Day 582: Football’s Big Fumbles

originally published August 4, 2013

For those of us whose sports-blood surges through but the vein of American football, whose clicker-thumbs are prepped for their pre-season workouts in anticipation of their September Sunday cardio, today is a special day. This is the day our beloved sport pokes its thumbs through the cocoon of the off-season and blinks savagely at the bright light of the months ahead.

The Hall of Fame Game. The day when two teams suit up in their Sunday best and put on a pre-season display of the highest caliber. Well, maybe not the highest caliber. We’ll get a few sets of downs with the 2013 starters, then watch as the second, third and fraying fourth string players finish the match. But for those of us who have ached for our beloved game to return ever since watching Baltimore Ravens cornerback Chykie Brown make confetti-angels on the turf in New Orleans back in February, this is bliss.

But there are other football options outside the NFL – there always have been. Today I thought I’d pay tribute to some of the leagues that didn’t quite have what it takes to make it.

As a kid I rooted for the United States Football League to succeed. It was football in the spring and summer, when NFL players were getting drafted and executing drills and doing other mundane training tasks that make for horrible television. New Orleans resident (and partial motivator for the construction of the Louisiana Superdome) David Dixon came up with the USFL’s blueprint in 1965. It took until 1983 for cleats to hit the turf, but a dozen teams in major television markets were ready to take on an 18-game schedule.

There were a handful of big names who joined the league, including Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, and future Hall of Famers Steve Young, Reggie White, Gary Zimmerman, and coach Marv Levy. Herschel Walker, the man who won the Heisman Trophy and later netted the Dallas Cowboys the sweetest trade in their career – the one upon whose foundation three Super Bowl wins were built – joined the New Jersey Generals. The league, displeased with the NFL’s efforts to quash them, filed an anti-trust lawsuit and won… in name only. They were awarded a total of three dollars, not quite enough to make up for the $163 million the league had lost. It folded after three years, in 1986.

The World Football League… what an ambitious concept, especially in 1973. Games would be played all around the globe – meaning in America, Toronto and Mexico City. And Mexico City never got a team. But still, founders Tony Rizzano and Louis Goldman had a hell of a vision. The key was money – NFL salaries were dismal in the 70’s, and the WFL promised a bigger paycheck to its stars. That’s how they lured Miami Dolphin greats Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to the league, as well as Oakland Raiders Ken Stabler and Daryle Lamonica. The Dolphins players were the big story though – they had just played on two back-to-back Super Bowl-winning teams, and they ditched their club for the new league.

Thanks to the infrastructure and fan-cultivation the WFL inspired, Honolulu had a stadium in which they could host the NFL’s Pro Bowl every year, Jacksonville and Carolina both developed the fan-base to get NFL teams of their own a couple decades later, and Torontonians grew to love the four-down, 100-yard version of football (or as I call it, the right version). The league folded in 1975 after two seasons.

The first professional football league in America was the National Football League, but not the one we know and love today. In 1902, a group of professional baseball team owners put together a football “league” consisting of three teams, all located within Pennsylvania. The word ‘National’ in the league’s name was being used rather broadly.

They tried a championship, but almost no one showed up, and the visiting team – who had been promised $2000 from ticket sales – refused to take the field. They tried again, and this time pulled it off, with the Pittsburgh Stars beating the Philadelphia Athletics 11-0. The A’s went home and beat the Philadelphia Phillies football club, and decided they’d declare their loss against Pittsburgh to have been an exhibition game, and their win over the Phillies to have been the real championship. Amid what may have been the stupidest sports controversy of all time, the league quietly folded.

How could one forget the XFL? It was the brainchild of wrestling czar Vince McMahon, and for a single strange season in 2001, it was a real thing. NBC was involved in the league’s formation, so games received plenty of airtime. The idea was to create a football league with an upped ante of violence, a lot of gratuitous airtime to the scantily-clad cheerleaders, and voracious fan support.

On paper, some of the rule tweaks were interesting. All games were to be played outside on grass, with the sportscasters in the thick of the crowd, not way up in an isolated booth. Instead of a coin toss, players on either team scrambled for a ball 20 yards away. Extra points after a touchdown were eliminated, as was the fair catch rule. It may not have been a success, but had the league evolved beyond its single season and attracted some high-end players, it would have been something to watch.

The 1960’s was a strange time to try developing a new football league. After a heap of failed attempts to compete with the NFL, the American Football League was bringing in dump-trucks of dollars and swarms of fans. There were finally two leagues worth splashing across the front page, and then along came the Continental Football League (or, I suppose, the other CFL).

The Toronto Rifles were the league’s one stretch beyond the US border – once again, Mexico couldn’t get a club going. The Continental League’s biggest contribution to the game was the introduction of sudden-death overtime, which did away with most of the league’s ties. Baseball legend Jackie Robinson was the general manager of one team, and future NFL legends Ken Stabler, Bill Walsh and Sam Wyche cut their teeth on the young league.

But alas, there wasn’t enough money to keep the league afloat. We’ve seen American football stretch over to Europe semi-successfully in recent years, but apart from the AFL (which merged into the NFL after a solid decade of success), there simply appears to be no way to compete with the king.

And that’s fine. The king is back today. Long live the king.

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