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.