Willingham on sidelines during Ams at Chicago Fire
Larry Willingham recently shared some thoughts regarding the WFL’s 40th anniversary. I had asked Larry to share his responses regarding the Ams; his favorite memory, his favorite place to play on the road, and his memories of the locker room after winning the World Bowl. I’ll let Larry’s words paint a mental picture for you. I truly appreciate Larry’s time and responses.
- I guess the best memory would be the opening game against California . We had just broke training camp in Marion and were in Pre-game warm up at Legion Field as the fans were coming in. We had no idea how the crowd would be, much less, how many.
As we completed pre-game and went in the dressing rooms, we noticed the crowd was ok but nothing special. As it became closer to game time, we were delayed on going out due to the mass of people trying to get in few gates that were open. Birmingham Park and Recreation had not planned on such a crowd. I think the game started 45 minutes late in front of 60 to 70 thousand screaming “new” fans. Birmingham had a professional football team!!
- That’s easy! There was a team in Hawaii and we spent the week after playing Portland on Waikiki Beach trying to practice. Think we got beat!!
- I think they had to get the champagne out of Florida ’s dressing room. As many may recall, the team had not been paid for the last 5 weeks of the season and getting paid for the playoff games and the championship game was in question also. As one of the “player reps”, Ross Brubaker, Charley Harraway and myself had met with Coach Gotta and agreed to take a percentage of the gate as settlement prior to the game. I think it amounted to about $1700 per player, if memory serves me. Glad it was settled. Would have been a shame for a season like we had to not have been completed.
Many thanks Larry!
The TVS logo
When the WFL made its TV debut in 1974, the New York Stars and the Jacksonville Sharks were the 2 teams that were paired for the inaugural broadcast. The Americans didn’t make it to a TVS broadcast for several more weeks. Below is the Network intro for the WFL games.
40 years ago tonight, I went to my first pro football game. The Americans vs the Memphis Southmen. The Ams won it 58-33 and it was the beginning of my being a WFL fanatic, er…uh…fan…The game was pure fun to watch and, even though our seats weren’t the best in the house, it was a blast that a skinny 12 year-old would never forget. We sat in the south end zone, that had not been fully enclosed at the time and our view, while optimum, still allowed us to see all of the scoring (which was plentiful) and a whole lot of offense. One of my favorite memories to this day.
The Birmingham Americans & Vulcan had some very nice equipment bags to carry their gear on road trips. Larry Willingham showed his to me during a visit several years ago and he pointed out a rather unusual feature. The bags were first used by the Americans and their logo was screened onto each end of the bag. After the Americans folded and the team was re-named the Vulcans, the bags were “re-purposed” (even though we had never heard the term before) by screening the Vulcans logo right over the Americans logo. As you can see from the photos, over time the Americans logo started to show through, giving the bags a really unusual look that can only be explained as yet another interesting WFL story. 10 years ago, during the 30th anniversary reunion for the Americans and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, former Ams & Vulcans defensive tackle Bob Tatarek showed me his equipment bag and, sure enough, the ends were exactly the same. Bob then proceeded to give the bag to me, which was an amazingly kind gesture, one that I am still very appreciative of.
Happy #40 WFL!
July 10th marked the 40th anniversary of the WFL kickoff. While it was a short lived league, it sure was fun!
Pregame Handshake between the Americans & Sun captains
Americans DB Steve Williams races 55 yards with the interception for the Americans first ever TD. This proved to be the difference in the 11-7 Birmingham win
Musso picks up a first down vs Memphis
Birmingham native Johnny Musso was a favorite of many Alabama fans. He was a two time All-American (1970 & ’71) and finished 4th in the 1971 Heisman Trophy voting. He was named Player of the Year by football News, the Touchdown Club of Atlanta, and the Miami Touchdown Club. Though Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa borrowed the nickname, Musso was known to all as the original “Italian Stallion”, He twice led the SEC in rushing and was All-SEC in 1970 & ’71.He won the American Football Coaches Association Ernie Davis Award in 1972. He holds or set many Alabama and SEC rushing and scoring records.
Musso was drafted by the Chicago Bears of the NFL, but chose to sign with the British Columbia Lions of the CFL. He played 3 seasons for the BC Lions before signing with Birmingham. He returned to his home and was an integral part of the Vulcans’ offense rushing for 681 yards and 4 TDs, as well as catching 6 passes for 50 yards and one score. A knee injury nagged Musso throughout the second half of the abbreviated ’75 season. But Musso remained a fan favorite of Vulcans fans, then and now
After the WFL folded Musso signed with the Chicago Bears and played in the ’75, ’76, & ’77 seasons, rushing for 365 yards & 6 TDs. In 1978 Musso spent time on the injured reserve before finally retiring due to the knee injuries.
Musso was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1989 and into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
Larry Willingham and Warren Capone on the move vs. the Detroit Wheels
Spring has finally, it seems, arrived and there seems to be a spring in everyone’s steps, even mine. I’m reminded of former Americans & Vulcans Safety Larry Willingham. Even in retirement, he always seemed to have a spring in his step every time we visited.
Larry Willingham was a consensus All-American at Auburn in 1970. He was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL and was enjoying a fine career in the NFL when a neck injury forced him to sit out the 1973 season. Willingham was cleared for play in 1974 and he chose to sign with the hometown Birmingham Americans. He was the leader of the secondary on both ’74 and ’75, helping the development of younger players while playing standout football as well. His aggressive play as well as cover abilities made him one of the top safeties in the WFL.
One of the many stories that Larry relayed to me was when the Americans played against the Florida Blazers. Larry went to tackle Blazers WR Hubie Bryant and the collision resulted in Larry’s facemask being bent to the point that it had to be replaced. Larry was a tough defensive back, but he tipped his hat to Bryant’s toughness.
Americans & Vulcans fans tipped their hats to Larry many times during the 1974 & 1975 seasons, as Willingham was a team leader and fan favorite.
Larry & Greg at Alabama Sports Hall of Fame reception, 2010
Dennis Homan, wide receiver from the University of Alabama, was an integral part of the Birmingham offense. He was a star for the Crimson Tide from 1965 to 1967, earning All-American honors in 1967. He played in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs before joining Birmingham.
Homan was Birmingham’s leading receiver both seasons, catching 61 passes for the Americans in 1974 for 930 yards and scoring 8 TDs and 2 action points. In the 1975 abbreviated season he grabbed 18 passes for 277 yards in the Vulcans’ run dominated offense.
Dennis is a fabled legend in the history of the Crimson Tide as well as an all-time fan favorite with Americans & Vulcans fans.
Birmingham Americans Head Coach Jack Gotta
Former Birmingham Americans Head Coach Jack Gotta passed away this past weekend at the age of 83. Coach Gotta was very popular with the Birmingham fans as well as the players and staff of the Ams. I was fortunate to be able to speak with him via phone on multiple occasions and he was always a first class gentleman as well as a very knowledgeable coach. He was very warm and generous with his time.
Coach Gotta came the Birmingham after establishing himself as a solid coach in the CFL. Gotta, of course, led Birmingham to the only WFL title, defeating the Florida Blazers in the World Bowl, 22-21 after the 1974 season. After the Ams folded, he remained in Birmingham as the General Manager of the Birmingham Vulcans through the shortened 1975 season, when the WFL folded. He remained in Birmingham to assist with the efforts to secure an NFL franchise, but when those efforts failed, he returned to Canada where he remained throughout the rest of his career. He won the Annis Stukus Trophy as CFL Coach of the Year 3 times.
He spoke very fondly of his tenure in Birmingham and always referred to Birmingham and its football fans in very affectionate terms, always sending his best regards to the many friends that he made while in Birmingham. The city of Birmingham has a proud history when it comes to football and Coach Gotta is and always will be a permanent part of that great history and great memories. God Bless.
Art Cantrelle getting ready for the inaugural WFL campaign in 1974
Art Cantrelle was one of the stable of running backs that Birmingham Americans Head Coach Jack Gotta unleashed on the WFL in 1974. While each back had his own skill set that he brought to the Ams, be it speed or moves, there was one universal truth that could be said about #22, Art Cantrelle, and that is was that he was the toughest. As a matter of fact, Jack Gotta called Cantrelle the toughest of all of his players. “If I ever had to go into battle, I can tell you, I wanted Art Cantelle on my side” Gotta intimated back in a 1998 interview. “He was as tough as any player I ever coached.” Cantrelle also had quickness and could find a hole and pick up chunks of yardage as well as the tough yards. The LSU product played in the CFL before coming to Birmingham. In 1974 Cantrelle was one of five backs who regularly carried the ball, gaining 504 years in 120 carries and 6 touchdowns. In 1975 when the Ams became the Vulcans, Cantrelle, while splitting duty with Johnny Musso, was the leading ground gainer in the abbreviated ’75 season, gaining 814 years on 201 carries and tallying 10 TDs. He also caught caught a total of 39 passes for the 2 seasons and added 2 more scores. Cantrelle, while gaining the respect of his coaches and teammates was also a favorite of the Birmingham fans.