This rare program from the 1996 Florida Bobcats of the Arena Football League showed up at the P.O. box this afternoon. The Bobcats were considered one of the league’s more troublesome embarrassments, thanks to their ownership squabbles, a puny 4,700-seat arena controlled by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and miserable crowds. Nevertheless, the ‘Cats managed to hang in there for six seasons from 1996 to 2001, which was a long life span by the standards of the Arena League.
Before the franchise arrived in West Palm Beach under new ownership in the spring of 1996, the team played in Miami and was known as the Miami Hooters (1993-1995). The Hooters were something of a convalescent home for ex-Miami Dolphins wide receivers. Jim “Crash” Jensen, a 12-year Dolphins vet and special teams ace, started at quarterback (his college position at Boston University) for the Hooters in 1993 and 1994. Former All-Pro Mark Duper showed up to play a couple of games in 1994, hauling in passes from his old Fins teammate.
Jensen retired from playing in 1995 and Duper wandered away to defend himself against a drug trafficking charge the same year. But when new franchise owner Bruce Frey moved the team to West Palm Beach in 1996, he brought back Crash Jensen as the Bobcats’ first Head Coach. That’s Jensen on the cover of this Week 4 game program (above right).
The gig wasn’t a stable one, however. Frey went through five Head Coaches during his five tumultuous seasons as owner. (Oddly, Jensen would end up back with the Bobcats in 1999 as an assistant coach to another ex-Dolphin, former tight end Bruce Hardy.)
The Bobcats lost this May 1996 game to the San Jose Sabercats by a score of 43-26. The Sabercats, improbably, still survive today after 18 seasons of indoor football.
Fred McNair, older brother of the late NFL star Steve McNair, took most of the snaps at quarterback for the Bobcats this season.
The New Orleans Night was a short-lived franchise during the early years of the original Arena Football League (1987-2008). The Night formed as an owner-less expansion team in March 1991 and were operated during their first season by the building management of the Louisiana Superdome. In July 1991, Orlando-area businessman and former NFL defensive end put together a group to buy the Night for $500,000. McBath already was a part owner of the league’s very popular Orlando Predators franchise, but he was unable to replicate that success in the Big Easy and the Night folded after a winless 1992 campaign.
The Night were 4-6 in the first season in 1991 under former Philadelphia Eagles Head Coach Eddie Khayat. The team’s most notable player was former Mississippi Valley State quarterback Willie Totten. Totten was Jerry Rice’s college quarterback and shattered numerous Division 1-AA passing records in tandem with the legendary receiver. Totten split time at quarterback with former LSU signal caller Mickey Guidry in 1991.
After Mike McBath bought the team, former Tulane Head Coach Vince Gibson replaced Eddie Khayat for the 1992 season. The Night went 0-10 under Gibson, with Mickey Guidry taking most of the snaps at quarterback. The Night’s final appearance was a 62-8 humiliation on the road against McBath’s other team, the Orlando Predators, on July 31, 1992. McBath and his partners handed the keys to the franchise back to the league office in October 1992 and the Night was quietly euthanized when no other buys came forward.
Even among Arena Football diehards, the New Orleans Night are on obscure and forgotten franchise. To the extent they are remembered at all, it is usually for sporting garish Zubaz stripes on their uniforms as part of a 1991 promotional campaign with the flash-in-the-pan apparel manufacturer.
The Night cheerleading squad was known as “The Rhythm of the Night”.
The upstart World Football League (1974-1975) made its debut in the Big Apple in Week 2 of the league’s inaugural season of 1974. WFL founder and Commissioner Gary Davidson, pictured on the program cover with an early blue & yellow prototype of a WFL football, hoped that his league would become a formidable rival to the NFL, much as the AFL was in the 1960′s. Another model was the World Hockey Association (1972-1979), co-founded by Davidson in 1971, which had already become a thorn in the side of the National Hockey League by challenging the established circuit for top free agents and expansion markets.
To be relevant, Davidson needed the WFL to work in major media markets like New York City. But the New York Stars, a franchise given away for free by Davidson to one of his World Hockey Association connections, Robert Schmertz, turned out to be one of the WFL’s biggest misfires.
For starters, the team played in dumpy Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island, with its horrid lighting, disgusting locker rooms, chewed up field (also used for soccer that summer by the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League), and inaccessible location. Then there was the roster, which was largely anonymous, save for the presence of defensive end Gerry Philbin and wide receiver George Sauer, who were beloved New York Jets stars of the AFL era and veterans of that team’s historic Super Bowl III victory over the Baltimore Colts. That wasn’t enough to sizzle to sell out the Stars’ home opener though, as fewer than 20,000 curiosity seekers turned out.
The game turned out to be a dark foreshadowing of the Stars’ cursed existence in New York. The Stars racked up a 29-3 halftime lead on the strength of three rushing touchdowns. Then they managed to blow said 26-point lead in the second half, allowing Birmingham Americans quarterback George Mira to throw for three touchdowns and run for a fourth. Still, the Stars had a chance to tie in the waning seconds, but German-born placekicker Pete Rajecki – the “Bootin’ Teuton” – blew a 35-yard field goal with 36 seconds remaining.
The Stars lost the game and dropped to 0-2. They would play only five more games in New York City before Robert Schmertz ran out of money and dumped the team two months later. The Stars played their final game at Downing Stadium on September 24, 1974 and then were abruptly shifted to North Carolina to finish out the 1974 schedule as the Charlotte Hornets. The World Football league itself folded one year later in October 1975.
This 1975 exhibition season opener for the Southern California Sun of the World Football League (1974-1975) saw the pro debuts of a trio of former University of Southern California stars. Quarterback Pat Haden and wide receiver J.K. McKay were best friends and co-MVPs of USC’s thrilling 18-17 Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State seven months earlier. The mostly highly touted rookie star for the Sun – and the entire struggling league – was Anthony Davis, the former Trojans All-American and Heisman Trophy runner-up. Davis was featured on the cover illustration of the evening’s game program (above right).
Davis got off to a strong start, running for 62 yards on 16 carries in the first half and returning a kickoff for 70 more. (Davis’ breakout would come in pre-season week two, rushing for four touchdowns against Memphis). But Haden was the revelation this evening, coming on in the second half to relieve projected starter Daryle Lamonica, the former Oakland Raiders star who’d lost his NFL job to Ken Stabler. After a scoreless first quarter, the game turned into a barnburner with the visiting San Antonio Wings taking a 31-29 lead late in the fourth quarter. Haden engineered a game winning 97-yard drive with a few minutes to play that ended with a one-yard QB sneak into the endzone for the winning score.
Lamonica turned out to be washed up and separated from the Sun after only a few games in 1975. Haden ended up handling the bulk of the quarterbacking duties, which was rather unexpected since he had an arrangement with Sun management to leave the team at midseason to pursue a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. As it turned out, the World Football League ran out of money and shut down in October 1975, the same month that Haden left for England. Haden returned to Southern California in 1976 and latched on with the Los Angeles Rams, leading the team to three consecutive NFC West division titles from 1976 to 1978.
The WLAF seemed to have a hodge podge of agendas that didn’t complement each other very well - to extend the NFL brand into major European markets, to bring spring football to the type of 2nd tier American cities that embraced the USFL in the mid-80′s, and to create a developmental league for NFL practice squad types and training camp cuts.
The odd result was a league where American football junkies could watch Barcelona, Spain play Raleigh, North Carolina on national television with players that few had ever heard of. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Kevin Sweeney, playing for the WLAF’s Montreal Machine, came up with this loaded analogy after the league’s debut week, which undoubtedly made the World League’s NFL funders cringe:
The least appealing of the WLAF’s opening week games was undoubtedly the Sacramento Surge vs. Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks match up in California. The Surge played in the league’s smallest venue, 23,000-seat Hughes Stadium. Nevertheless, the stands were only two-thirds full for the first professional football game in the California capital since the late 1960′s. Part of this was due to the torrential rain, which washed away the walk-up box office. Unfortunately, for the 15,000 or so that did show up, the quality of football on display was as gloomy as the weather.
Surge coach Kay Stephenson handed the starting quarterback duties to 28-year old pro football nomad Ben Bennett, a former NFL replacement player and a star in the Arena Football League. It was an odd choice and one that exposed one of the tensions in the WLAF’s model. The Surge also had quarterback Mike Elkins on loan from the Kansas City Chiefs, a 1989 2nd round draft pick in need of regular playing time to develop. As the Surge’s coach, was Stephenson’s job to play whatever personnel he thought gave his team the best chance to win…or was it to develop a prospect like Elkins, who was one of a very small number of active NFL players entrusted on loan to the WLAF in its first season?
In the event it didn’t matter, as Bennett was ineffective in his first outdoor game in four years. At halftime, the visiting Skyhawks led 3-0. Bennett was 6-of-17 for 43 yards with two interceptions. Waterlogged fans began to leave. In the sloppy conditions, the teams combined for seven fumbles and four interceptions. Surge kicker Kendall Trainor missed two field goals from inside 40 yards.
Things improved for the home team when Mike Elkins replaced Bennett for the second half. Elkins completed 7-of-10 for 73 yards and protected the ball, leading the Surge on two scoring drives while the Sacramento defense held Raleigh-Durham scoreless in the second half. Running back Paul Frazier plunged in from one yard out for the game’s only touchdown with 3:47 remaining, to seal an artless 9-3 victory for Sacramento.
Surge coach Kay Stephenson was diplomatic about the new league’s debut afterwards, telling The Associated Press: “It was the best, worst and only game I’ve seen.”
The loss started a trend for the doomed Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks, owned by NBA Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn. The Skyhawks lost all ten of their games in 1991 and Shinn promptly folded the club in July after only eight months in business.
Ben Bennett never started another outdoor football game and was back in the Arena League by springtime. In 2012, Bennett was ranked #23 on a list of the Greatest Arena Football Players of All Time, put out by the AFL in celebration of its 25th anniversary season.
The Sacramento Surge were a minor league football team in the NFL-sponsored World League of American Football for two spring seasons in 1991 and 1992. During their debut season, the Surge played at Hughes Stadium. In 1992 the team moved across town to Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium.
The first Surge team in 1991 fared poorly under former Buffalo Bills Head Coach Kay Stephenson. The team finished 3-7 and out of the playoff hunt. The roster was composed primarily of late 1980′s NFL draft picks-turned-training camp casualties, plus refugees from the Canadian Football League. In a nod to the league’s international pretensions, there were also a couple of “Operation Discovery” players from overseas attempting to adapt their athletic talents to the sport of American football. The Surge had a Swedish linebacker named Matti Lindholm and a German defensive lineman named Oliver Erhorn.
1991 Surge starting quarterback Mike Elkins was exactly the kind of the player the World League was designed for. A 2nd round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs out of Wake Forest in 1989, Elkins was expected to be the Chiefs quarterback of the 1990′s. But Elkins had accuracy troubles and spent his first two years in the NFL holding a clipboard on the sidelines. More than anything else, Elkins needed snaps and the WLAF would provide a competitive developmental environment for that kind of player. Elkins started 9 games for the Surge in 1991 on assignment from Kansas City and then reported back to Chiefs training camp, where he was released in the team’s final cutdown for the 1991 NFL season.
The Surge returned in 1992 with all-new players at the key skills positions. Elkins was gone, replaced by NFL journeyman David Archer, who was one of the older players in the league at age 30. Former Atlanta Falcons practice squadder Mike Pringle took over lead running back duties. Former Iowa State receiver Eddie Brown came over from the Canadian Football League.
Archer would lead the WLAF with 2,964 yards passing and 23 touchdowns in only 10 games. Brown was the league’s best in receiving yardage (1,011) and touchdown receptions (12). Pringle was a double-threat running the ball and catching passes out of the backfield. On defense, the Surge unearthed a Seattle Seahawks practice squad player named Michael Sinclair. Sinclair tore up the World League with 10 sacks in 1992 and would go on to become one of the NFL’s most feared pass rushers of the 1990′s, earning three Pro Bowl nods during a decade with the Seahawks.
Another notable player on the 1992 edition of the Surge was defensive tackle Bill Goldberg, an 11th round draft choice of the Los Angeles Rams out of the University of Georgia in 1990. Goldberg would parlay his World League experience into a brief NFL career with the Atlanta Falcons in the early Nineties, but his real fame came at the end of the decade as the World Championship Wrestling and WWE star Goldberg.
The 1992 Surge tied with the Orlando Thunder for the best record in the World League at 8-2. The two teams met in the World Bowl II championship game at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on June 6, 1992. Down 17-6 entering the 4th quarter, David Archer threw touchdown passes to tight end Paul Green and to Eddie Brown to lead a furious 15-point rally, as the Surge won the championship 21-17. Archer was named game MVP. This turned out to be the final game for the league.
The NFL pulled the plug on the WLAF in September 1992 after two years of operation. Surge owner Fred Anderson wanted to soldier on and acquired a Canadian Football League expansion franchise for Sacramento to begin play in July of 1993. Anderson’s Sacramento Gold Miners were the first CFL team to be based in the United States. The Gold Miners were in some ways a continuation of the Surge in a new league, retaining the old team’s color scheme, Head Coach Kay Stephenson, and quite a few players, including starting quarterback David Archer.
The Gold Miners played two seasons in Sacramento (1993-1994) before moving to San Antonio, Texas.
At the time the Wolves joined up in 2002, AF2 was a sprawling 34-team league with franchises stretched from upstate New York to southern California. To keep costs down, the Wolves played only against regional opponents in the Northeast corridor and mid-Atlantic states.
The Wolves played at the newly built 7,500-seat arena inside the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. Veteran minor league baseball and hockey investor Dr. Eric Margenau was the owner of the team. Margenau had previous experience with indoor football, as Chairman of the Orlando Predators, one of the most popular clubs in the original Arena Football League.
The Wolves lasted two seasons at the casino, drawing modest crowds along the way. The team averaged 4,162 fans in 2002 as the expansion team finished 3-13. The next season was a big improvement on the carpet, with a 10-6 record and a trip to the playoffs, but a downbeat year at the box office, as attendance dipped to 3,699 per game.
In October 2003, the Wolves were sold to new investors who moved the team to Manchester, New Hampshire. As the Manchester Wolves, the franchise played six more seasons (2004-2009) before going out of business along with the rest of Arena Football 2 in 2009.
A small market mainstay in the Arena Football League for over a decade. The Grand Rapids Rampage lineage dates back to the Detroit Drive (1988-1993), who were a dynasty in the AFL’s early years. The Drive moved to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1994 and played one season as the Massachusetts Marauders before going bankrupt. Dan DeVos bought the carcass of the Maruaders out of bankruptcy in 1997 and brought the team to Grand Rapids.
Dan DeVos was an heir to the Amway fortune and also owned the Grand Rapids Griffins, the city’s minor league hockey team. (Van Andel Arena, where both the Rampage and the Griffins played, was named for Jay Van Andel, who was the business partner of Dan’s father Rich DeVos in founding Amway0. Dan DeVos gave some insights into the team’s finances in interviews with The Grand Rapids Press in 2008, acknowledging that the team lost money in all of its seasons in Grand Rapids, but that he kept it going because he felt the Rampage was important to the fabric of the community.
Sometimes referred to as “the Green Bay Packers of the Arena Football League”, the Rampage were an anomaly in the league which increasingly focused on major markets from the late 1990′s onward. DeVos would have been justified in moving the Rampage into Arena Football 2, the AFL’s small-market developmental league which launched in 2000 and featured similar mid/small market cities to Grand Rapids. To his credit, he kept the Rampage in the primary league and was rewarded with a championship in Arena Bowl XV in 2001.
Arena Bowl XV was the franchise’s finest hour. The Rampage hosted the Nashville Kats at a sold-out Van Andel Arena with 11,217 in attendance. ABC Sports televised the game nationwide with a first-rate broadcast team of Brent Musburger, Gary Danielson and Lynn Swann. Rampage quarterback Clint Dolezel connected with Offensive Specialist (and game MVP) Terrill Shaw for five touchdowns passes and the Rampage defeated the Kats 64-42. It would be the Rampage’s only championship in their eleven seasons of play.
Following the 2008 season, the Arena Football League fell into a business model crisis, despite rising franchise valuations and increasing attendance. The league’s expenses still far outstripped revenues and with unionized labor, the player salary cap had risen to approximately $2 million per season – a sea change from the late 80′s and early 90′s when players earned just $500/game for a 12-game season. A planned $100 million recapitalization of the league via a sale to private equity firm Platinum Equity fell through in the fall of 2008.
In December 2008, the AFL cancelled its 2009 season. The Rampage entered a state of limbo for all of 2009 as the remaining AFL owners tried and failed to craft a new business model. The league eventually entered bankruptcy in August of 2009. A collection of former AFL and small market Arena Football 2 owner bought the league’s intellectual property out of bankruptcy in late 2009 and formed a new, low-budget version of the league to begin play in the spring of 2010. Rampage ownership decided they did not want to participate in the new league and officially went out of business in March 2010, after 15 months of inactivity.
Grand Rapids Rampage corporate sponsorship video, prepared for the abandoned 2009 season:
Grand Rapids’ local news coverage of the Arena Football League shutdown in December 2008:
The New York Cityhawks enjoyed a brief two-year fling in the Arena Football League. The team performed quite poorly both on the field and at the box office. The Cityhawks were 2-12 in 1997 and 3-11 in 1998. In both seasons, announced attendance hovered near the 6,500 mark, nearly 40% below the league average.
The Cityhawks marked the Arena Football League’s second failed attempt to establish a franchise in the nation’s biggest media market. An earlier club – the New York Knights – played a single summer at the Garden in 1988 before vanishing.
The Cablevision-owned Madison Square Garden operated the Cityhawks. After the team’s disappointing second season in 1998, MSG moved the franchise to Connecticut into the MSG-controlled Hartford Civic Center. The club was renamed the New England Sea Wolves and played two seasons in Connecticut (1999-2000) before new owners acquired the team and moved it to Toronto where the well-travelled franchise finally died in 2002.
Pretty sure this was the smallest crowd in the short, wild history of the World Football League (1974-1975). Only 1,293 fans rattled around in 60,000-seat Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Perhaps Philadelphians detected the scent of putrefaction hanging over the entire WFL enterprise – the league would fold just four days later without managing to complete its second season.
The weather was rainy and the game was even sloppier than the turf. The visiting Charlotte Hornets lost three fumbles and threw two interceptions. Leading rusher Don Highsmith ran 16 times for -2 yards. But Philadelphia Bell quarterback Bob Davis was determined to keep the visitors in the game, completing five-of-eighteen passes with three picks. The only offense came from the Bell ground game, with Claude Watts churning out a team record 136 yards on the ground and John Land adding 93 more. The Bell won the final game of their brief existence 18-10.
Three-time NFL All-Pro tight end Ted Kwalick was the biggest star to take part in this game. He jumped to the Philadelphia Bell from the San Francisco 49ers for a bigger contract in 1975. In the era of the “Rozelle Rule” reserve clause, jumping leagues was just about the only leverage NFL stars had to reap the benefits of something like free agency. But Kwalick must have wondered what the hell he got himself into as he gazed around the empty confines of Franklin Field. He would be back in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders within the month after the WFL blew up.