November 29, 2012

1974: Blazers Upset Southmen in WFL Semifinal Playoff Game

Determining the playoff format for the World Football League’s 1974 season proved to be a reflection of the overall chaos surrounding the entire operation. A structure was finally agreed to that would include six teams and allow the Memphis Southmen and Birmingham Americans, the clubs with the best records, to have a bye for the first round. While The Hawaiians upset the Southern California Sun in one contest, the Florida Blazers defeated the Philadelphia Bell in the other. On November 29 the Blazers traveled to Memphis to take on the Southmen in a Semifinal Playoff game.

The Blazers hadn’t been paid in 13 weeks due to lack of income compounded by organizational flux and lawsuits that prevented the league from stepping in to compensate the players. In addition, the Blazers were angry because they had to beat Philadelphia to advance to the Semifinal game while Memphis and Birmingham drew first-round byes.

Head Coach Jack Pardee held the team together through all of the adversity, and Florida had topped the Eastern Division with a 14-6 record. The offense was directed by QB Bob Davis, formerly of the Oilers, Jets, and Saints, and had the WFL’s leading rusher in rookie RB Tommy Reamon (pictured above). The defense was one of the league’s best and contained All-League selections DE John Ricca, DT Mike McBath, and CB Miller Farr, an ex-NFL star primarily with the Oilers and Cardinals.

The Memphis Southmen (or “Grizzlies”, as the local fans preferred to call them), coached by John McVay, were well-funded as well as successful on the field, having topped the Central Division with a 17-3 tally. 31-year-old veteran QB John Huarte, a journeyman backup in the AFL and NFL, competently directed an offense that featured a solid stable of running backs led by rookie J.J. Jennings and a fine receiver in WR Ed Marshall. CB David Thomas was the featured player on defense. Moreover, the Southmen had not lost at home all season.

There were just 9692 fans in attendance at Memphis Memorial Stadium (aka the Liberty Bowl) on a cold and rainy Friday night. Memphis scored in the first quarter on a one-yard carry by Jennings. The Southmen got another TD before the opening period was over thanks to a completion by Huarte to Marshall that covered 45 yards. While Jennings successfully ran for the action point following his initial score, the attempt failed following the second TD, but Memphis was out in front by a score of 15-0 (in the WFL, touchdowns counted for seven points and were followed by an “action point” that couldn’t be kicked).

It only seemed to get worse for the Blazers in the second quarter when Bob Davis suffered a rib injury and was replaced by rookie Buddy Palazzo, who had thrown just five passes during the regular season. But while there was no further scoring in the first half, most notably thanks to an interception by Miller Farr of a Huarte pass in the end zone, Florida began to close the gap in the third quarter.

First, capping the Blazers’ first series of the second half, Dave Strock kicked a 25-yard field goal and then Tommy Reamon ran for a 21-yard touchdown. The action point was successfully added and the tally was at 15-11 heading into the final period.

It looked as though it would stay that way until the Blazers got a break late in the fourth quarter. Forced to punt after Palazzo was sacked deep in in his own territory, David Thomas fumbled the kick and TE Luther Palmer recovered at the Memphis 22 with 1:13 remaining. Four plays later RB Richard James ran four yards for the go-ahead touchdown. The pass attempt for the action point was intercepted but the Blazers were ahead by three.

Memphis still had a chance, but Bob Etter’s 40-yard field goal attempt with seven seconds on the clock was blocked by DE Louis Ross. Florida advanced to the WFL Championship game by a score of 18-15.

The Blazers gained just 58 net passing yards but more than made up for it with 213 yards on the ground. They also had the edge in first downs (17 to 15). There were three turnovers, with Memphis giving up two of them.

Tommy Reamon was the offensive star as he rushed for 125 yards on 25 carries that included a touchdown. Bob Davis completed only three of 10 passes for 20 yards with one intercepted before exiting the contest and Buddy Palazzo was good on three of six throws for 47 yards with no TDs but also no interceptions. TE Greg Latta led Florida’s receivers with three catches for 26 yards. 

For the Southmen, J.J. Jennings rushed for 106 yards on 24 attempts. John Huarte (pictured at left) was successful on 17 of 22 passes for 198 yards and a touchdown and had one picked off. WR Jack Ettinger had 9 catches for 105 yards.

“We beat Memphis, the World Football League, and their money,” exulted Florida LB Larry Ely afterward. It was a stunning win for the underfunded underdog team.

“We were mad and hungry,” summed up Coach Pardee. “We played that way.”

The Blazers came up short in the league title game, called the World Bowl, by a 22-21 score against the Birmingham Americans. It marked the end for the team, as what was left of the franchise was transferred to San Antonio for the WFL’s second (abbreviated) season in 1975, including around 20 of the leftover players.