The WFL claims it is not seeking merger but a form of competitive coexistence. Several factors favor it in its race for established veterans, not the least of which is a greater sense of unionism on the part of the members of the NFL Players Association. No tears have been shed by Dolphins over what Miami newspapers call The Great Defection. Asked about the alleged tragedy, All-Pro Guard Larry Little said, "I'm sure there'll be no animosity, only envy maybe, and good wishes. I'm just sorry I'm not going up there with them."
Nor was there any of the chauvinistic feeling for the dear old NFL that characterized football's earlier war. Defensive Tackle Merlin Olsen of Los Angeles warned, "If the NFL established a franchise in Honolulu overnight to put the WFL out of business, I think the Players Association would sue." In the meantime the NFLPA's contract negotiations with the owners have resulted in a wait-and-see attitude and have given the WFL time to lure away stars. Gary Davidson is bubbling over the prospect that an NFL player strike would leave him with the only game in town, and when the NFL's Management Council refused to accept 56 of the Players Association's 57 demands last week, Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFLPA, could only wonder out loud if Davidson had been added to the owners' negotiating committee.
John Bassett explained why an expensive Csonka-Warfield-Kiick package makes more sense to a struggling franchise than it does to an established one. "It's an interesting philosophy," Bassett told
The New York Times
. "It's more difficult for an established team to pay the going rate than a new team. I own the Toronto Toros of the WHA, and we're trying to sign Ken Dryden and the Mahovlich brothers [of the Montreal Canadiens] for next season. If we sell 800 more top season tickets, that'll pay for that big salary. But the Canadiens have sellouts anyway. They can't raise the prices to see the same team."
That logic prompted Birmingham to steal Kenny Stabler away from Oakland, which has had 33 straight regular-season sellouts at the Coliseum, and, ironically, from Al Davis, who received a telegram last week that read in part: "Kenny will sign with Birmingham. No need to ask you to meet offer as he simply wants to play in Alabama." The telegram was signed by Philip Henry Pitts, Stabler's longtime friend and attorney. Alabama is Stabler's home. He lives in Foley (pop. 3,400) with his 19-year-old wife Debbie, two dogs named Bacchus and Yogi, three cars, a pickup truck and a speedboat that goes more than 70 mph. And now, for the rights to his homegrown appeal, the Americans have made him another WFL millionaire.
Stabler may mean more to Birmingham than the Dolphin trio will to Toronto. He was a legend at the University of Alabama. In Snake Stabler's three years under Bear Bryant the Tide lost only twice, and last week he came home to a hero's welcome. At a press conference at the Birmingham airport Stabler talked about being out from under the " NFL hammer," which he said dictated to a player, "You're going to play professional football here or go out of the country and play it." The mayor greeted him, and a police motorcade escorted him to Birmingham's minor league baseball park, where Henry Aaron, another Alabaman, was playing in the Braves' last spring exhibition. Stabler signed countless autographs and was going to throw out the first ball, but the original designee for the job, a society matron, refused to relinquish it.
Alabamans have their thing about a local boy. Even Joe Namath, another Crimson Tide quarterback, would not have been as important an acquisition for the Americans. "Namath was a transplant," said Charlie McMillian, chief of detectives in Selma, where Pitts and Stabler spent the next day. "He's too big for Alabama now. Alabamans are clannish."
The reception in Selma was no less enthusiastic. Stabler is known as "The Dart Thrower" because of his deadly short passes. In Mayor Joe Smitherman's office he threw four 20s in five tries at a dart board hanging on the back of the door while Pitts did some serious damage to the woodwork surrounding the target. Stabler posed for pictures with the mayor's staff and a 325-pound black policeman. There were newspaper and television interviews all afternoon long until Stabler finally admitted, "My material's getting a little old." But in Birmingham the Americans reported that season-ticket sales had soared 1,000 ahead of the expected rate, and even though it would be two years before Snake could play in the WFL, the Americans had already recouped $80,000 of its investment in the left-handed quarterback.
In Alabama, Snake Stabler had bona-fide the WFL.
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