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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
- Paul Robinson vs Memphis Southmen
Paul Robinson was one of a stable of runningbacks that Birmingham Head Coach Jack Gotta unleashed during the 1974 season. Paul had been a star in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, being named 1968 Rookie of the Year, as well as playing with the Houston Oilers prior to signing with the Ams. Along with Charley Harraway, Jimmy Edwards, Art Cantrelle, and Joe Profit, Robinson gave Birmingham a running attack that came in waves and kept opposing defenses wondering who was coming at them next. Robinson was a swift, swerving runner who had speed, moves, and power when needed.
Labor Day Weekend of 1974 I had the privilege of attending the Birmingham vs Florida game at Legion Field. While rain had soaked the area for days, the rain subsided by halftime, although water would cascade down the steps and portals of the venerable stadium. Matthew Reed further cemented his status as a Birmingham legend, by once again riding to the rescue in the final minutes of the game. Reed scored and then passed to Jim Bishop for the action point to lead the Ams to a thrilling 8-7 victory. After the game as the Birmingham players made their way from the field to the dressing room, several of them removed their red, white, and blue sweatbands and tossed them into the crowd. I caught one that Robinson threw in my direction and wore it myself for weeks after the game…and of course, later put it in a drawer and, as many 12 year-olds will do, forgot about it. Fast forward many years later. While cleaning out their garage, my mom & dad found a box of some of my old stuff and to my surprise, there was the sweatband among the old locker keys, baseball cards, gumball helmets, and other treasures from my youth. Today it sits in a shadowbox in my study, another reminder of a skinny 12 year-old from rural North Alabama’s pro football experience.
James Taylor’s classic song had nothing to do with football, however the line seemed quite fitting for Legion Field on the night of September 9, 1974. As the Birmingham Americans and the Chicago Fire went through pre-game warm-ups, the sound of Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” played over the PA system so that all in the stadium (and those listening on the radio) could hear. Also in the distance the rains from Hurricane Carmen were closing in. There had been some off and on rainfall prior to kick-off, however as the game progressed so did the rain, first coming in small spells, then coming in torrents. As players ran across the artificial turf, water splashed about like a strange football water park. The Americans and the Fire went back and forth in the deluge as 54,872 fans braved the elements in Legion Field with the Ams prevailing 41-40 on a last minute field goal by Earl Sark.