August 9, 2010

1975: Hawaiians Pull Out One-Point Win at Portland

The August 9, 1975 World Football League matchup between the Portland Thunder and The Hawaiians at Portland’s Civic Stadium featured two clubs that had dropped their opening games a week earlier.

The Thunder, successor to 1974’s Storm, were coached by Greg Barton, who had been one of the Portland quarterbacks in the WFL’s first season. Succeeding to the starting quarterback job was an NFL veteran, Don Horn, who had played eight largely nondescript seasons, primarily with the Packers and Broncos. The chief offensive weapon was still RB Rufus “Roadrunner” Ferguson, who ran for 1086 yards in ‘74 and caught 49 passes for 369 more with a total of nine touchdowns. They lost their first game of the ’75 season to the Southern California Sun at Anaheim by a score of 21-15.

The Hawaiians had been one of the few relatively stable WFL franchises in the first year. Coached again by Mike Giddings, they had added RB Calvin Hill from the NFL’s Cowboys, and he gained 132 yards on 32 carries in the season-opening loss at Philadelphia. Another newcomer, QB Sonny Sixkiller (pictured above), a full-blooded Cherokee who had starred in college at the University of Washington and seen limited pro action with the NFL Rams and CFL Toronto Argonauts, had played well in the loss to the Bell.

There was a modest crowd of 7709 on hand for the Thunder’s home opening game. Turnovers put the Honolulu club in front by 17-7 as Horn fumbled twice and The Hawaiians followed each with a touchdown. First, QB Rick Cassata passed 15 yards for a TD to WR Dave Atkinson. Then, it was Sixkiller entering the contest and throwing an eight-yard touchdown strike to WR Grady Richardson. Still, Portland came back later in the second quarter as Horn threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to WR Jim Krieg. For all of the mistakes the club made in the first half, Portland was only down by 17-14 at halftime.

The Hawaiians defense made another big play in the third quarter, as CB Willie Williams forced Ferguson to fumble and safety Phil Andre grabbed the loose ball and ran 43 yards for a touchdown. Sixkiller ran for the action point and The Hawaiians held a 25-14 lead.

Don Warner kicked a 25-yard field goal for the Thunder to narrow the margin to 25-17, but neither team was able to run effectively against the opposing defense. With five minutes remaining in the contest, Portland drove 35 yards to The Hawaiians’ 12 yard line. Horn connected with TE Bob Christiansen for a touchdown, but the ensuing action point attempt failed as Ferguson dropped a pass in the end zone.

The Thunder had one last shot, getting the ball back at their own 43 yard line with 11 seconds remaining. Two desperation passes fell incomplete and then Warner attempted a 64-yard field goal that fell well short. The Hawaiians came away with a closely-fought 25-24 win.

The Portland defense had keyed on Calvin Hill, who was slowed by a rib injury. Taking advantage of turnovers and gaining ground with an effective short passing game made the difference for The Hawaiians. In particular, Sonny Sixkiller had helped his cause in the competition for the starting quarterback job by completing 8 of 15 passes for 58 yards and a touchdown and converting the decisive action point.

By the time the season abruptly ended in October due to the league’s collapse, both teams had 4-7 records and were tied for fourth in the Western Division. Calvin Hill was lost to injury along the way and gained just 218 yards rushing for The Hawaiians. Both Sonny Sixkiller and Rick Cassata quit the team before the plug was pulled on the WFL, as did WR Tim Delaney, who had led the league in pass receiving in ’74 and ranked second in ‘75, and star DE Lem Burnham.

Rufus Ferguson ended up as the WFL’s third-ranked rusher with 768 yards. Don Horn finished second in completion percentage (58.1) and pass completions (158, tied with Edd Hargett of Shreveport) and third in pass attempts (272) and yards (1742).