When you think of a world championship game, images of a glitzy trophy presentation, confetti raining down on players, and an elaborate fireworks display might come to mind.
When you think back to the World Bowl – the one and only championship of the World Football League – none of the above applies.
In fact, the game played on December 5, 1974, started with two teams who hadn’t been paid in months and ended with the winners having their uniforms and equipment taken away by sheriff’s deputies.
Glamorous, it was not.
But I didn’t come here to bury the memory of the clash between the Birmingham Americans and Florida Blazers, but to praise it. What these players endured – and ultimately delivered – showed true championship mettle. And all the participants deserve to be remembered fondly.
For the record, Birmingham (17-5) claimed the crown with a 22-21 victory over Florida (16-7) in front of 32,376 chilly fans at Legion Field.
Joe Profit and Art Cantrelle scored first half rushing touchdowns for the winners and quarterback Matthew Reed added the “action point” conversion following the second TD. In the third quarter, George Mira hit Bob Brown on a 26-yard scoring strike to give the Americans a 22-0 advantage.
(Florida fans might recall Tommy Reamon scoring an apparent 5-yard touchdown on the game’s opening drive, only to have officials rule he fumbled before crossing the goal line. Replays show he still had possession when he reached the end zone but there were no booth reviews in 1974 so Reamon and his team got hosed).
The Blazers rallied for 21 fourth quarter points. QB Bob Davis connected with Reamon on 39-yard scoring strike to put his team on the board, and later hit Greg Latta for a 40-yard passing TD to make it a one score game.
Rod Foster added a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown in a showdown that saw the teams combine for 626 yards of total offense. Still, it’s what happened off the field that made this contest so remarkable.
The WFL was already in freefall – $20 million in debt and its credibility shot due to two franchises folding (Detroit and Jacksonville) and two others relocating (New York to Charlotte and Houston to Shreveport) in-season.
As for the last two teams standing in the postseason, Florida players hadn’t gotten a paycheck in 14 weeks and members of the Birmingham contingent had played without compensation for almost two months.
“Before the (semi-final playoff game against Memphis), the guys just came down to the point where we realized we weren’t going to get paid,” Davis told Florida Today. “We said, ‘Let’s win this one and go on to the World Bowl.’ We’ve been screwed by the league, by our owners, by the officials, by everyone. The only thing left was our desire to give ourselves something.”
In an interview with the Associated Press Blazers backup quarterback Buddy Palazzo said, “We’re supposed to be playing for a living and not getting paid. That knocks down the theory about spoiled, high-salaried athletes.”
Americans players walked out of practice the Monday before the World Bowl and demanded to be paid, but on Tuesday decided they’d take the field no matter what.
“We’re not playing for back pay,” Birmingham running back Charlie Harraway told the Associated Press. “We’re playing for a championship.”
As for a big championship game payday, that didn’t happen.
Because of the financial straits of the Americans, 30 percent of the gate would go to federal, state and local tax officials. The remaining 70 percent would be divided up among the teams.
As it turned out, Birmingham got $1,400 per player as part of the winners’ share while Florida received $1,000 per man.
“Ask these guys which would be more important to them – all their back pay or this moment,” Birmingham tackle Paul Costa said to an Associated Press reporter after the game. “It wouldn’t be a contest. This is a super feeling.”
The locker room celebration was tempered by the fact that Birmingham’s gear was confiscated immediately in order to pay off a $30,000 debt owed to the team’s equipment supplier. It was as though the party was interrupted by a raid.
“So what?” Americans owner Bill Putnam told AP. “The IRS and everybody else has liens against us, so what’s the big deal about losing our uniforms?”
However, at least one Blazer put a positive spin on it all.
“These have been the best and fondest memories of my 10-year career in football,” Florida defensive Rickie Harris told Florida Today after the WFL postmortem. “You only meet guys like this once in your lifetime. Despite all the adversity, despite everything we’ve been through, the players hung together and they played for each other.”
It’s easy to view the World Bowl as a tragicomic performance staged by a ragtag group of players in a bush league trying to disguise itself as a big league.
Easy, but wrong.
After spending so many weeks playing for nothing, on this one night simply playing the game of football meant everything to the Birmingham Americans and Florida Blazers.
And for that, they’ll always have my respect – and admiration.
I take a much deeper dive into the Americans and the WFL in my book “The Home Team” My Bromance With Off-Brand Football” available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.