February 21, 2000
Another New League
By Bob Hulsey
If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, then Lamar Hunt’s American Football League received many compliments. Suddenly, challenging an established pro league didn’t seem so difficult.
The AFL inspired many imitators. In the late Sixties, the American Basketball Association took on the National Basketball Association. In the early Seventies, the World Hockey Association battled the National Hockey League. The North American Soccer League and World Team Tennis were born. And the National Football League encountered a new rival.
This new challenger was called the World Football League and it had dreams of taking America’s new obsession on the road to places like Toronto, Mexico City, Rome and Tokyo. As it turned out, the world wasn’t ready nor did it need to be. The cost of exporting football overseas was too expensive for even the most foolhardy of owners. In Toronto, millionaire John Bassett was prevented by his country’s government from placing his Toronto Northmen franchise on Canadian Football League soil.
The WFL was the brainchild of California attorney Gary Davidson who was also the force behind the minimally successful ABA and WHA. Hawaiian businessman Chris Hemmeter also pushed the new project and found takers willing to invest. In 1974, the new venture got a Game of the Week broadcast package from independent TV stations but it did not get the dollars needed to keep the league competitive. Most games were scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Players’ agents (which were unheard of in 1960 when the AFL formed) seized this new bargaining chip and the WFL owners were eager to lure name players to attract fans. Soon, large dollar amounts were tossed around and the race was on. Among the NFL stars who signed were QB’s Ken Stabler and Craig Morton, RB Calvin Hill, WR John Gilliam, TE Ted Kwalick and LB’s Bill Bergey and Ted Hendricks. Bassett dropped the biggest bombshell when a trio from the Miami Dolphins’ Super Bowl squad were inked – RB Jim Kiick, RB Larry Csonka and WR Paul Warfield. Some of these never actually suited up for their new teams due to legal challenges and contractual difficulties.
The team originally slated for Tokyo wound up in Houston as part of a planned twelve-team circuit. They were called the Houston Texans and their colors were Baylor green and gold. The owner, Steve Arnold, signed to play home games at the Astrodome and intended to compete head-to-head with Bud Adams’ Oilers. AFL greats Jim Nance and Don Maynard were lured into the fold. Former Texas A&M star Edd Hargett was inked to play quarterback. Jim Garrett was named head coach.
The Texans were part of a three-division arrangement that closely resembled an NFL conference. In the Eastern Division were teams that began play as the New York Stars, the Philadelphia Bells, the Jacksonville Sharks and the Florida Blazers. The Central Division had the Chicago Fire, the Detroit Wheels, the Birmingham Americans and the Memphis Southmen (where Bassett’s Northmen relocated). Along with Houston in the Western Division were the Portland Storm, the Southern California Sun and Hemmeter’s Hawaiians, which was the only name they used, a precursor to the Cher and Madonna’s of our day.
Like the other new leagues, the WFL added some gimmicks to set themselves apart from their establishment foe. The most peculiar were the single stick (called a “Dickerod”) used to measure first downs and the “Action Point” which would add an eighth point to a seven-point touchdown if the team could cross the goal on the equivalent of a college two-pointer. The WFL had an overtime period to settle ties which the NFL quickly adopted. The WFL also pioneered kickoffs from the 30-yd line and goalposts at the back of the end zone.
The Oilers’ top draft pick in 1973 was 6’8″, 295-lb DT John Matuszak and, after one season with the hapless Oilers, the burly lineman bolted to play for the Texans. He did this even though he was under contract with the Oilers.
How huge was Matuszak? The University of Tampa shut down their football program when “Tooz” graduated. He was a massive maverick with a mean streak that suddenly had two leagues at war for his services. Matuszak seemed capable of playing for both teams simultaneously.
Complicating matters was the first players’ strike in NFL history. While NFL training camps were virtually shut down, the Texans opened their first season on July 11, losing to Chicago, 17-0. Matuszak suited up with the new club but Adams was not willing to let him play. Adams got a judge to issue a restraining order that was handed to Big John right on the Astrodome field. Eventually, the Texans lost the legal battle and soon left town altogether. After eleven games, the franchise moved to Shreveport (perhaps, not coincidentally, at the same time the NFL began their strike-delayed season) and carried on as the Shreveport Steamers. They finished the year tied for last in the Western Division with a record of 7-12-1 (3-6-1 while in Houston).
Football fans did not embrace the WFL. It soon became apparent that attendance figures throughout the league were heavily inflated by free tickets and active imaginations. Money vanished quickly and teams struggled just to stay afloat. Jacksonville and Detroit (co-owned by future mayor Coleman Young and the first black-owned pro franchise) did not last the year. The New York Stars were sold in mid-season and moved to Charlotte. Chicago forfeited their final game. Birmingham won the first and only World Bowl then surrendered their equipment to law enforcement to pay off creditors. Their opponent, the Orlando-based Blazers, also couldn’t meet payroll. Florida’s coach, Jack Pardee, would later find his way to Houston as head coach in both the college and professional ranks.
The WFL’s remnants returned for 1975 but, when the Chicago team folded six games into the new season, the others quickly followed. The World Football League died a mere 1-1/2 seasons after it began. In the end, the NFL had far less to worry about this time. The WFL was a paper tiger awash in unpaid salaries and IOUs.
Matuszak’s disloyalty to Adams was soon rewarded when the Oilers traded him in mid-season to Kansas City for DT Curley Culp. He fit in with the Chiefs as poorly as he did in Houston and soon found himself at Al Davis’ halfway house for incorrigible football talents, a.k.a. the Oakland Raiders. There, Tooz became an All-Pro and won two Super Bowl rings.
Big John’s best performance, however, may have been as “O.W.”, an offensive lineman for the North Dallas Bulls in the film North Dallas Forty, whose profanity-laced tirade against authoritarian coaches was delivered with soul-stirring conviction. This led to movie roles in Caveman and The Goonies, among others. Matuszak’s heart gave out in 1989 and he died at age 39. He might have been an early victim of another creature that made inroads in the Seventies: performance-enhancing steroids.
For Houston fans, the WFL’s demise allowed them to focus again on the Oilers and the timing could not have been better.
Bob Hulsey has a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked in print and radio covering sports throughout Texas since 1976. He presently works for a telecommunications company in Austin.
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