Seeing a final score that reads Birmingham Stallions 33, Philadelphia Stars 30, brings a smile to my face.
I mean sure, I’m glad Birmingham won the United States Football League Championship Game; I live here and the team reps the city, so it’s a result certainly worthy of a smile. But the grin is triggered more by an old memory than an instant one.
My dad and I watched the 1974 World Bowl at my brother’s house, and after the Birmingham Americans clinched the WFL title with a 22-21 victory over the Florida Blazers, we made the short drive back home.
I spent the 10-minute trip reveling in the glory of it all – it was exciting to think a team from my hometown had just claimed a “world” championship in football – and fought off sleep when I crawled into bed so I could replay the game in my head.
Then came the next morning.
The good news of Birmingham’s victory was splashed across the newspaper, but it came with the bad news that sheriff’s deputies had seized the winners’ jerseys and equipment to help pay off $700,000 in debts.
It was a school day (the game was played on Thursday, December 5) and while Pop drank his coffee and I wolfed down toast, my joy was replaced by worry and I felt the need to share my angst.
“I’m glad the Americans are champions, but I wonder if I’ll ever get to see them play again,” I said. “It’s gonna be sad if this was it.”
(For reference purposes, the WFL limped to the finish line in an unstable inaugural 1974 season. Birmingham and Florida players hadn’t been paid in weeks; the Detroit and Jacksonville franchises folded; and the New York Stars relocated to Charlotte and the Houston Texans moved to Shreveport. The WFL was, at the time, considered one of the greatest financial disasters in sports history, so coming back for a second year appeared to be a longshot).
Pop and I talked a lot, and many of our conversations were focused on football. When it came to the pro game, he was a Green Bay Packers fan and I cheered for the New York Jets, but we bonded over the Americans. And considering how much I valued his opinion, I wanted him to weigh in on the chances of our WFL champs playing on past a cold December night.
“Well, bud,” he said, looking down at his pocket and reaching for a Lucky Strike, “nobody can predict the future.”
“I know,” I said, “But still … what do you think?”
Pop shot a quick glance in my direction.
“I think that’s not something you should worry about today,” he said. “Birmingham won a championship. If you win a championship, that’s a big deal. Just enjoy it.”
That was exactly what I needed to hear. And he was absolutely right – it was such a big deal that nearly a half century later I not only haven’t forgotten it, but still talk (and write) about it.
The Americans were the first pro team I ever saw in person, and the Stallions hold that distinction for young ‘uns who made their way to Protective Stadium or Legion Field this year.
Such occasions are ones that stick … mental souvenirs that represent a moment in time you find yourself going back to over and over throughout the years.
Perhaps a kid got a smile from J’Mar Smith or Alex McGough, a high-five from Bo Scarbrough, or simply sat in front of a TV and cheered a Victor Bolden catch or Scooby Wright pick-six.
Doesn’t matter the player, doesn’t matter the reason … if you watched the games and made these guys your hometown heroes, you made an investment.
And while an adult investment often comes from a wallet, a kids’ investment almost always comes from the heart.
Certainly, it’s a proud moment for any football fan who calls Birmingham home. There’s no age limit on supporting your town and your team.
But I’m especially happy for the young fans tonight.
Some celebrated with their mother or father or sister or brother, making it a family affair.
Others got together with friends to watch the Stallions make some fresh gridiron history.
And they might already have started dreaming about a repeat; while I never saw the Americans again (World Bowl One was World Bowl Only, and the Birmingham Americans were replaced by the Birmingham Vulcans in 1975), this version of the USFL – and Stallions – seems stable enough to make it through next year and possibly beyond.
Yet regardless of whether or not the league is built to last, it provided a lasting memory for kids who got their first taste of a homegrown title.
“Birmingham won a championship. If you win a championship, that’s a big deal. Just enjoy it.”
It’s been almost 48 years since Pop told me that.
I’m sad I can’t hear him say it anymore, but I’m happy I remember what it felt like when he did.