This one was not for all the money. In fact, it was for very little money. World Bowl I was brought to you live last week from Birmingham, Ala., courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS, it seems, had decided that a piece of the pie was better than no pie at all, so it allowed the hometown Americans, who had owed the Federal Government as much as $237,000 in back taxes, to play the game at Birmingham's Legion Field in return for a share of the gate. The Americans seized the opportunity to score a thrilling 22-21 win over the Florida Blazers. For their efforts they were rewarded with the World Bowl trophy, championship rings they had extorted from their owner and a 60% share of whatever is left of the gate after the IRS and several other creditors pick it over.
Sizing up the two teams before the World Bowl, it was hard to think in terms of their on-field success. After all, no player on either squad had received a regular paycheck for weeks, although Florida perhaps had an edge in experience here since it had gone without money twice as long as Birmingham. Both teams had discussed possible franchise shifts. Both were looking for new financing. Both had popular coaches, Birmingham's Jack Gotta and Florida's Jack Pardee, who had dipped into their own pockets to give to the company store. Gotta had bought his team a pregame meal. Pardee and his assistants took turns supplying toilet paper for their clubhouse. Clearly, the game was a toss-up.
Florida had become the sentimental favorite because of its greater deprivation. Pardee, who may very well be a head coach in the NFL next season, should be named the coach of all time for keeping the Blazers within sight of a championship or, for that matter, for keeping them within sight. The Florida ownership last paid its players and coaches on Sept. 6, and some of those checks bounced. Rumors were continually circulating about franchise moves and the possibility of fresh supplies of money. The managing general partner sued the owner. The owner sued the managing general partner.
Matters came to a head during the playoffs, when it was announced that the often-postponed sale of the team to a group headed by businessman Robert Prentice finally had been consummated. The players were even given a peek at a $1.5-million check that supposedly would solve all their financial woes. Shortly thereafter news came that the sale had been delayed again. It became public knowledge that the purchasing group's spokesman, Coleman Taylor, was a convicted felon, recently paroled after serving almost a year on charges of transporting a stolen car across a state line. A few days before their semifinal game against the Memphis Southmen, one of the few solidly financed teams in the WFL and the hot favorite to win the World Bowl, the Blazer players had to accept the reality that they were not going to be paid then, and probably never.
"The players have been dumped on by the league and by the Blazer ownership," said Quarterback Bob Davis. "We're mad now." Linebacker Larry Ely said, "We want to win the World Bowl and take the World Bowl trophy and shove it back at the WFL." In the playoff Memphis took a quick 15-0 lead and held it through the half, but Florida persisted and eventually won 18-15 to go on to Birmingham.
The World Bowl was originally scheduled to take place the Friday after Thanksgiving as the culmination of a four-team tournament. For a brief time the field grew to six teams, then to eight, which was highly democratic since it appeared that only nine franchises were going to be playing at the end of the season. Then, amid cries to abolish the playoffs altogether and declare Memphis the champion, the format was reduced to three teams—Eastern Division winner Florida, Central Division winner Memphis and Central Division runner-up Birmingham. This was not greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm by Western Division champion Southern California. There was another recasting to include the Sun and the other second-place clubs, Hawaii in the West and Charlotte in the East, only somehow Philadelphia, which finished third in the East, qualified instead of Charlotte. It was suggested that the playoff teams had been chosen by placing collect calls to all the clubs and admitting those that accepted them.
Philadelphia lost in the first round to Florida. Three of Southern California's best players, Kermit Johnson, James McAlister and Booker Brown, neglected to show for the Sun's game with the Hawaiians, claiming that missed payroll dates had voided their contracts. The Sun lost 32-14. The Hawaiians then lost to the Americans, Florida upset Memphis, and so the World Bowl game came to Birmingham. Three days before the game, the Birmingham players announced that they would not play and walked out of practice, demanding five weeks of unpaid wages. A day later they relented and went back to work when Birmingham Owner Bill Putnam promised them they would receive championship rings if they won.
The way the game started, Putnam did not seem in any danger of having to visit a jeweler. Florida took the opening kickoff and marched 51 yards to the Birmingham five. Tommy Reamon, the marvelously elusive runner who is the league's leading rusher, swept right and dived over a pack of bodies into the end zone. At some point he fumbled the ball. It appeared that he had it until he hit the ground, which meant a touchdown, but the officials ruled that he had lost control before crossing the goal line. The play was ruled a touchback and Birmingham took over at its 20. That seemed to take all the starch out of Florida. Commenting on the play later, Blazer Linebacker Billy Hobbs said, "The WFL officiating is even worse than not getting paid."
Birmingham scored twice in the second quarter and again at the start of the second half for a 22-0 lead. After the second touchdown Gotta replaced starting Quarterback George Mira with his alternate, 6'4", 225-pound Matthew Reed, for the WFL's action point after touchdown. A touchdown is worth seven points; the action point, which cannot be kicked, is worth one. Reed rolled right and ran straight at Defensive Back Miller Farr, who was waiting at the goal line. Farr had a better chance of receiving a paycheck than he had of stopping Reed, who plowed through him for the point, a vitally important one, as it turned out.
The score remained 22-0 until the start of the fourth quarter. If the Blazers had accepted their fate, had quickly run out the last 15 minutes of a three-month nightmare and had gone off in search of gainful employment, who could have blamed them? But on the opening play of the final quarter, Davis, running from a blitzing linebacker, lobbed a ball down the right sideline to Reamon who scampered to the end zone to complete a 39-yard play. Davis tried to throw to Wide Receiver Matt Maslowski for the action point but the pass was batted down.