December 5, 2009

1974: Birmingham Defeats Florida for WFL Championship

The World Football League (WFL) came into being with grand pretensions. Founded by Gary Davidson, who had been involved with the American Basketball Association (ABA) and World Hockey Association (WHA), the plan was to create a world-wide league that would spread American football to other continents. As it was, the WFL took the field in 1974 with 12 US-based teams split into three divisions (the one Canadian franchise, in Toronto, shifted to Memphis before ever taking the field).

There were a number of rules changes that differentiated the WFL from the NFL (although the older league picked up a few of them, such as overtime in case of ties and moving the goal posts to the back of the end zone). Most notably, touchdowns were worth 7 points, and were followed by the “action point” – either a running or pass play, but no placekicking, and worth one point.

By the time the 20-game regular season came to an end, two teams had folded and two others had transferred to other cities. Large initial crowds turned out to have been padded by the handing out of free tickets, and ultimately most of the teams became mired in red ink. The playoffs were expanded from four to six to, finally, eight teams (80 % of the surviving teams in the end) with the Philadelphia Bell and the Hawaiians making it into the postseason with 9-11 records.

When the dust cleared after two rounds of playoffs, the Florida Blazers, who had placed first in the Eastern Division with a 14-6 record, faced the Birmingham Americans, the second place team in the Central Division at 15-5, for the league championship in what was called the World Bowl (or, more optimistically, World Bowl I) on December 5, 1974 at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Attendance was 32,376 for the location that had received the most fan support during the year in the WFL.

The Blazers, coached by Jack Pardee, had missed 15 payrolls and the players nearly boycotted the game. It appeared that they would fall easy prey to the Americans, who led 15-0 at the half and 22-0 after three quarters. Veteran QB George Mira directed the offense to three touchdowns – first, a one-yard run by RB Joe Profit; then a four-yard run by RB Art Cantrelle; and finally, a 26-yard TD pass from Mira to TE Bob Brown. Backup QB Matthew Reed ran for an action point after the second score, the only one that was successfully converted during the game, which proved to be crucial in the end. An apparent first quarter TD plunge by Panthers RB Tommy Reamon, in which it appeared that he had broken the plane before losing his grip on the ball, was ruled a fumble and, with the ball passing through the end zone, a touchback.

Florida came to life in the fourth quarter. QB Bob Davis threw touchdown passes of 39 yards to Reamon and 40 yards to TE Greg Latta. With 4:14 left in the game, Rod Foster returned a punt 76 yards for a TD in spectacular fashion to bring the Blazers to within a point. However, the Americans stopped Reamon on the ensuing action point attempt and held on to win, 22-21.

Fights broke out as the Americans ran out the clock. Florida CB Billy Hayes grabbed the game ball after the last play and ran for the locker room with Birmingham players in pursuit, ending in a shoving match under the end zone stands.

Mira (pictured) was the game’s MVP, more for his outstanding direction of the offense than his passing statistics, which came to five completions in 14 attempts for 90 yards with a TD and no interceptions. The team ran for a total of 211 yards, spread among four backs and Mira, who gained 27 yards on four carries. Joe Profit led the group with 58 yards on 21 attempts. TE Brown was the top receiver with three catches for 55 yards and a score.

Bob Davis ended up completing 8 of 21 passes for 184 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Tommy Reamon, who led the league in rushing during the regular season, was also the top ground gainer in this game, carrying 13 times for 83 yards. WR Hubie Bryant was the team’s top receiver with 3 catches for 50 yards.

There were the usual celebratory comments after the game. Said Mira, “I’ve waited eleven years to be a starter on a championship team”. And Birmingham’s Head Coach Jack Gotta added, “I don’t know what happens tomorrow, but tonight is the greatest night of my life.”

Afterward, sheriff’s deputies took possession of the Americans’ uniforms, which were sold at a local sporting goods store.

The WFL made it back to the field for another season in 1975, but failed to complete the schedule; there was no World Bowl II. But the name “World Bowl” returned in the 1990s when the NFL’s developmental league, the World League of American Football, adopted the same name for its annual championship game.