Anyone remember what you were doing on July 4, 1995?
For many of you it was probably just a run-of-the-mill holiday. It likely involved some combination of beer, baked beans and fireworks, because nothing screams “Fourth of July!” like alcohol, gas, and noisy pyrotechnics.
But that particular Independence Day was different for me – and special. It marked the beginning of what I thought would be Birmingham’s first long-term relationship with professional football.
The Birmingham Barracudas opened their inaugural Canadian Football League regular season on the road against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers that night, and I was thrilled. I had to work – I was in my ninth year as sports editor of The Daily Home newspaper in Talladega, Alabama – but the game didn’t kick off until 8:30 p.m. local time.
We’d go to press before the clash ended, so I’d be able to listen to the first half of the radio broadcast in the office and follow the rest of it at home. And I hadn’t been this excited about a tackle football contest in a long, long time.
See, Birmingham natives like me have been jilted plenty of times when it comes to the pro game.
The Birmingham Americans of the World Football League lasted just one season in 1974.
Their WFL replacement – the Vulcans – made it through 12 games in 1975 before expiring along with the rest of the league.
The United States Football League and Birmingham Stallions played from 1983-85, and the World League of American Football’s Birmingham Fire had a two-year run in 1991-92.
The Cudas, I firmly believed, would be nothing like those franchises. All the other teams that had called the Magic City home were in start-up organizations, but the CFL had legs, baby.
Its roots were long and deep and the modern league was officially established in 1958. Aside from the National Football League, there was no other pro gridiron circuit in North America with that kind of staying power. It had great tradition, unique rules and I thought it was a perfect match.
“Fans have supported the teams that were here before,” Birmingham coach Jack Pardee, who coached the WFL Florida Blazers and USFL Houston Gamblers, said during a preseason news conference. “The leagues have been the failures, not the teams, and that’s why I’m here. At my age (58) and experience, I didn’t care about pioneering again.”
So this July 4 would be a day to celebrate not just America’s birthday, but the day Canada gifted Birmingham a new and long life in professional football.
Details of the game don’t matter – but I’ll provide some anyway.
Birmingham won, 38-10, racking up 31 first half points including pick sixes courtesy of Andre Strode and Junior Thurman.
Jimmy Klingler was filling in for starting quarterback Matt Dunigan, who was sidelined with a finger injury, and connected on a 95-yard touchdown pass in the blowout.
It was the first of 18 regular season games but I knew there’d be countless more to come because – for the first time – Birmingham was in an established league.
But as I found out before the calendar flipped to 1996 (and after Birmingham finished 10-9 with a first round playoff loss to the San Antonio Texans), it’s called the Canadian Football League for a reason.
Except for the Baltimore Stallions, most American fans were rather cool to the idea of CFL football being played in their backyards. Still, when I heard people suggest there were financial issues and it might not cut it in the Lower 48, I simply put my fingers in my ears and shouted, “La, la, la.”
I didn’t want to hear it, even though it was true (and even though as a sports writer I should’ve taken off my maple leaf colored glasses).
While the CFL brain trust thought expansion to the United States would be a boon it ultimately proved to be a bust, and threatened to drag the league down with it if the chord wasn’t cut.
Baltimore (1994-95), the Shreveport Pirates (1994-95) and the Sacramento Gold Miners (1993-94) were the only American-based CFL teams to last more than a year.
The Barracudas, Texans (relocated from Sacramento), and Memphis Mad Dogs were one and done in 1995, and the Las Vegas Posse played a lone season in 1994.
When the league kicked off the 1996 campaign it was back to nine teams – all based in Canada.
Was I naïve to think the Barracudas would survive and thrive a quarter century ago?
Would I be naïve to think Birmingham will ever keep professional football on a long-term basis?
Since the failed CFL experiment, Birmingham has been home to the XFL Bolts and Alliance of American Football Iron. The Freedom Football League – should it ever get off the ground – is supposed to have a team in Birmingham nicknamed the Kings.
But really, the end of the Cudas marked the end of my confidence that the Magic City will ever find a forever home in a professional football league.
Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me seven times, shame on me.