The New York/New Jersey Knights were a short-lived franchise in the NFL’s early 1990’s developmental league, the World League of American Football. Largely forgotten today, the Knights at least deserve some modest credit for their earnest-yet-ungainly attempt to resolve the cross-border identity crisis of Giants Stadium and the Meadowlands.
Run & Shoot offense innovator Mouse Davis was the Knights’ head coach for both seasons of play, although the offense – helmed variously by Jeff Graham, Doug Pederson and Reggie Slack – never put up the kind of record-shattering, pinball machine numbers that Davis’ Houston Gamblers and Denver Gold offenses did in the United States Football League.
The Knights went 5-5 in their first season and advanced to the 1991 WLAF playoffs, where they lost to the eventual champion London Monarchs. The following season the Knights improved to 6-4, but missed the postseason.
In September 1992 the NFL pulled the plug to the World League after only two seasons of play. Although the European teams proved popular, the weak television ratings and limited box office appeal of the American clubs hurt the league. The Knights were the best draw among the American teams, averaging over 30,000 fans per game in 1991.
==New York-New Jersey Knights Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
The Barcelona Dragons were a founding franchise in the NFL-backed World League of American Football (1991-1992), which sought to serve as both a developmental league for the NFL and a marketing mechanism to extend the NFL brand into European markets. The original concept saw a mix of European (Barcelona, Frankfurt & London) franchises with North American franchises.
The NFL pulled the plug on the WLAF after two seasons in September 1992. But the league was re-organized as the Europe-only “World League” in 1995 and the Barcelona Dragons returned to action after a two-year hiatus. In 1998 the World League was re-branded as NFL Europe. The Dragons played nine seasons in the re-booted league before going out of business after the 2003 season.
All told, the Dragons played eleven seasons and made four trips to the World Bowl championship game, winning their lone title at World Bowl ’97.
Former Boston College head coach Jack Bicknell was the Dragons’ only head coach for their 11-year history and the team employed quite a few former Boston College Eagles over the years, including 1985 Outland Trophy winner Mike Ruth, who played for the 1991 and 1992 Dragons after his NFL career failed to pan out.
Other notable players included ex-Penn State defensive lineman Bruce Clark, the #4 overall pick in the 1980 NFL Draft, who finished his career with Barcelona in 1991. Former Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice, who led the Fighting Irish to the national championship in 1988, played for the Dragons in 1991 and 1992 but could not unseat ex-Rutgers signal caller Scott Erney for the starting job. Former Temple running back Paul Palmer, an NFL 1st round draft bust in 1987, played for the Dragons in 1991 and 1992.
The Dragons – and the World League’s – most notorious player was former UConn linebacker Eric Naposki. Naposki, who kicked around the NFL briefly in the late 1980’s as an undrafted free agent, was Barcelona’s leading tackler in 1991. He played the 1991 & 1992 seasons during the WLAF era and later returned to play for the Dragons again in 1996 and 1997. In 2012, Naposki was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 15-year old murder-for-hire of Bill McLaughlin in Newport Beach, California in December 1994. The murder went unsolved for 15 years before Naposki and a female accomplice were arrested. Chillingly, Naposki continued to play for the Dragons for two seasons after committing the killing.
==Barcelona Dragons Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
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 this 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 returned to the States 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.
Sacramento Surge Memorabilia
1991 Surge Media Guide
Kay Stephenson. 1991 Pro Set Trading Card
Mike Elkins. 1991 Pro Set Trading Card
Surge vs. Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks. March 23, 1991
Ben Bennett. 1991 Pro Set
Surge vs. Frankfurt Galaxy. April 13, 1991
Surge vs. Barcelona Dragons. April 27, 1991
Shawn Knight. 1991 Pro Set Trading Card
Surge vs. Montreal Machine. May 4, 1991
Surge vs. London Monarchs. May 18, 1991
1991 Surge Stein Mug
1992 Surge Media Guide
Surge vs. Montreal Machine. March 14, 1992
Surge vs. Montreal Machine. April 4, 1992
Louis Riddick. 1992 Wild Card Trading Card
Surge vs. San Antonio Riders. April 11, 1992
Pete Najarian. 1992 Ultimate Trading Card
Surge vs. Barcelona Dragons. May 31, 1992
Surge vs. Orlando Thunder. World Bowl II. June 6, 1992
Defensive back Junior Robinson died in a car accident on September 30, 1995. He was 27 years old.
Former Surge defensive lineman Nate Hill passed away on September 18, 2012 at age 41.
Sacramento Surge Video
April 27, 1991. The Surge host Spain’s Barcelona Dragons at Hughes Stadium before a crowd of 19,045 and a national cable audience on USA Network.
Remember the World League of American Football (1991-1992), the NFL-backed spring developmental league that stretched from Sacramento to Barcelona? The WLAF was pretty popular in Europe but never really caught on stateside, despite national TV contracts with ABC and The USA Network. If you recall the World League at all, chances are it’s for one of two things: the USA Network’s “Helmet Cam”, which put viewers into the heads of quarterbacks about to be bulldozed by 300-lb. linemen, or for the blinding florescent green uniforms of the Orlando Thunder franchise.
Thunder owner Raj Bhathal was a swimwear manufacturer in Newport Beach, California. The Thunder’s lime green hue might have blended right into Bhathal’s spring line of bikinis, but it was a novel attention grabber on a pro football field.
Whatever you thought of the Thunder’s look – ESPN Page 2 columnist Paul Lukas rated them the 2nd worst in the history of pro football in 2006 – the team did play an exciting, pass happy brand of football under Head Coach Don Matthews during their first season in the spring of 1991. Former University of Florida quarterback Kerwin Bell tied for the league lead in passing touchdowns with 17. But the Thunder were streaky and finished out of the playoffs at 5-5.
As TV ratings and game attendance lagged in the U.S., one criticism of the league was that it lacked compelling NFL prospects, despite its mission as a developmental league. The WLAF tended to be a last chance destination for disappointing 2nd or 3rd round quarterbacks-turned-clipboard holders like Anthony Dilweg and Mike Elkins. There wasn’t a sense that you were watching the stars of tomorrow, as you might have in triple-A baseball, for instance.
The Thunder certainly had their fair share of draft busts and disappointments, including running backs Roger Vick (New York Jets 1st rounder, 1987) and Darryl Clack (Dallas Cowboys 2nd round, 1986). But in a category unto himself was notorious offensive lineman Kevin Allen (Philadelphia Eagles 1st round, 1985), who joined the Thunder in 1992 on assignment from the Kansas City Chiefs. Orlando’s willingness to accept Kevin Allen, who served 33 months of a 15-year sentence for a brutal 1986 rape perpetrated with the assistance of a former Philadelphia Eagles intern, stands as a stain on all those involved with the senior management of the team. Allen was out of football six years when he became a starter for the Thunder in 1992. Fortunately, he never played again.
A notable exception to all this was Miami Dolphins quarterback Scott Mitchell, who was sent to Orlando for seasoning in the 1992 season. As a true prospect on assignment from an NFL club, Mitchell quickly relegated Kerwin Bell to the bench. Mitchell was 2nd in the WLAF in passing yards in 1992 and helped lead the team to an 8-2 record and a berth in World Bowl ’92 against the Sacramento Surge at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
The Surge defeated the Thunder 21-17 in the league championship game on June 6, 1992. This would prove to the last game in the league’s brief two-year history.
Like most of the American clubs, attendance was somewhat disappointing in Orlando. The Thunder averaged 19,018 fans for five dates at the Florida Citrus Bowl and dropped to 16,522 in 1992, despite the team’s dramatic improvement in the standings. The local Orlando Sentinel newspaper pilloried absentee owner Raj Bhathal for running a cut-rate, blundering operation on numerous occasions, typified by the team’s decision to make its cheerleaders pay their own way to the World Bowl ’92 title game in Montreal.
In September 1992, the NFL pulled the plug on the World League after two seasons. The spring developmental concept was re-worked and then re-launched as NFL Europe in 1995, with all three of the WLAF’s European franchises returning, along with several new overseas markets.
==Orlando Thunder Programs on Fun While It Lasted==