A momentous day in American history couldn’t keep 46,000 Florida football fans from turning out at the Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl on August 8, 1974 to see what the new World Football League was all about. But it could delay kickoff for fifteen minutes.
WFL officials delayed the start of the game so that those in attendance could listen to President Richard Nixon’s address to the nation over the Gator Bowl loud speakers. When Nixon announced his resignation the crowd broke out into applause, according to reporters present. The next morning, United Press International would put a photo out on the national wire of the Sharks cheerleaders – the Sharkettes – crying during the National Anthem.
A different historic figure imposed his will on the game during the second half. The Jacksonville Sharks were hurting at quarterback, as they would be pretty much all season. Starter Kay Stephenson was out injured and backup Reggie Oliver, a rookie out of Marshall, was ineffective during the first half.
Enter Eddie McAshan, making his pro debut. McAshan isn’t a household name today, but Jesse Jackson reputedly called him “the Jackie Robinson of Southern college football”. A native of Gainesville, Florida he attended a recently integrated high school there. His high school football coach found crosses burning in his front yard after playing McAshan at quarterback. In 1969, he became the first African-American scholarship athlete at Georgia Tech University and in 1970, he became the first black man to start at quarterback for a major Southern college football program. Between 1970 and 1972, McAshan rewrote the Yellowjackets record book, but a late season dispute with the athletic department and Head Coach Bill Fulcher over complimentary tickets – McAshan wanted four extra tickets for family members and was rejected – led to his suspension from the team and NAACP picket lines at the 1972 Liberty Bowl.
McAshan was a 17th round draft pick of the New England Patriots in 1973 but never played a down in the NFL. Replacing Oliver midway through the game with the Sharks trailing the Hawaiians 14-7, McAshan was wild through the air (5-13 for 88 yards), but dangerous with his feet (11 rushes for 52 yards). He led the Sharks on two 80-yard drives during the fourth quarter, capping it all off with a one-yard touchdown run with 20 seconds remaining to lift the Sharks to a 21-14 come-from-behind win.
And that, more or less, marked both the beginning and the end of McAshan’s pro career. One glorious game, leading the game winning drive in front of a huge crowd in his home state. Sharks owner Fran Monaco gushed to the press afterwards, calling McAshan “another Johnny Unitas”. But McAshan hurt his knee on the game-winning drive. Kay Stephenson and Reggie Oliver would take the rest of the snaps under center for the Sharks that year…right up until early October, when Fran Monaco ran out of money and the Sharks went out of business without finishing the 1974 season.
The following year, the World Football League put a new team into the Gator Bowl, known as the Jacksonville Express. The Express signed McAshan to back up former NFL quarterback George Mira, but the team released him in training camp. As far as we can tell, McAshan never threw another pro pass after this one strange night at the Gator Bowl. The Jackie Robinson of Southern college football became the Moonlight Graham of professional football.
Eddie McAshan was one of six black quarterbacks to play in the World Football League, along with his Sharks teammate Reggie Oliver, Dave Mays (Houston Texans/Shreveport Steamer), D.C. Nobles (Shreveport ) Matthew Reed (Birmingham Vulcans), and Johnnie Walton (San Antonio Wings).