July 18, 2012

1974: Huarte TD Passes Lead Memphis Over Storm

The Thursday night nationally-televised World Football League game on July 18, 1974 featured the Memphis Southmen hosting the Portland Storm. The Southmen (or “Grizzlies”, as the locals preferred to call them) had won their opening game handily over the Detroit Wheels the week before while Portland had been trounced by the Philadelphia Bell.

Owned by Canadian businessman John Bassett Jr., the franchise was originally slated to play in Toronto, but legislation introduced in the Canadian Parliament that banned US-based pro football leagues from that nation caused the team to be moved to Memphis. Prior to the move, Bassett had made the biggest preseason splash for the new league by signing three stars from the NFL-champion Miami Dolphins – FB Larry Csonka, HB Jim Kiick, and WR Paul Warfield – to contracts for the 1975 season. That was, of course, a year away and they were not available for ’74, but Head Coach John McVay’s team still boasted some promising talent, including rookie QB Danny White and RB J.J. Jennings and young veterans such as RB John Harvey.

Starting at quarterback was 31-year-old John Huarte (pictured above), who had been a career backup in pro football since winning the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame in 1964. He had been taken in the sixth round of the ’65 NFL draft by the Eagles and second in the AFL draft by the New York Jets. Huarte signed with the Jets but found himself quickly overshadowed by another rookie quarterback who had been taken in the first round, Joe Namath. He spent time on New York’s taxi squad before being dealt to the Patriots, where he saw scant action over the course of two years. He moved on to the Eagles, Chiefs, and Bears, retiring from the NFL in 1973 having thrown a career total of just 48 passes (his one TD pass came with Philadelphia in ‘68). However, Huarte decided to take another shot at pro football with the new league.

The Portland Storm was the last of the WFL franchises to set up shop, having originally been slated to play in New York City (where a different ownership group ended up with a team). Dick Coury, previously an assistant with the NFL Denver Broncos, became head coach and the roster drew heavily from the Pacific Northwest.

There were 31,088 fans in attendance at the Liberty Bowl on an 87-degree night. They had reason to cheer early on as the Southmen scored in spectacular fashion in their first possession on a Huarte pass to wide-open rookie WR Jack Ettinger that covered 42 yards. Huarte successfully threw for the action point (touchdowns were worth seven points in the WFL, followed by an action point that could not be kicked) and the home team was ahead by 8-0.

However, after that electrifying beginning neither squad was able to score again during first half. Portland tied the game with just over six minutes left in the third quarter when QB Greg Barton threw to WR Sam Dickerson for a 29-yard touchdown. The successful action point made it 8-8. Dickerson, a rookie out of USC, had been activated from Portland’s taxi squad the day before the game.

The winning touchdown for the Southmen was set up later in the period when CB David Thomas intercepted a Barton pass and returned it to the Portland 17. Huarte passed to WR Ed Marshall for a 14-yard TD and again successfully threw for the action point.

Thomas intercepted another pass at the Portland 34 in the fourth quarter but Memphis failed to add to its lead when an attempt to convert a fourth-and-one situation at the 12 came up short and the Storm took over on downs. The Southmen held on to win the low-scoring contest by a score of 16-8.

Memphis outgained the Storm (346 yards to 220) and had significantly more first downs (22 to 12). Portland was also hurt by turning the ball over four times, to two fumbles lost by the “Grizzlies”.

John Huarte was good on 15 of 24 passes for 197 yards and the two touchdowns with none intercepted. John Harvey rushed for 64 yards on 10 carries while J.J. Jennings added 63 yards on his 20 attempts. TE Gary Shirk caught 5 passes for 62 yards and Jack Ettinger, thanks to the long scoring pass, gained 64 yards on his two catches.

For the Storm, Greg Barton completed 11 of 23 throws for 163 yards and a TD but also was picked off twice. HB Marv Kendricks ran for 75 yards on 17 attempts. Sam Dickerson pulled in 4 passes for 98 yards and the team’s lone touchdown.

“Huarte’s experience and cool really showed up,” said Coach McVay. “Our receivers and the defensive team really played a great game.”

The former Heisman Trophy winner’s performance was indeed the biggest story of the night. Huarte went on to have his best pro season, leading the WFL in yards per attempt (8.2) while completing 154 of 294 passes for 2416 yards with 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

Memphis put together the league’s best record, topping the Central Division at 17-3, although the Southmen were upset by the Florida Blazers in the second round of the playoffs. The Storm was 7-12-1 to tie for third in the Western Division. 

The long scoring pass in the first quarter was the only touchdown of the year for Jack Ettinger, who caught just 7 passes for 167 yards. Ed Marshall, who scored the game-winning TD, had a far more significant season, accumulating 60 receptions for 1159 yards and a league-leading 19 touchdowns – adding his 11 action points, he led the WFL in scoring with 144 total points. Likewise, David Thomas, with the two key interceptions in the second half, led the WFL in that category with 10 and was named to the league All-Star Team by The Sporting News.