling the signals for the Houston Texans (no, not those Texans). He continued to do so after the team became the Shreveport Steamer in the middle of the 1974 season. He joined the Browns in 1976, playing 2 seasons in Cleveland.

Wide receiver Paul Warfield jumped to the WFL along with fellow Dolphins Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick. Warfield inked a contract for $900,000 over three years, but only played one abbreviated season in Memphis before the WFL collapsed. He played for the Browns in 1976 and 1977.He’s pictured below with Memphis teammates Csonka and Kiick in the Liberty Bowl.

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Coach Marty Schottenheimer was a player/coach for the Portland Storm in 1974, several years before he coached the Browns to 2 AFC championship games.

Browns players Bill Craven (DB ’75), Brian Duncan (KR/RB ’76,’77), Ron East (DE ’75), and Ernie Richardson (LB ’74) also spent time in the World Football League. Richardson, in fact, went from the WFL to the Browns in 1974 and then back to the WFL in 1975 ending his career with the San Antonio Wings. – By  PF Wilson

Here PF Wilson discuss defunct football leagues, including the WFL, on The Dork Forest podcast. You can also listen to PF’s podcast at Podbean or subscribe in iTunes.

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