July 17, 2011

1974: Birmingham Comes from 26 Points Behind to Beat NY Stars

The World Football League’s debut in New York City occurred on July 17, 1974 as the New York Stars hosted the Birmingham Americans. There were 17,943 fans in attendance at small and poorly-lit Downing Stadium for the Wednesday night contest (1200 with complimentary tickets).

The Stars, coached by former pro quarterback Babe Parilli, had lost their opening game by a 14-7 score at Jacksonville in the WFL’s inaugural week. The roster contained several ex-Jets, including WR George Sauer, DE Gerry Philbin, DT John Elliott, and CB John Dockery. The starting quarterback was Tom Sherman, who had seen action with the Boston Patriots and Buffalo Bills in the AFL but more recently had played for the Hartford Knights of the Atlantic Coast Football League.

Birmingham had narrowly defeated the Southern California Sun by a score of 11-7 in its opening game at home the previous week. Jack Gotta, a seasoned coach from the CFL, was both head coach and GM of the Americans. The club had George Mira at quarterback (pictured above), a former University of Miami star who was primarily a backup in the NFL for seven years before moving on to Canada for two. Dennis Homan, an ex-star at Alabama who saw some NFL action, was one of the wide receivers, while there were veterans with pro experience at running back in HB Paul Robinson and FB Charlie Harraway.

The crowd was enthusiastic, especially during a dominating first half by the home team, although the poor stadium lighting made the contest difficult to watch. In the first quarter, Birmingham got a break by recovering Sherman’s fumble on the third play of the game. The turnover gave the Americans the ball at the New York 19 yard line, but, setting the tone for the first half, the offense wasn’t able to score and Earl Sark kicked a 35-yard field goal.

It was all New York the rest of the way in the first two quarters. A six-play, 60-yard drive that featured a 25-yard gain on a pass to Sauer to the Birmingham one was capped when Sherman ran for the final yard and a TD.

Following the ensuing kickoff, another of the ex-Jets, Philbin, recovered a fumble by WR Denny Duron at the Birmingham 33. Five plays later, RB Bob Gladieux ran for a two-yard score. Both action point attempts were successful, and the Americans held a 16-3 lead after the opening period (touchdowns were worth seven points in the WFL).

In the second quarter, FB Andy Huff ran for a nine-yard TD to complete a drive of 80 yards that took 14 plays, although the action point attempt failed. Pete Rajecki kicked field goals of 20 and 38 yards, and the Stars carried a comfortable 29-3 lead into halftime.

The domination in the first half was complete as New York ran up 315 total yards (188 on the ground) and 18 first downs. By contrast, Birmingham failed to gain a single first down, rushing for just 12 yards and being held to -2 net yards in the air.

Birmingham’s comeback began in the third quarter following a 33-yard punt return by WR Alfred Jenkins to set up Mira’s 20-yard scoring pass to TE Ted Powell with just over nine minutes to go in the period, although the Americans failed to add the action point.

Still in the third quarter, Mira threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Jenkins. This time the action point attempt, another Mira-to-Jenkins toss, was successful. New York’s lead had been narrowed to 29-18 after three periods of play.

In the fourth quarter, the Stars’ lead was narrowed even further as Mira scored on a one-yard run to cap an 80-yard drive in 10 plays. Again the action point attempt failed, but the Americans were now just four points behind.

Birmingham went in front thanks to the biggest play of the game, a 73-yard touchdown pass from Mira to Homan with 2:15 remaining. Once more, the action point attempt failed and the Americans were left clinging to a three-point margin. It seemed as though that might not be enough as the Stars still had a chance to tie the game with 36 seconds on the clock, but Rejecki missed a 35-yard field goal attempt. Birmingham came away with a 32-29 win, having scored 29 unanswered points in the second half.

The Stars had more first downs (22 to 9) and rushed for 283 yards while passing for 171. Birmingham gained just 48 yards on 24 rushes and threw for 213. The Stars suffered three turnovers, to two by Birmingham and there were just five penalties in all.

George Mira was successful on 14 of 28 passes for 218 yards with three TDs and none intercepted. Dennis Homan caught three passes for 94 yards and a TD. RB Art Cantrelle was the leading rusher for the Americans with 15 yards on six carries, although he had three receptions for 50 yards.

For the Stars, Andy Huff ran for 105 yards on 21 attempts, RB Jim Ford gained 71 yards on 11 carries, and Bob Gladieux contributed 51 yards on 13 runs. Tom Sherman completed 10 of 21 passes for 171 yards with an interception. George Sauer caught four passes for 69 yards.

“It was really a matter of my receivers getting used to the poor lighting,” said Mira.

The poor lighting – and poor facility – became something that the Stars could not overcome. The team generally played well, but attendance dwindled. In September, the club was purchased by Upton Bell, son of former NFL commissioner Bert Bell, and moved to Charlotte, NC. While they were embraced by the fans in North Carolina far more enthusiastically than had ever been the case in New York City, paradoxically the team’s record suffered. 8-5 as the New York Stars, the franchise that was renamed the Charlotte Hornets ended up with a 10-10 record, putting them in second place in the Eastern Division and out of the playoffs (as with so much about the WFL, an oddity, since the Philadelphia Bell made it at 9-11).

Birmingham had good support at home and won its first ten games on the way to finishing second in the Central Division with a 15-5 tally. The Americans went on to win the WFL’s only championship, defeating the Florida Blazers in the World Bowl.