In Birmingham, Wheels Coach Dan Boisture singled out the Americans' running backs to point up the difficulty of his task. "Charlie Harraway and Paul Robinson cost the Americans more than our entire offense cost us," he said. Still, his team has come close to winning four of its five games. "Our kids love the game," Boisture said. "They have to because they sure aren't being paid much." The Wheels' players didn't receive a paycheck for their first game until after they had played their second.
Detroit-at-Ypsilanti is also the only WFL team that hasn't signed any NFL players for future delivery. "My own ethics aren't going to allow me to promise something I can't deliver," says General Manager Sonny Grandelius.
On the other hand, the Americans' owner, Bill Putnam, has put the cart before the horse in making his deliveries. "This is the entertainment business," he says, "and you have to spend money, money for talent and money for advertising, in order to make money."
Putnam worked for Jack Kent Cooke Enterprises, founded and became president of the NHL Philadelphia Flyers and later became part owner and president of the Omni Group, which owns the Atlanta Hawks and Flames. His methods have seemed radical to some, and along the way he earned a reputation as a superpromoter but a bad bottom-line man, criticism he suffers wearily. "Everybody I've been in business with has made money," he says.
To his credit, Putnam spotted Birmingham as a perfect new-league city—it was virgin territory with a top spectator facility, Legion Field (capacity 68,821). Putnam believes that the WFL can survive in large stadiums in such cities as Birmingham if it can be anchored with a franchise axis in the three big apples: Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, where Anaheim Stadium, Soldier Field and a refurbished Yankee Stadium provide high-capacity sites.
Putnam has already exceeded his original budget, which called for $400,000 in bonuses. "That figure was shot to hell because there were so many more NFL players available than we thought," he says. Putnam now claims to have invested $900,000 to lure such top players as Oakland's Ken Stabler (for '76) to Birmingham.
But not everyone on the Americans is a former NFL star. In fact, neither of the heroes in last week's win ever made an NFL team. The winning touchdown pass was thrown by a 6'4", 225-pound black quarterback from Grambling, who had NFL tryouts as a tight end and a wide receiver, to a 5'9�", 153-pound wide receiver, who returned punts and kickoffs in his only NFL camp.
Alfred Jenkins, the wide receiver, had to write to all 26 teams just to get a chance to field kicks for the Oilers. Matthew Reed, the quarterback, was so disgusted with his NFL experience that when the Americans found him, he was "running the streets." If Reed has a problem it is that his arm is too strong, particularly for WFL play, since he says he can throw farther at night. "Matthew's gonna concave a chest one day," says Doug Layton, a local radioman.
While NFL castoff George Mira has recovered from a sprained ankle, Reed has started the last two games and become a huge favorite.
In last week's game, the Wheels scored to go ahead 22-20 with a minute remaining. Then, after the kickoff was run back to Birmingham's 41, Reed hit Wide Receiver Dennis Homan for gains of 14 and 19. Next he rolled left and bootlegged nine yards to the 17. Then, with 26 seconds on the clock, Reed rolled left again but this time stopped short and lofted the ball to Jenkins for the winning score.