It was the final weekend of the 1984 United States Football League regular season in June 1984 and at stadiums across the league, a smiling Washington Federals cheerleader beckoned to fans from the cover of the USFL’s KICKOFF Magazine game program. But in the nation’s capital, there was little to smile about as the woeful, lame duck Federals played out the final 60 minutes of football of their bleak two-season run at RFK Stadium.
The Federals were reported sold a month earlier to Miami hotelier Sherwood Weiser, who planned to move the team to the Orange Bowl for the 1985 season. The deadman-walking state of the team along with the Feds’ pathetic 2-15 record meant 7,495 no-shows compared to just 6,386 in the stands
The Feds were seemingly overmatched against the New Orleans Breakers, who started the season 6-1 and seemed destined for relevance. But the Breakers were in the midst of the own collapse, losers of eight of their last 10 to fall out of playoff contention. Ancient quarterback Johnnie Walton of New Orleans, playing his final pro game, opened the scoring with a 73-yard bomb to Frank Lockett off a flea flicker in the first quarter. But the Federals showed some fight and opened a 20-10 lead by third quarter courtesy of a Curtis Bledsoe run and a pair of TD passes from Mike Hohensee. (In typical Federals fashion, kicker Jeff Brockhaus blew an extra point. The Feds used six kickers in just two seasons). Despite a late touchdown run by the Breakers’ Mark Schellen, the Federals hung on to win their final game 21-17, raising their miserable two-year tally to 7-29.
The Federals sale to Woody Weiser fell through in August when USFL owners voted to move to a fall season in 1986. Weiser didn’t want to compete with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in the fall and backed out of the deal. The Federals went to Orlando instead, becoming the Orlando Renegades for the USFL’s final season in 1985. The New Orleans Breakers were goners too. Although quite popular in New Orleans, the planned move to the fall ruined their viability in the Big Easy, no matter how terrible the Saints were at the time. The Breakers would move to Portland, Oregon for the 1985 season.
The Washington Federals were the snakebit franchise of the springtime United States Football League (1983-1985). The Federals had the misfortune to debut in the nation’s capital just several weeks after the Washington Redskins won Super Bowl XVII, solidifying their grip on the region’s pro football passions.
Federals owner Berl Bernhard followed the league’s original slow growth business plan and opened his checkbook to sign one marquee player away from the NFL – rookie running back Craig James out of Southern Methodist University. But James was repeatedly injured and managed to play in just 10 games with minimal effectiveness over two seasons. The rest of the roster was relatively anonymous, with former NFL All-Pro defensive end Coy Bacon, by now far past his prime at age 40, the most familiar name.
The Federals debuted at RFK Stadium on March 6th, 1983 against the Chicago Blitz, who were coached by former Washington Redskins head man George Allen. The game was selected as the league’s first nationwide broadcast in its ABC television deal. More than 38,000 fans showed up in the rain, but the Federals were overmatched and lost 28-7. The team would never again draw more than 15,000 fans in its two seasons of existence.
The Federals finished the 1983 season with the worst record in the 12-team USFL at 4-14. But they did win their final two games, including a surprise upset of the league’s best team, the 15-3 Philadelphia Stars. The last couple of weeks showed enough promise that Berl Bernhard brought back Head Coach Ray Jauch for a second season in 1984.
The nature of the league changed during the 1983-84 offseason. New owners like Donald Trump (New Jersey) and William Oldenburg (Los Angeles) bought into the league and launched a salary war with the NFL over free agents and, especially, the 1984 college draft class. Bernhard refused to be sucked into the spending spree and made no significant additions to the team during the winter of 1983-84. The Federals’ biggest move was to acquire Reggie Collier from the Birmingham Stallions to try and settle the team’s chaotic quarterback situation. Collier was Birmingham’s 1st round draft pick in 1983 but failed to hold down the starting job for the Stallions. The same story would play out in Washington D.C., where Collier couldn’t unseat Mike Hohensee, a second-year quarterback from the University of Minnesota.
Bernhard learned just how far behind the curve his team had fallen on opening night of the 1984 season. The Federals opened on the road against a lightly regarded expansion team, the Jacksonville Bulls (who would finish 6-12) and were blown out 53-14. Bernhard famously complained that the team played “like a group of untrained gerbils” – a great line which got more national press attention that Bernhard probably wanted. Head gerbil trainer Ray Jauch was fired three days later and replaced by assistant Dick Bielski, who couldn’t fare any better. The Federals were even worse than the year before, finishing with the worst record in the league again at 3-15.
Off the field things were even worse. Craig James was hurt again and the Federals let him bolt town midway through the lost season to sign with the NFL’s New England Patriots. The Feds were just relieved to be out from under the fragile running back’s contract. Attendance plummeted more than 50% from 1983′s already week numbers. On May 6, 1984 the Federals drew the smallest crowd in the history of the USFL when only 4,432 fans showed up at RFK Stadium to watch an overtime loss to the Memphis Showboats.
In May 1984, Bernhard found an escape route. He lined up a sale of the franchise to Sherwood “Woody” Weiser, a Miami-based hotelier who intended to move the team to South Florida for the 1985 season. Weiser persuaded University of Miami Head Coach Howard Schnellenberger to quit his job (he’d led U of M to the national title just a year earlier) in return for part ownership of the USFL franchise and a guaranteed $100,000 salary for life. It turned out to be a horrible decision for Schnellenberger. At league meetings in August 1984, a cabal of new USFL investors led by Trump pushed through a plan to switch to a fall schedule in 1986 and take on the NFL head-to-head. Weiser had zero desire to challenge the Miami Dolphins or U. of M. for attention and play dates at the Orange Bowl during the fall and pulled out of the deal.
After the Miami deal fell apart, Bernhard needed to find a new buyer. He got one in Donald Dizney, a minority partner in the USFL’s popular Tampa Bay Bandits club. Dizney bought out Bernhard and moved the team to Orlando, Florida in October of 1984. Renamed the Orlando Renegades, the team played one final (losing) season in the spring of 1985 before the USFL went out of business in August 1986 on the eve of what was supposed to be its first fall season.
==Washington Federals Game on Fun While It Lasted==
The USFL’s debut weekend and the league’s first broadcast on ABC Sports. The Federals host the Chicago Blitz on March 6, 1983. Lee Corso, ABC’s color commentator for the broadcast, would become the franchise’s head coach in 1985 after the team moved to Orlando.
Back-up quarterback Joe Gilliam (1983) died of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 2000 at age 49.
Federals linebacker Mike Corvino(1983-1984) died in a car accident at age 46 on July 14, 2007.
Former Washington Redskins and Federals (1983) defensive end Coy Bacon died on December 22, 2008 at age 66.
Sharp-looking program from the minor Atlantic Coast Football League (1962-1973). The ACFL was a bus league which was largely confined to the New England states along with New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but occasionally ventured as far as Florida in the South and Indianapolis in the Midwest.
This was the only season in the league for the expansion Hartford Charter Oaks club. They would bolt for the higher level Continental Football League in 1965. The team’s unusual name dated back to a bit of colonial era history (or legend?). In 1687 the King James II of England dispatched Sir Edmund Andros to the restive Colony of Connecticut to seize the colony’s charter and bring the territory more firmly under the British yoke. Andros arrived with an armed force. During a late night debate between the two sides, with the charter laid out on the negotiating table, the candles in the room were suddenly extinguished. When light was restored, the charter had vanished, whisked away by Captain Joseph Wadsworth and secreted inside a massive oak tree on a nearby estate, safe from British hands.
For the Charter Oaks visiting opponents on this evening, the Portland Sea Hawks, it was also their final season in the ACFL. The Maine-based club would soon fold after three seasons of operation. If not the Seahawks farewell game, it was one of the last.
The big name in this game was Portland’s rookie halfback Terry Evanshen out of Utah State. Evanshen, a Canadian originally from Montreal, toiled for one season in the ACFL. In 1965 he signed with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes and won the Gruen Trophy as the league’s Rookie-of-the-Year. Evanshen went on to play 14 seasons in the CFL and established himself as one of the greatest receivers in league history, catching over 90 touchdown passes.
Evanshen retired after the 1978 season and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1984. In 1988 he was nearly killed in a devastating car crash which left him in a coma for weeks. When he eventually awoke, he had no memory of his life or career before the accident. Today Evanshen is a motivational speaker. A CTV feature film -The Man Who Lost Himself: The Terry Evanshen Story was released in 2005.
Gorgeous illustrated program from the early years of the American Football League and the dying days of Harry Wismer’s sad sack New York Titans franchise. By November of 1962, Wismer, a former football broadcaster who was among the poorest owners in the fledgling league, was out of money. His personal losses over the AFL’s three years of operation were approaching $2 million.
Out on the turf of the dilapidated Polo Grounds, the Titans faced the Dallas Texans, who were on their way to a Western Division crown and would become the AFL’s 1962 league champions. The Texans offense was paced by future Hall-of Famer Len Dawson at quarterback and perennial All-Pro tailback Abner Haynes.
The Texans routed the Titas 52-31, which is a remarkable score considering Dawson attempted just 12 passes on the day and completed only five of them. But three were for touchdowns, including a 75-yard connection with Abner Haynes to erase New York’s only lead early in the first quarter. Haynes was the star of the day, rushing for 107 yards and two further scores. Curtis McClinton (102 yards and a score) also went over the century mark for the visitors.
Two weeks earlier, Wismer began to bounce player paychecks. This November 11th tilt against Dallas marked the second week in a row that the AFL league office had to cover the Titans’ payroll with assessments pulled from the league’s stronger franchises. AFL Commissioner Joe Foss was in town to oversee the payroll distribution and check on Wismer’s progress in selling the team, which was expected to happen before Thanksgiving. In actuality, the AFL had to prop up the Titans for the entire final month of the season, as the sale drifted on into the New Year.
The Titans played their final game a month later on December 8, 1962, a 20-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills at the Polo Grounds. The Titans were finally sold in February 1963 to a syndicate led by Sonny Werblin, who re-branded and revitalized the club as the New York Jets in 1963.
Although the ex-Dolphins were the top headline makers in the failing WFL, it was actually a pair of anonymous holdover players from Memphis’ 1974 squad who outperformed them, at least statistically. Willie Spencer, an unusually tall running back (6′ 4″) who never played college football, outrushed both Csonka and Kiick and led the club with 581 yards on the season. And former All-Pro Paul Warfield’s modest output (25 catches for 422 yards and 3 TDs) was overshadowed by small college product Ed Marshall (31-582-9 TDs).
Spencer was pictured on the cover of this September 14, 1975 program for a Memphis home game against the Shreveport Steamer and would score the game’s first touchdown on an 8-yard run. (Csonka was on the sidelines, missing his second straight game due to injury).
This game was notable as the first professional start at quarterback for Danny White, a second year player out of Arizona State whose primary role on the Southmen was as the team punter. As a rookie in 1974, White backed up 1964 Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte and passed for over 1,000 yards, but it wasn’t until late in the 1975 season that White finally unseated the elder quarterback. With White under center, the Southmen raced out to a 26-0 halftime lead and then held on as Shreveport back-up quarterback D.C. Nobles came off the bench and threw three second half touchdowns as the Steamer mounted a furious comeback. It wasn’t quite enough. Memphis held on to win 34-23.
The World Football League folded just over a month later without completing its second season. Csonka, Kiick and Warfield all returned to the NFL. Willie Spencer and Danny White managed to latch on as well. Spencer saw limited time as a reserve back with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants from 1976 to 1978. White signed with Dallas Cowboys as a punter and Roger Staubach’s back-up in 1976. He took over the starting QB job after Staubach retired in 1980 and ran the offense for most of the 1980′s, taking the Cowboys to three straight NFC championship games but never making it to the Super Bowl.
The Austin Wranglers were an expansion franchise added to the booming Arena Football League in September of 2003. The Wranglers came in at the ass end of a giant speculative bubble in Arena Football franchises, sparked by investment from NFL owners and a network television contract with NBC in the early 2000′s. Original Wranglers majority owner Greg Feste and his partners – who included NFL super agent Leigh Steinberg and half a dozen then-current and former NFL players – paid a reported $16.2 million expansion fee according to The Orlando Sentinel, the third highest price ever paid for an indoor football franchise. (Other sources pegged the price tag at $12.0 million).
Feste was a controversial figure in Austin and in pro football circles. At the time the Wranglers were formed, Feste was a failed former stockbroker who ran afoul of federal regulators, a real estate developer who fell into bankruptcy and, equally briefly, an agent and financial advisor to Christian pro football players. Feste’s player representation activities and ties to an organization called Champions For Christ were the subject of an NFL investigation in 1998.
None of these activities are mentioned in Feste’s lengthy two-page bio in the Wrangler’s inaugural media guide in 2004. Instead, Feste is credited solely as the founder of FesteCapital, which portrays the 43-year old Texan as a “leader, entrepreneur and visionary” in the field of virtually everything: ”consulting, realty, development, franchise management, mortgage banking, private equity, aviation services, finance and sports enterprises”.
A U.S. Magistrate Judge named Andrew Austin would later find that FesteCapital had “no assets” and existed solely to control a lease agreement for a couple of dozen private jet rentals that Feste used in the winter of 2003-04 while the Wranglers were ramping up. The matter came to the court’s attention when Feste neglected to pay for the flights.
Despite Feste’s history of failed ventures, both the Wranglers and Arena Football League Commissioner David Bakerbragged that the Wranglers expansion application was approved in record time, just over 60 days after Feste’s initial inquiry to the league office. In early 2004, Feste described his business plan to an Austin American Statesman reporter: “Buy it for $12 million, sell it for $40 million.” But unbeknownst to Feste and his partners, they’d bought in at the top of the market. The AFL’s expansion binge crested in 2003 and the league would sell only one new franchise (Kansas City for a record expansion fee of $18.0 million in 2005) before folding in 2009. Dr. Robert Nucci, a disgruntled late era owner who paid a record $18.8 million for the Tampa Bay Storm franchise in 2007, would later compare the league’s business model to a “Ponzi scheme” reliant on continuous infusions of expansion fee cash.
On the carpet, the Wranglers finished their first season at .500 with an 8-8 record, narrowly missing the playoffs. Austin claimed an average gate of 11,140 fans per game, which was just below the league average of 12,019. Greg Feste’s partners forced him out of the organization at the end of the Wranglers’ debut season. He was replaced as managing partner by Doug MacGregor, a former Dell Computers executive and Wranglers’ season ticket holder during the team’s inaugural season.
Doug MacGregor turned out to be a true believer in the sport of Arena Football and his holdings eventually grew to include not just the Wranglers, but numerous franchises in Arena Football 2, a developmental league for smaller markets.
The Wranglers endured three more money-losing seasons in the AFL. The highlight was 2006, when the team finished 10-6 and earned their only playoff appearance, losing at home in the first round to the Philadelphia Soul.
At the end of the 2007 season, the Wranglers declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy and re-organized. MacGregor continued to own the club, but pulled the team out of the Arena Football League and self-relegated down to the lower-budget Arena Football 2. The move to AF2 coincided with a dramatic crash in fan interest, as average crowds dropped from over 12,000 per game in 2007 to just 3,458 in 2008. MacGregor and his partners folded the club in September 2008.
The Austin Wranglers are the only Arena Football League franchise that ever dropped down into Arena Football 2. Both leagues went out of business in 2009, although the Arena Football League was later revived in 2010 after its name and intellectual property were purchased in bankruptcy court.
Greg Feste resurfaced in Austin as a restaurateur in 2006, but his Cheesecake Kitchen went bust the following year, leaving dozens of workers unpaid and protesting in front of his house. Mark Brunell, the former Jacksonville Jaguars Pro Bowl quarterback, born again Christian, and Austin Wranglers investor, declared bankruptcy in 2011. During Feste’s late 1990′s NFL adventures with Champions For Christ, he represented Brunell’s commercial interests. Feste later recruited Brunell into at least two failed investment schemes – the Wranglers and a group of Whataburger fast food franchises in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Arena Football League hobbled into its third season in July of 1989 having barely survived an offseason civil war that pitted founder Jim Foster against a group of limited partners who bought into the league’s first round of expansion in 1988.
Foster emerged with control of his baby, but without most of his local market investors, save for Little Caesar’s Pizza founder (and future Detroit Tigers owner) Mike Ilitch in Detroit. With its franchises rudderless and in disarray, Arena Football decided to stage a limited stopgap season, featuring just five league-managed teams and a total of 13 games.
Although teams represented Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Maryland and Pittsburgh in name, Arena Football made only one appearance in each of those cities in 1989. The remaining five regular games were played in neutral cities to showcase the sport to potential expansion investors.
This particular game between the Detroit Drive and the Pittsburgh Gladiators was staged at Cleveland’s Richfield Coliseum. The game was a strong example of Arena Football’s pass-happy offenses and non-stop scoring (Detroit won 61-34), but as a sales promotion, it was a bust. The event drew an announced crowd of only 3,412 curiosity seekers to the 17,000-seat Coliseum. Of the 13 Arena Football exhibitions staged around the country in the summer of 1989, only a neutral site game in Baltimore drew a smaller crowd.
Despite the fact that none of the five 1989 test markets signed on for expansion franchises in 1990, the league did manage to add new investors and grow to six franchises in 1990. That was the start of a fifteen-year surge in Arena Football growth which saw expansion fees grow from $125,000 in 1990 to $18 million in 2005. The expansion bubble burst soon afterwards and the league folded and sought bankruptcy protection in 2009.
Starting quarterback Johnnie Walton was 35 years old and hadn’t worn a football uniform since 1979, but he flourished in Coury’s pass-happy offense, finishing second in the USFL with 3,772 passing yards. Former CFL All-Pro tailback Richard Crump rushed for nearly a 1,000 yards to supplement the passing game. Although the college draft was a near washout for the Breakers, the team hit big with 9th round draft choice Marcus Marek, the all-time tackling leader out of Ohio State University. Marek racked up 240 tackles and assisted tackles at inside linebacker and earned 1st Team All-USFL honors.
To nearly everyone’s surprise, the Breakers finished 11- 7 and narrowly missed the final playoff spot. Coury was named the USFL’s Coach of the Year.
The Breakers were saddled with an unfortunate stadium situation in Boston, playing in tiny Nickerson Field, which all lacked modern amenities such as luxury suites or convenient parking. With no suitable alternatives in the region, owners George Matthews and Randy Vataha sold the club for a reported $8.0 million to New Orleans developer Joseph Canizaro.
Canizaro moved the Breakers to New Orleans for the spring of 1984. After a season in New Orleans, Canizaro moved the club again, this time to Portland, Oregon. Each version of the Breakers – Boston, New Orleans and Portland – lasted just one season in their respective city. The USFL folded after the 1985 season.
Philadelphia Stars at Boston Breakers at Nickerson Field, May 29, 1983.
Offensive tackle Louis Bullard, who played for the Breakers in Boston, New Orleans and Portland, passed away from cancer on April 18, 2010 at age 53. Bullard was one of the Breakers’ player representatives and the spokesperson for dozens of Portland Breakers in their long fight to collect unpaid wages from team owner Joe Canizaro.
The Birmingham Americans were the first and only champions of the World Football League (1974-1975), a brash but undercapitalized effort to go head-to-head with the National Football League in the mid-1970′s, much as the American Football League had a decade earlier.
The Americans had a terrific squad under Head Coach Jack Gotta, an import from the Canadian Football League. The Americans won their first ten games of the 1974 season. The team then hit a rough patch in the middle of the schedule, dropping five out of the next seven, before regaining their form to finish a 15-5 regular season with a three-game win streak.
George Mira took most of the snaps at quarterback, ably backed up by former Grambling star Matthew Reed. Dennis Homan, a star at Alabama in the mid-60′s and former first round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys, led the Americans in receptions with 61, but the true breakout star of the offense was receiver Alfred Jenkins, a playmaking rookie out of Morris Brown University. Jenkins caught 60 passes for 1,326 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jenkins would sign with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons in 1975 and earn two Pro Bowl nods during his nine-year NFL career.
In the 1974 WFL playoffs, the Americans escaped The Hawaiians 22-19 in the semi-final and earned the right to host the World Bowl at Legion Stadium on December 5, 1974. By the time of the World Bowl, the WFL was in deep trouble. Several franchises folded during the season. Another club, the Charlotte Hornets, decided it couldn’t afford to compete in the playoffs despite qualifying. Neither the Americans nor their opponents, the Florida Blazers, had received paychecks in weeks and there was discussion of the players staging a boycott of the title game.
But in the end, they played and it was a great game. The Americans raced out to a 22-0 third quarter lead before the Florida Blazers roused themselves and reeled off a furious 21 point rally late in the game. Americans linebacker Warren Capone stuffed Blazers running back Tommy Reamon on an “Action Point” try late in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game, and Birmingham eeked out a 22-21 victory. The Action Point was a WFL innovation, which was sort of a hybrid of an extra point and a two-point conversion. Touchdowns were worth seven points in the WFL and an eighth point could be added by passing or running the ball in from the two-yard line.
As the Americans celebrated their championship in the Legion Field locker room, Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies burst in to seize the team’s uniforms and equipment on behalf of a local sports goods supplier holding bad debt from the team. This proved to be the final game the Americans ever played, as their debts sunk the franchise about a month later.
The team had severe financial problems, but they weren’t result of poor attendance. The Americans were actually very popular in Birmingham. World Football League attendance figures were notoriously inflated and the subject of much media derision in 1974, but there’s little debate that the Americans were far and away the most popular team in the league. The team’s official figures claimed 39,269 fans per game for 10 regular season home games in 1974.
But other factors conspired to drag down the club, including owner Bill Putnam’s failure to secure additional local partners to join his ownership group. Further, Putnam spent himself into oblivion in the spring and summer of 1974, paying out signing bonuses to NFL stars such as Ken Stabler and L.C. Greenwood who signed futures contracts to jump to the Americans once their current NFL deals expired.
Although the Americans were gone, the World Football League survived (barely) to stage a second season in 1975. The WFL put a new franchise into Legion Field called the Birmingham Vulcans, which returned a number of key players and coaches from the Americans World Bowl team. (Mira and Jenkins did not return, however). The Vulcans played well, although the crowds dipped substantially from 1974. The Vulcans folded in October 1975 along with the rest of the WFL, which ran out of cash and failed to complete its second regular season.
This great-looking program comes from the final regular season game of the 1988 Arena Football League season. The cover illustration depicts a blitzing defender from the New England Steamrollers closing in on a Pittsburgh Gladiators quarterback. The fact that those were the two teams actually playing in this game was just a coincidence, since this was one of six illustrated cover designs for the ARENABALL game magazine that were used around league throughout the AFL’s 36-game season.
The Gladiators (6-5) beat up on the lowly Steamrollers (2-9) during two earlier 1988 meetings, including the league’s most lopsided blowout of the year, an 82-26 ass whipping back on May 7th at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. This night New England got a surprising measure of revenge, upsetting the Gladiators 44-34. The catalyst was ex-Gladiator and reigning AFL Most Valuable Player Russell Hairston, who had been traded to New England two weeks earlier. Hairston torched his former team for four touchdowns. Since Arena Football players played both ways back in those days, Hairston also led New England in tackles on the evening.
This turned out to be the last hurrah for the obscure Steamrollers club, who folded quietly in the offseason after just one season of existence. Former Boston Patriots quarterback Babe Parilli was New England’s Head Coach.
The game was broadcast nationally on ESPN and someone has posted a nice quality three minute clip on YouTube: