Lively Tales About Dead Teams

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1968-1970 Pottstown Firebirds

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Pottstown FirebirdsAtlantic Coast Football League (1968-1970)

Born: 1968
Folded: May 2, 1971 – The Firebirds merge with the Norfolk Neptunes

Stadium: Franklin Field

Team Colors: Green & White

Owner: Ed Gruber

ACFL Champions: 1969 & 1970

 

Minor league football is – and always has been – so far off the radar in this country that it’s impossible to speak of there being any iconic teams.  The sport offers nothing like the Hershey Bears hockey team or Rochester Red Wings baseball club that have entertained locals for upwards of a century. To the extent that minor and semi-pro football at least has a cult favorite team – the sport’s answer to the Durham Bulls – it’s likely the short-lived Pottstown Firebirds of the defunct Atlantic Coast Football League.

The Firebirds were a colorful and talented bunch. They played at the local high school football stadium in Pottstown, 40 miles north of Philadelphia. The team was backed by a local underwear manufacturer named Ed Gruber and took their name and team color from a loose affiliation with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Though the club lasted only three seasons, they won two minor league titles.

The team’s 15 minutes of fame came thanks to Steve Sabol’s NFL Films. The young company documented the Firebirds’ final championship season in 1970. More than a year after the team’s demise, the documentary Pro Football Pottstown PA aired prior to the national broadcast of Super Bowl VI in January 1972. The following year, the author Jay Acton published The Forgettables, a book that chronicled the Firebirds behind the scenes during that same 1970 season. (Acton later became a serial minor league baseball investor himself).

The Firebirds dominated the Atlantic Coast Football League thanks to a fine cast of characters. Carousing quarterback James “King” Corcoran was characterized by Acton (and many others) as a sort of Joe Namath of the minor leagues. Tight end Bob Tucker went on to an 11-year NFL career. Receiver Jack Dolbin took half a decade to catch on in the NFL after leaving Pottstown, but ended up spending five seasons with the Denver Broncos in the late 1970’s.

In March 1971, Ed Gruber tried to sell the Firebirds to a group of businessmen that planned to move the team to Hershey, Pennsylvania. But the deal fell through. Gruber then decided to buy the rival Norfolk (VA) Neptunes instead in May of 1971.  He merged the two clubs, shuttering the Pottstown operation and moving the team’s best players to Virginia.

The Atlantic Coast Football League folded in 1973. The following year, the World Football League launched. The WFL hoped to take on the NFL head-to-head for top talent much as the American Football League did in the 1970’s. The league’s Philadelphia Bell franchise hired former Firebirds assistant Ron Waller as Head Coach. Waller loaded the Bell with former Firebirds, including Corcoran at quarterback and starting running back John Land.

 

Pottstown Firebirds Shop


Firebirds Retro T-Shirt by Throwback Max

The Forgettables: A Minor League Odyssey by Jay Acton

 

Pottstown Firebirds Memorabilia

 

Pottstown Firebirds Video

NFL Films ‘ Pro Football Pottstown PA chronicled the Firebirds’ third and final season in the fall of 1970. The one-hour film aired nationwide prior to the broadcast of Super Bowl VI in January 1972.

Links

Legendary football Firebirds back in Pottstown for reunion“, Rosemarie Ross, The Delaware County Daily Times, November 30, 2010

Atlantic Coast Football League Media Guides

Atlantic Coast Football League Programs

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November 29, 1969 – Hartford Knights vs. Pottstown Firebirds

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Hartford Knights vs. Pottstown (PA) Firebirds
ACFL Championship Game
November 29, 1969
Dillon Stadium
Attendance: 8,700 (est.)

Atlantic Coast Football League Programs

 

 

Back in the 1960’s, you could head east from the Ohio Valley mining towns to the port cities of the Eastern seaboard and, if it was autumn Saturday night and you had nothing else to do, you might stumble upon a professional football game at the local Depression-era municipal stadium.  It was good football too.  The minor bus leagues of the 1960’s produced some terrific players who went on to All-Pro careers in the NFL during the 1970s, players like Coy Bacon, Otis Sistrunk, Bob Tucker and Jeff Van Note.

Two of the strongest teams of the late 1960’s were the Hartford Knights and the Pottstown (PA) Firebirds.  The Knights had a working agreement with the Buffalo Bills of the AFL and the Firebirds were aligned with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.  In 1969, the Knights were the defending champions of the Atlantic Coast Football League (1962-1973) and, at one point, had a twenty game winning streak stretching back to early in the 1968 season.  But the Firebirds drubbed the Knights 48-14 in the 1969 ACFL regular season finale at Pottstown on November 22, 1969, exactly one week before this championship game at Hartford’s Dillon Stadium.

Minor league football was exactly thriving at the dawn of the 1970’s, but this game was compelling enough to merit a small write up in The New York Times.   An estimated 8,700 fans turned out and, to the extent they were there to support the hometown Knights, they went home disappointed.   Running back Claude Watts scored twice for the Firebirds, once on the ground and once on a pass from Benji Dial.  Both scores came after turnovers forced by the stifling Pottstown defense which held Hartford to just 33 yards in total offense for the game.

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The two teams would meet again the following year in the 1970 ACFL championship game with similar results.  The Firebirds shutout the Knights 31-0 to capture their second straight title.

During the early 1970’s the Firebirds became a minor cult phenomenon thanks to Steve Sabol and NFL Films.  Sabol took an interest in the small town Firebirds and produced an hour-long documentary – Pro Football, Pottstown, PA – which was broadcast on national television prior to Super Bowl VI in 1972.

In addition, author Jay Acton followed the Firebirds through their 1970 championship season and published his behind-the-scenes chronicle of that season, The Forgettables, in 1973.  (Acton would later become a notable minor league baseball investor during the 1980’s and 1990’s).

Ironically, the Firebirds weren’t around to enjoy any of this newfound fame.  Ed Gruber, the local underwear baron who owned the Firebirds, shut down the club after the 1970 championship season.  The Knights hung around a little bit longer, folding along with the rest of the Atlantic Coast Football League in 1973.

 

==Downloads==

1969 ACFL Championship Game sources

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Written by AC

October 27th, 2012 at 11:56 pm

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