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William Oscar Johnson
December 01, 1975
When the ailing World Football League expired during its second season, the wake brought many memories and some good laughs
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December 01, 1975

The Day The Money Ran Out

When the ailing World Football League expired during its second season, the wake brought many memories and some good laughs

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Defense was never a strong point of the WFL game. One weekend last October, the scores of the five games played were 42-38, 37-33, 29-16, 32-29 and 39-14. The highest scoring game in the league's brief life occurred in August of WFL II, when the Sun beat the Bell 58-39; Davis ran for 115 yards that day. It was also a most unusual game for WFL II in that it was televised—over Channel 29 in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Channel 29 cut the broadcast off the air before the historic game was over, pleading that it had a "prior commitment." What prior commitment? Nothing, really. The station merely played the national anthem and pulled the plug for the night.

John McKay, son of the USC coach and a wide receiver who was accustomed to college crowds of close to 75,000, recalled the scene that greeted the Sun at John F. Kennedy Stadium before that game with the Bell. "When we came out to warm up, I looked around and there wasn't one person in the stands. Not one. I thought, 'My God, aren't we going to have anyone?' I think we ended up with 3,100, or something like that."

The Philadelphia Bell was the worst draw in WFL II. At the team's home opener against the Hawaiians, the management featured Henri La Mothe, a diver whose specialty was leaping from the top of a 40-foot ladder into a small portable pool. Only 2,732 people turned up for the dive and the game. The diver survived, but ultimately the Bell fell on such hard times that the team had to fire all its cheerleaders because it couldn't afford to pay them the $10 a game it had promised.

Elvis Presley regularly attended games of the Memphis Southmen. Once, when country singer Charlie Rich stumbled through The Star-Spangled Banner and returned to his seat next to Presley, Elvis said, "That's a tough song, ain't it?" To which Rich replied, "It ain't no Behind Closed Doors."

Hemmeter, a colorless, clean-cut, 36-year-old, look-you-straight-in-the-eye Rotary Club type, devoutly believed that WFL II could become successful if only he could install "prudent business practices" and "a sound financial control concept." Referring to the helter-skelter shambles of kited checks and payless paydays that marked WFL I, the league president said, "I thought that righting a wrong would certainly be rewarded and we would attract strong public support due to our insistence on a businesslike atmosphere. This was not the case. The 1974 problems haunted us, the lack of credibility stayed with us. We found that paying bills was not enough to save the WFL.

"We failed in marketing. Possibly I was the wrong person to head up the league. Maybe pro sports are a little too swinging for me. I'm conservative and I don't have public appeal and flamboyance. We had excitement on the field, but the league lacked excitement. Most of us are bankers and we lacked charisma, mystique."

Interestingly enough, Hemmeter, a millionaire developer from Hawaii who owns 13 companies and expects to open his $150 million Hemmeter Center in Honolulu next summer, had designed one of the more charismatic offices in sport for his WFL headquarters. It had suede walls.

Before the 1975 season, the president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce invited between 100 and 140 would-be investors to meet with Hemmeter; 29 showed up. Then the Charlotte Jaycees sent invitations to 200 companies to come hear a sales pitch for the Hornets, and two people appeared.

During the early part of the season, the Hornets were evicted from the local baseball park, where they practiced, because the owner claimed they owed him $1,500. Hornet Owner Upton Bell said the payment was not due until the park was improved—it had only four showers, no goal posts and for a while there were no yard lines on the field.

Not everyone felt the WFL was a flop. One fan wrote a letter to the editor of the Shreveport Times: " Shreveport was just another city with bars, pool halls, bowling alleys and theaters drifting in the sieve. Then Shreveport was alive, a city that was breathing, pulsating, cheering, booing. 'Go! Go! Get 'em!...' I can't believe the time has run out so quickly and the ball game is over. Death is a blessing for some, and a heartache for some. When it strikes the young that have fought so bravely and gallantly, it is a heartache. Goodby Edd, Big Jim, Captain Taylor. God bless you and thanks for the memories."

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