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World Premiere
Rick Reilly
April 01, 1991
The no-frills World League of American Football got off to an unspectacular start
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April 01, 1991

World Premiere

The no-frills World League of American Football got off to an unspectacular start

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"We've got to teach them to quiet down when we've got the ball," said Barcelona starting quarterback Scott Erney, "but other than that they were fantastic." And somebody's got to talk to the team tailor. He sewed receiver Thomas Woods' name upside down on his jersey. His teammates kept calling him "Spoom."

Back in the States, where two other league openers were played last Saturday night, a crowd—53,000 at Legion Field in Birmingham—also was the big story. An estimated 35,000 fans paid the full ticket price to watch the Birmingham Fire play the Montreal Machine, while the rest of the folks were interested enough to take advantage of special ticket discounts and giveaways. "John Q. Public doesn't like prima donnas," said Fire coach Chan Gailey. "He likes Joe Blows who work their butts off. They love football here, especially if it's played hard and enthusiastically." Montreal had the better Joe Blows on this night, winning 20-5. At Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, a junior college field with stands bordering railroad tracks, the Sacramento Surge beat the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks 9-3, also in a steady downpour, before 15,126 fans.

Montreal quarterback Kevin Sweeney, a former Dallas Cowboy, provided an accurate assessment of the WLAF's first weekend. "It's a lot like strike-team ball, at least right now," said Sweeney, who combined with Birmingham quarterback Brent Pease to complete just 22 of 55 passes. "We haven't had enough time to put the whole kit and caboodle together."

For the winning coaches, it was easy to forget all the weeks of headaches that came before the season openers. The league had saved a few shillings by putting London coach Larry Kennan's team on a 7 a.m. flight to Frankfurt last Friday, which meant the bus to the airport had to leave at 4:30 a.m., and Kennan had to get up at 2:30 a.m. "I wonder how Al Davis would like this?" he muttered.

The weird thing is, Davis might like it. This was pro football played without agents, NFL paranoia, talk shows, assistant coaches in charge of the kicking tee and, remarkably, inflated egos. With a salary scale for players, and incentive payoffs tied more to team performance than to individual stats, nobody played with decimals dancing in their heads. The WLAF is a cast of understudies, making little and hoping for too much. They made the game new and vital, if not overly pretty. And it was an adventure.

One day, as the Galaxy bus trundled back to its hotel following a practice, the singing among the players was deafening. Can you imagine NFL players singing? NFL players hire other people to sing for them. But why not sing? As Barcelona noseguard Mike Ruth put it, "We're getting paid to play football and see the world. How can you beat that?"

A $3 six-pack would be nice.

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