July 31, 2012

1974: Matthew Reed Rallies Americans Past Wheels

The participants in the World Football League game on July 31, 1974 in Ypsilanti, Michigan were teams moving in different directions.

The Detroit Wheels were coached by former Eastern Michigan Head Coach Dan Boisture, and the team played its home games at that college some 35 miles from the Motor City (the NFL Lions were able to block them from Tiger Stadium). The team suffered from financial difficulties right from the start and signed only three draft picks. They did draw heavily on young veterans with CFL experience, and one of them, Bubba Wyche, was the starting quarterback. After being blown out in the opening game at Memphis, they lost a close contest to Florida and then failed to hold a lead against The Hawaiians. At 0-3, Coach Boisture made clear that he considered the Week 4 contest to be a must-win for his team.

The visiting Birmingham Americans, coached by Jack Gotta, were 3-0, having won two close games to start the season and then most recently coming off a high-scoring 58-33 win at Memphis. However, veteran QB George Mira had a sprained ankle and would be sitting out the game against the Wheels. So, too, would ex-Redskins FB Charley Harraway, who had gotten off to a slow start and was now sidelined with a leg injury.

Taking Mira’s place was first-year QB Matthew Reed (pictured above). The 22-year-old Reed, an imposing 6’4” and 225 pounds, had been an outstanding college quarterback at Grambling but had failed to make it with the NFL Bills, who drafted him in the tenth round in 1973, and Saints.

There were just 14,614 fans present at Rynearson Stadium for the Wednesday night game. The hard-throwing Reed came out passing early, going for long bombs that fell incomplete while being blitzed heavily by the Detroit defense, hoping to take advantage of his inexperience.

Detroit got on the board when Bubba Wyche threw to newly-acquired TE Bruce Cullen for a 20-yard TD, although a running attempt for the “action point” failed (in the WFL, touchdowns counted for seven points and were followed by an “action point” that could not be kicked).

Late in the first half, and five minutes after the Wheels scored, Reed finally connected on a long pass play, hitting WR Dennis Homan for a 59-yard gain that set up an Earl Sark field goal of 27 yards with 14 seconds left on the clock. The score was 7-3 in favor of the Wheels at the half.

In the third quarter, Birmingham went 72 yards in five plays to score again. Homan made another big catch, diving to pull in the ball for a 29-yard gain, and RB Carl Bartles plunged in for a one-yard touchdown to finish the drive. Reed successfully passed for the “action point” and the Americans were ahead by 11-7.

At 4:42 into the fourth quarter, Sark booted a 36-yard field goal to extend Birmingham’s lead to 14-7. However, Detroit came back in stunning fashion when RB Jessie Mims took a pitchout and ran down the left sideline for a 55-yard touchdown. Wyche successfully converted the “action point” with a pass to RB Bill Sadler to put the Wheels in front at 15-14.

Following a short Birmingham possession that ended with a punt, it was Mims making another big play for the Wheels as he broke two tackles on the way to a 64-yard gain. That set up a 29-yard field goal by Eric Guthrie with 3:49 left in the game, and it appeared that Detroit might finally break into the win column.

Reed had the hot hand on the ensuing Birmingham drive, however, throwing to WR Alfred Jenkins for 14 yards, to TE Ted Powell for 32, and Homan for 12 yards to get the ball to the Detroit 9. Rolling out on an option play, the quarterback kept the ball and covered the nine yards, plowing over two defenders at the goal line for the winning touchdown with 2:12 left on the clock. The “action point” attempt failed, but Birmingham still came away the winner by a score of 21-18.

The Americans gained more yards (340 to 326) while Detroit led in first downs (18 to 13). Birmingham lost two fumbles and the Wheels turned the ball over once on an interception. Detroit was penalized seven times, for a loss of 50 yards, as opposed to two flags thrown on the Americans.

Matthew Reed completed just 8 of 21 passes, but they were good for 207 yards and he gave up no interceptions. Dennis Homan accounted for 4 catches for 110 yards. RB Paul Robinson led the rushing attack with 48 yards on 16 carries.

“We were flat early,” said Jack Gotta of his team’s offense. “I think it was rather obvious Matthew Reed was a little tight when he started. He had some problems early, but he stuck in there like they (the rest of the team) all did.”

For the Wheels, Jessie Mims rushed for 128 yards on just 9 carries. Bubba Wyche was successful on 19 of 32 throws for 190 yards and had one intercepted – he also ran for 30 yards on four carries. WR Jon Henderson pulled in 6 catches for 84 yards.

Detroit also suffered major injuries when WR Hubie Bryant and TE Dennis Macholz missed the second half due to leg injuries and CB Floyd Priester had to be carted off the field with a concussion on Birmingham’s winning score.

Typical of the Wheels, they played hard but came up short. They would go on to lose another close contest to the Americans at Birmingham the following week and a total of 10 straight before finally winning. With meager fan support and a lack of financial resources, the club failed to complete the season and folded with a 1-13 record.

Birmingham fared better, placing second in the Central Division at 15-5 and winning the only WFL Championship. Matthew Reed split time with George Mira and passed for 1345 yards and 11 touchdowns while also rushing for 176 yards and three TDs on 40 carries.