Anyone who grew up in Alabama, or the Southeast, during the 1960’s or later most likely has seen some sort or Phil Neel art associated with sports. Neel, who is credited with creating Auburn University’s mascot “Aubie”, created loads of artwork for Auburn football program covers during the 60’s & 70’s, as well as several other schools. My first exposure to Neel’s work came during the early 1970’s when I would see my Uncle Don’s game program from the game he and my Aunt Gail had attended on a recent weekend. I also saw them at my high school, when the football team would receive one of Neel’s prints chronicling the football season. I was enamored with this art work and always liked it. I even had one of Neel’s Alabama posters in my room during the 1970’s. Neel created artwork for the Birmingham Americans, with two posters celebrating the Ams (at least these are the only 2 that I’m aware of). These were fantastic, but in 1975 the Vulcans got in on the Phil Neel cover-work-on-on-the-program trend. They were super. Neel’s work was re-used for the Vulcans games against Memphis & Chicago, as well as games against Charlotte & Portland. The games against Southern California, Shreveport, & San Antonio all got their own “Phil Neel treatment”. Even a Vulcans schedule poster got in on the act. It was awesome. While I have always loved Neel’s work, I never really grew to appreciate it until my adulthood, while accumulating some of these fantastic artifacts. These are true gems, as was Neel, who passed away in 2012.
In the summer of 1975 Dennis Homan, Johnny Musso, & Larry Willingham all appeared in a preseason publicity shot heralding the arrival of the Vulcans. The Americans had won the 1974 World Bowl but due to numerous financial struggles the WFL football team residing at Legion Field would no longer be known as the Americans. Given Birmingham’s long-standing status as the Vulcan city primarily because of the large Vulcan Statue high atop Red Mountain and the long established steel industry in town, the team became known as the Vulcans. In the photo, shot at Legion Field,(which incidentlaly was sporting a newly installed field of astro-turf for 1975) the 3 Vulcans players sported the familiar red, white, & blue uniforms, and held a helmet with the new Vulcans logo. Apparently the helmets were so new, the facemask wasn’t even mounted yet. But looking at the jerseys that they were wearing, one notices a glaring difference. No sleeve stripes. However, when the Vulcans kicked off the ’75 season, there they were, wearing the familiar striped sleeves that their predecessors, the Americans had worn. The jerseys without the stripes? Never seen again.
Warren Capone was widely known as a hard hitting linebacker during his playing days at LSU. He was recognized as an All-American during his junior and senior years. However, The NFL didn’t draft Capone following his playing days, but when given the opportunity to sign with the WFL Capone did so. He signed with the Birmingham Americans in 1974 and Capone used the opportunity to earn the starting middle linebacker job. He was not only the hard-hitting heart of the defense he was also one of the leaders, both on and off the field. Following the Ams World Bowl winning season, Capone returned to the field for the Vulcans in 1975, resuming his intimidating ways at the heart of the defense. When the WFL abruptly folded, Capone went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys, blocking a punt in Super Bowl X. Following his time with the Cowboys, Capone had stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints before retiring from football.
Capone was always a rock solid presence on the defensive side of the ball as well as fan favorite.
George Mira did not come to Birmingham as an unknown player. “The Matador” had faced the Alabama Crimson Tide in the early 1960’s and many were familiar with him and his exploits. Mira played for the University of Miami Hurricanes and went on to play in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Miami Dolphins. He also played in the Canadian Football League. In 1974 he signed to play with the Americans and became the starter, leading Birmingham in passing statistics while establishing himself as one of the marquis players in the WFL. Mira set the record for the longest touchdown pass from scrimmage, a 95-yard bomb to Alfred Jenkins against Hawaii. Mira also distinguished himself by winning the MVP award in Birmingham’s 22-21 victory over Florida in the World Bowl.
George attended that 30th Anniversary Reunion in 2004, where he was one of the most popular among those in attendance.
In 1975 Mira finished his career with the WFL’s Jacksonville Express.
Ed Foster was an offensive tackle at the University of Oklahoma from 1970-73, and was an All-American in 1973 as well as team captain. When Foster’s collegiate career ended, he was drafted by the Jacksonville Sharks of the WFL, as well as the New England Patriots of the NFL. Ed signed with the Sharks and quickly established himself as a fixture on the offensive line. Unfortunately, the Sharks organization wasn’t on as stable footing as their offensive line was. The team folded 14 games into the season, leaving Foster and many other players in limbo. Fortunately, Foster was quickly signed by the Southern California Sun for the remainder of the 1974 Season. In 1975 Foster signed with the CFL, but roster rules regarding the number of Canadian and American players on the CFL roster resulted in Foster being released. His inactivity was quite brief as the Birmingham Vulcans called and signed Foster. The 1975 WFL season was already beginning, but Foster had no trouble gaining a place on the offensive line at left tackle and, once again, became a pillar of the O-line. Foster was a starter through the abbreviated 1975 season when the WFL abruptly folded and ceased operations.
After Ed’s football career ended, he and his family moved to Norman Oklahoma where he established a career in specialty insurance as a business owner and chartered life underwriter. He also was active in coaching youth sports for over 30 years, as well as taking an active part in the ministry in his church and on the mission field.
On May 15, 2015, Ed Foster left this world, as a result of a heart attack, but his influence is still felt by those who knew him or were impacted by his work for his community, his church, and his Lord.
Some time after Foster’s death, a collector of WFL memorabilia, known to this blogger, made contact with Kim Foster, Ed’s widow, and, quietly, without fanfare, sent Kim 2 items that Ed wore during his playing days in the WFL; his Southern California Sun jersey and his Birmingham Vulcans helmet.
Kim continues to care for their 5 children and 8 grandchildren. On a trip with one of her sons this past September, the traveling party made a brief stop in Birmingham, visiting venerable Legion Field, to visit one of the last places that Ed played professionally. One of their grandsons (and Ed’s namesake) is pictured on the same field where his grandfather played over 40 years ago.
To quote a passage in Ed’s obituary, In every area of his life, Ed encouraged others with his strength, gentleness, wisdom, and wit. He lived out his favorite scripture: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8.
Even though I missed the “feature film” that was Ed’s life and work, the 30-second trailer has been enjoyable to witness, thanks to Kim’s faithful narrative.
When the Birmingham Americans won the inaugural World Bowl in 1974, most of the players were presented with championship rings. There were some who did not receive rings due to contractual obligations, ie: the players who did not sign with Birmingham in 1975 did not receive rings. One of the players who received a ring, and wore it proudly was defensive lineman Dickie Trower. Trower was one of the fixtures on the dee line for the Ams & Vulcans, teaming with Bob Tatarek, John Andrews, Jessie Wolf, Harry Gooden, Larry Estes, Butch Brezina, & John Baker to make a formidable defensive front for the Ams & Vulcans. Trower wore his ring with pride and on occasion would show it to anyone who inquired about it. Trower, who works for a resort development in Northern Virginia, was speaking to potential clients one afternoon last year, when one of the group asked about his ring. Dickie took the ring off and showed to the curious patron. Afterwards, Dickie was distracted and went to take care of a business related matter,but returned some minutes later to retrieve the ring, but the people who were in the room, along with his ring, were gone. Dickie looked for the ring as well as those who might have it to no avail. Days and weeks passed, with no luck, while Trower was sickened at the prospect of losing his championship ring.
Trower’s nephew, Greg Vaughn, upon hearing of the loss of the ring, began a mission, of sorts, to replace the ring. Greg contacted Jonsil, the manufacturer of the rings back in 1974, and attempted to order a replacement. The process was quite protracted and at times frustrating, with the details of the original ring finally being replicated after multiple draft models.Vaughn was successful in his efforts, which proved to be Herculean at times. Ultimately, Greg was able to present his uncle with the replacement ring, which is a perfect match to the one that was lost. While Dickie’s original ring is still out there, somewhere, its good to know that he can, again, show his World Bowl ring proudly to any and all who may see him. And he can also boast about a very loyal nephew.
Alfred Jenkins grew up in Hogansville, GA and played college football at Morris Brown College. Jenkins was not a hot commodity coming out of college, but was signed by the Birmingham Americans with thoughts that he might be a good kick return prospect. While he did return punts for the Ams, he also worked his way into the starting wide receiver rotation and ended up becoming a hot commodity in the Birmingham offense. Jenkins gathered in 60 receptions (second only to Dennis Homan’s 61) for a whopping 1326 yards & 12 TDs. He also returned 30 punts for 262 yards. His play earned him the team’s MVP trophy, All-WFL recognition, and the admiration of Birmingham fans. When the ’74 season ended, Jenkins signed with the NFL Atlanta Falcons. All he did there was play for 9 years, catching 360 passes for 6267 yards & 40 TDs. He played in 2 Pro Bowls & made all NFL in 1981 where he led the NFL in receiving yards & TDs. recently he was named the number 24 of the top 50 Atlanta Falcons in team history in a survey by the AJC He was a fan favorite and a joy to watch.
This week will mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the WFL. The league had endured questions and hardships throughout much of the 1975 season. Although there were some teams who voted to continue playing, they were out-voted by the weaker franchises and the league folded on October 22nd 1975. Birmingham, one of the strongest franchises voted to continue playing, and was coming off a satisfying win over division rival Memphis.
The Birmingham Vulcan had just returned home from a tough road win, 18-14, at Memphis, only to have the task of facing the Southmen again the very next week. The Southmen came to town with the celebrated trio of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, & Paul Warfied, ready to avenge the loss in the Liberty Bowl. However, there would be no drama or controversy that had marked the earlier contest, with the Vulcans dealing a 21-0 shutout over the visitors from Memphis. The Birmingham defense held a death grip on the Grizzlies offense and never relinquished its stranglehold. Larry Willingham, Warren Capone, Jimmy Teal, Jim McKinney, Larry Estes, and Bob Tatarek were the defensive leaders for the Home team. The Vulcans offense was efficient and crisp, led by Matthew Reed, Art Cantrelle and Johnny Musso, with Denny Duron scoring his first professional touchdown. Cantrelle and Musso added scores on short runs as well.
On Memphis’ first drive, Vulcans DB Larry Willingham set the tone for the day. Memphis QB Danny White found TE Gary Shirk on a short crossing pattern. Willingham arrived an instant after the ball did with Willingham unloading on Shirk. The ball popped loose for an incompletion and Memphis had to punt.
Birmingham scored on its second possession, with Reed leading a 16-play 64-yard drive, with Reed hitting reserve QB Denny Duron on a 14 yard pass for the TD. The action point was no good, and the Vulcans led 7-0. Vulcans LB Pat Kelly delivered a vicious blow to the Southmen’s George Campbell on the ensuing kickoff, jarring the ball loose, and Willie Smith recovered for Birmingham at the Memphis 13. Four plays later Cantrelle scored from the 2-yard line, and Birmingham now led 14-0 (the action point was again unsuccessful). A 51-yard Reed to Jim Bishop aerial started a 77-yard 7-play drive in the 4th quarter, ending with Musso slashing in from 2 yards out. The AP was unsuccessful, but Birmingham’s 21-0 lead held to finish of the Southmen.
The Birmingham News closed out its story on the game by adding that the Vulcans would begin preparations for the Southern California Sun, “…and there is no reason to doubt there will be another week in the WFL.” Sadly, however, 3 days later the WFL announced that it was suspending operations and that was the sudden end to the WFL and the Birmingham Vulcans.
On Wednesday October 22nd, 1975 Head Coach Marvin Bass assembled the Vulcans players for a hastily called closed-door meeting. In it he broke the sad news that the WFL had folded. The WFL had conducted a teleconference with all of the league’s teams and voted to “cease operations”, as worded in a teletype sent out by the WFL office that day. Only Birmingham and Memphis voted to continue playing. After the meeting with the players concluded and press conference was held where Coach Bass addressed the media. “I’ve been in coaching 33 years, but what I had to do 30 minutes ago makes this the saddest day of my life. I had to tell my football team they are unemployed”.
Reaction was swift to the sad news. Players, coaches, fans alike were saddened by the loss of Birmingham’s professional football team. The suddenness, despite rumors, made it especially difficult.
Birmingham, along with Memphis, petitioned the NFL for admission. While there are varying versions of how this process went, the outcome is the same in each version, Birmingham’s football team was gone, and would not return in the form of an NFL franchise.