As much as I pride myself on having a pretty good memory when it comes to Birmingham sports history, details sometimes get fuzzy.
For example, back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, my dad took me to the local YMCA to see a semi-pro football game. The home team, I think, was called either the Birmingham (or possibly Fairfield) Steelers, and the opposition was a club from Kenner City, Louisiana.
We arrived early to watch warm-ups, and I got to see the Steelers stretch and run and pitch and catch. If I recall, they were decked out in orange jerseys and plain white helmets.
What I didn’t get to see was the other team.
The Kenner City Whatevers were no-shows, and there was no explanation why.
Roughly a half hour after the scheduled kickoff, the public address announcer let the crowd (30 people, tops) know that the game had been canceled due to unforeseen circumstances.
I never found out what happened to those guys, but I hope they’re OK.
Anyway, while searching through old news archives to see if there was any information about the game that never was (unsurprisingly, I found none), I stumbled across something much more interesting.
Seems Birmingham – very briefly – had a club in the late, great Continental Football League back in 1969 when the Huntsville-based Alabama Hawks decided to relocate.
Known as the COFL to differentiate it from the Canadian Football League (CFL), this circuit lasted from 1965 through 1969. Formed by a combination of clubs from the existing Atlantic Coast Football League and recently folded United Football League, it originally set its sights on joining the NFL and AFL at the top of the pro food chain.
“This will not be a minor league, this will be a major league,” Alex Schoenbaum, owner of the Charleston, West Virginia, franchise, told the Associated Press in February, 1965. “Ours will be a league stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. We are throwing away salary restrictions and plan to go big time all the way.
“We are dealing with men able to finance big budgets, such as those in the National and American leagues. We’ll bid for top player talent. We’ll go for big crowds and national television.”
That didn’t happen, of course, so by 1966 COFL officials were angling to make it the next best league outside the NFL and AFL and develop working relationship with the big leagues.
Such arrangements had already proved successful for the ACFL, which was formed in 1963 and became what you might call a “major” minor league, even after four of its charter franchises (Newark, Richmond, Springfield and Hartford) defected to the new organization.
As for the Hawks, they were founded in 1963 and competed in three other minor leagues before making the Continental move in 1968.
As a member of the Professional Football League of America in 1967, they became one of five PFLA teams to develop an official deal with the NFL, serving as a farm club for the Atlanta Falcons.
Two years later – its second in the COFL – Alabama made a bit of history when it hosted a team made up primarily of Atlanta rookies. The Hawks’ 55-0 loss to the Falcons on August 2, 1969, played before 9,300 fans at Milton Frank Stadium, is the last time a team playing under the NFL banner squared off against minor league competition.
But the big crowd for the exhibition was an anomaly. Alabama had trouble putting fans in the stands, so midway through the season general manager Earl Dotson announced that the team was moving two of its final three scheduled home games to Birmingham. The other would be played in Orlando, where the Panthers always drew well at the Tangerine Bowl.
“We had hoped to retain the franchise in North Alabama but there seems to be no one interested in football here,” Dotson told the Associated Press in a story that appeared on October 12, 1969.
Although the team still practiced in Huntsville and never formally changed its identity, the Hawks made their Magic City debut on October 25 with a 21-7 victory over the Arkansas Diamonds at Fair Park.
However, only 1,661 people showed up for the game.
They tried once more to woo Birmingham fans on November 8 when they hosted the Omaha Mustangs. The home team came away with an impressive 32-10 win, but a crowd of 2,004 was underwhelming.
Turns out, that was the final Continental Football League game ever played in the state of Alabama. (For the record, the Hawks finished 6-6 and missed the playoffs).
By the summer of 1970 the league had fallen apart, with some teams folding outright and others moving back to the ACFL. In August the COFL suspended operations with the promise to return, but since operations remain suspended 49 years later, that return appears unlikely.
By 1969 football consumed most of my thoughts, and the fact that I don’t remember Birmingham kinda/sorta had a COFL team part of that year makes me disappointed in myself.
Then again, if I can’t recall the name of a team I actually went to see (was it the Birmingham or Fairfield Steelers?), maybe I should give myself a break.