This rain-soaked game marked a rather glum debut for the NFL-backed World League of American Football in Sacramento back in March of 1991.
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:
“It’s a lot like strike-team ball, at least right now,” Sweeney told Sports Illustrated, referencing the NFL’s infamous 1987 replacement/scab games.
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.