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August 8, 1974 – Jacksonville Sharks vs. The Hawaiians

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Jacksonville Sharks vs. The Hawaiians
August 8, 1974
The Gator Bowl
World Football League Programs

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.

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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).

 

Written by andycrossley

January 20th, 2013 at 10:31 pm

August 2, 1975 – Philadelphia Bell vs. The Hawaiians

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Philadelphia Bell vs. The Hawaiians
August 2, 1975
Franklin Field
Attendance: 2,732

World Football League Programs
32 pages

 

This was an historic game which is now all but forgotten.  When the Philadelphia Bell faced The Hawaiians in a World Football League game at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field on August 2, 1975, it marked the first time in the modern era that a black man led a pro football team onto the field as Head Coach.  That man was Willie Wood, a former eight-time Pro Bowl safety on Vince Lombardi’s mighty Green Bay Packers teams of the 1960′s.  Wood originally signed on with the Bell as defensive coordinator for the 1975 season under Head Coach Ron Waller.  When Waller abruptly resigned in training camp, Bell owner John Bosacco tabbed Wood as his replacement.   Wood took over the coaching reigns with just four days to prepare for this regular season opener.

Wood’s breakthrough appointment drew major press coverage around the United States, but it did little to spark ticket buying interest in Philadelphia.  The Bell announced an embarrassing opening day crowd of just 2,732 at 60,000-seat Franklin Field for this game.  In two other WFL games the same  night, the Memphis Southmen drew 25,166 and the Birmingham Vulcans claimed 29,000 in their respective home openers.

There was some extra context to the pitiful numbers in Philadelphia.  The year before – the WFL’s debut season of 1974 – the Bell announced staggering crowds of 55,534 for their inaugural game and 64,719 for their second home game.  Within weeks, however, Bell Vice President Barry Leib sheepishly acknowledged that the team gave away more than 100,000 free tickets for the first two games.  Of the 120,000 fans the Bell claimed, fewer than 20,000 actually purchased tickets.  It was the kind of attendance chicanery that many teams engage in, but inflated to an industrial scale that enraged the media.  The national sporting press dubbed it “Papergate” and sharpened their knives.  The scandal instantly deflated the credibility of the fledgling league and the Bell franchise.  By the time 1975 rolled around, the WFL was in wobbly shape and the Bell literally couldn’t giveaway tickets in Philly – but at least they were honest about it.

Beyond Wood prowling the sidelines, there were a number of interesting players in this game.  The Hawaiians featured former Dallas Cowboys #1 draft pick and All-Pro running back Calvin Hill.  He shredded the Bell defense for 155 yards on 32 carries for the night.

The Bell’s big star was Pennsylvania native and former San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl tight end Ted Kwalick.  Kwalick was only 28 years old and still considered one of the best tight ends in pro football.  He signed with the WFL the previous year, committing the join the team in 1975 after playing out his option year with the 49ers in the 1974.  Despite his elite talent, the 49ers punished Kwalick for his disloyalty by banishing him to the end of the bench for much of the 1974 season.  Kwalick caught a 9-yard touchdown pass in this game from Bell quarterback Jim “King” Corcoran as the Bell held on to defeat the Hawaiians 21-15.

One other player of note on the Bell this night was an aging wide receiver named Vince Papale.  After the demise of the WFL later on in 1975, Papale earned a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles at an open tryout.  He later became a cult hero as a 30-year old NFL rookie and special teams star in Philadelphia during the mid-late 1970′s.  Disney turned Papale’s unlikely success story into the 2006 film Invincible, with Mark Wahlberg as Papale.

Written by andycrossley

October 13th, 2012 at 4:18 am

August 16, 1975 – The Hawaiians vs. Southern California Sun

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The Hawaiians vs. Southern California Sun
August 16, 1975
Honolulu Stadium
World Football League Programs
32 pages

How does that cliche go?  If the World Football League didn’t have bad luck, it wouldn’t have any luck at all.  The story of Calvin Hill and The Hawaiians is a classic example.  Launched in early 1974, the WFL quickly signed dozens of established NFL starters – and a few outright stars – to “futures” contracts to join the upstart league once their NFL deals expired.  In an era before free agency, the presence of a rival pro football league was just about the only leverage NFL players could exercise in contract talks.  Stars such as Ken Stabler, L.C. Greenwood, Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield signed deals to jump to the WFL in after their current contracts elapsed in 1975, 1976 or 1977…and then watched in horror as the 1974 WFL season came unglued before their eyes.

By the time the league staged the first and only “World Bowl”in December 1974, four of the league’s twelve cities had lost their teams.  Other clubs failed to meet payroll for weeks or months at a time.  The Birmingham Americans – who owned the futures contracts on Stabler and Greenwood, among other stars – won the championship game and then immediately had their uniforms and equipment seized by sheriff deputies during the post-game celebration.  The gear would be sold on the courthouse steps to settle unpaid bills.

The Hawaiians were one of only three WFL clubs to stagger into the 1975 season with their original corporation and futures contracts intact.  The Hawaiians had one of the biggest names to sign with the WFL in four-time Pro Bowl running back Calvin Hill, late of the Dallas Cowboys.  Hill won the 1969 NFL Offensive Rookie-of-the-Year award as a first-year player out of Yale.  But he was injury prone and the Cowboys hedged their bets by selecting Duane Thomas in the 1st round of the 1970 NFL draft.  Thomas emerged as a star and handled most of the rushing chores for the next two seasons while Hill continued to battle leg injuries.  But the mercurial Thomas grew embittered with the Cowboys and withdrew from all virtually all interaction with the team, leading to his depature after the 1971 season.  Hill took back the starting job and had the best seasons of his career, posting back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in 1972 and 1973.  In the spring of 1974, he signed a futures contract with the Hawaiians that would pay him $166,000 for the 1975 season.

1975 WFL Standard Player Contract

This eye-catching program is from the Hawaiians August 16th, 1975 home opener at Honolulu Stadium against the Southern California Sun.  After waiting more than a year for their big name star to arrive, this game would mark Hill’s regular season debut in front of the local fans of Hawaii (Hill scored in a pre-season exhibition in Honolulu in July).  Hill got off to a hot start, rushing for 45 yards in the game’s first fifteen minutes.  Then Hill was gang tackled by Sun defenders on a short pass at the line of scrimmage and tore the medial collateral ligament in one of his knees.  Hill’s season was over after three games – and only one quarter of play at home.

One week later the Hawaiians signed a high profile replacement for Hill in the offensive backfield: Duane Thomas.

Calvin Hill returned to the NFL in 1976 with the Washington Redskins and played another six seasons, retiring as a member of the Cleveland Browns in 1981.  His son Grant Hill is a 7-time NBA All-Star and currently the oldest player in that league as a member of the Phoenix Suns.

Duane Thomas was released by the Hawaiians in October 1975.  The World Football League folded in the middle of its second season less than two weeks later.  Save for a failed pre-season come back effort with the Green Bay Packers in 1979, Thomas never played pro football again.

Written by andycrossley

April 6th, 2012 at 11:23 pm