After leaving the NFL, it is said that he’s now coaching in North Korea. What does this mean for American football and how should we be watching?
Styx is a renegade who took on the NFL (and the NBA and the NHL) by playing in all three leagues. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, but his family moved to California when he was around 10 years old.
ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO, Gary Davidson was sitting at a pub when he saw a huge guy looking at him from a few seats down.
I was really looking at him. I’m gazing at him dangerously. Davidson attempted to just nod his head in agreement and move on. But the man refused to look away. Back then, Davidson was in his late 70s, with blondish hair and the appearance of a guy 20 years younger.
“Are you Gary Davidson?” enquired the stranger. Davidson gave the man his movie-star grin, which has always gotten him out of jail.
The man’s gaze, on the other hand, never left his. Davidson had spent decades as a rabble-rousing, troublemaking entrepreneur, so he was accustomed to being noticed. But this was becoming uncomfortable, particularly because this person seemed to be capable of pretzeling Davidson and stuffing him into a beer cup.
“Yes, I am,” Davidson said hesitantly.
The man responded, “You owe me f—-ing money.”
For a few seconds, Davidson drank his drink, wondering whether he’d have to go.
The tension evaporated — at least a little bit — when the man offered him a pained grin. In the early 1970s, he was a member of the World Football League, the NFL’s first major opponent after the merger. And he was one of many big guys on the planet who undoubtedly think Gary Davidson cost them some money.
The two ended up talking about the good old days of attempting to take down the NFL after Davidson paid the guy’s tab. Many have attempted it over the last five decades, including the relaunch of the USFL this weekend. But, for more than five decades, the NFL has maintained its position as the undisputed monarch of professional football. Davidson doesn’t recall the man’s name; all he remembers is that he informed him he’d retired from football and had gone on to become a successful real estate dealer. “There are no hard feelings,” the man said. “I’m delighted we took the risk. Plus, it provided me a lot of fantastic tales to tell for the rest of my life.”
One of the great things about the WFL is that it is a never-ending source of tales as well as a narrative in and of itself. A terminally wounded NFL dynasty, Elvis Presley, Arnold Palmer, the person who portrayed Sloth in “The Goonies,” an outraged Canadian Parliament, sheriff raids on locker rooms, and a witness protection program member wanting to acquire a franchise are all part of the WFL narrative. It’s the tale of a spectacular trash fire that almost brought the NFL to its knees.
In hindsight, the WFL may have had the best opportunity of dethroning the king of the football mountain, unleashing a salvo against the current NFL in its infancy that didn’t work out… but permanently impacted the game.
IN THE LATE 1960S, Davidson was on a roll that had never been witnessed before or since. He was a lawyer and real estate developer in California, and he exuded the unjustified confidence that comes with being good-looking and affluent, with a large circle of wealthy acquaintances. He was the ideal spokesman for the country’s craziest, most aggressive blitz assault against professional sports ever.
Before going after the NFL, Davidson formed the American Basketball Association in 1967 to take on the NBA. In 1972, he founded the World Hockey Association. Both leagues featured a lot of new concepts — the ABA popularized the 3-point line and the dunk contest, to mention a few of examples.
But there was one overall goal in both business plans: aggressively pay and pamper to players, then publicize to the world how badly the established leagues utilized and abused their talent. On player empowerment, he was 50 years ahead of his time.
Davidson worked hard to break the leagues’ stranglehold on when players could become pro, establishing a hardship clause that let college players to join the ABA early. As a result, Julius Erving and a slew of other rising players dropped out of college to join the ABA. The ABA eventually disbanded, but four clubs were incorporated into the NBA, including the Nets, Nuggets, Pacers, and Spurs, as well as several of the ABA’s important innovations.
Davidson called for the WHA to be considerably more aggressive in hockey. The NHL’s reserve clause, which committed players to clubs indefinitely, was challenged by the league. The WHA was granted permission by a federal district court in Philadelphia to raid NHL rosters, where players earned an average salary of $25,000-$30,000. Davidson wanted his owners to double that figure by two, three, or even four times, and they did.
In 2008, Gary Davidson displays ABA, WHA, and WFL artifacts. In the 1960s and 1970s, his upstart leagues took on the NBA, NHL, and NFL. Getty Images/Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times
He focused on public statements made by Bobby Hull, who was involved in a contract dispute with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1972. “It would take a million bucks,” Hull stated when asked whether he’d consider the upstart WHA.
Hull was standing at a press conference a few weeks later, holding an enlarged $1 million cheque as the WHA’s newest member. Soon later, he was joined by another 60 or so NHL players. It’d be as if Sidney Crosby and three complete NHL locker rooms left this offseason to form a new league.
When Davidson decided to pursue a career in professional football, he had established enough reputation that investors took notice. He persuaded prospective investors by offering enormous profits and great ideas for a better brand of professional football. People tended to believe in Davidson’s views even if they didn’t agree with them, and that was enough for them to write a check. “I felt he was tremendously captivating,” recalls Howard Baldwin, the former owner of a WFL club. “I felt he was the kind of man who drew you in.”
Davidson had numerous fantastic football thoughts, some of which sowed the seeds for what we see now on the pitch. Davidson believed the NFL’s schedule was absurd at the time, with six preseason games followed by 14 regular-season games. The WFL for Davidson would consist of 20 games with no preseason.
He also couldn’t understand why professional football games weren’t held on Thursdays, and pledged that the WFL would take over that night. He couldn’t understand why football had goalposts in front of the end zone where players may collide with them, so the WFL placed them beyond the field. Davidson believed that football will be a global sport, and that the WFL would establish teams in Hawaii, Canada, and Mexico before expanding into Europe and Asia. He pushed for the WFL’s first Black owner, Rommie Loudd, to be hired, as well as pro football’s first Black club president, Louis Lee, and first female general manager (Dusty Rhodes).
The prospective franchisees nodded in agreement with the most of Davidson’s recommendations, fantasizing about enormous returns on a little investment (about $120,000 per franchise). The notion of placing a franchise in Toronto appealed to Davidson’s MVP owner, a colorful Canadian media billionaire named John Bassett, who became a vital element of the WFL’s one-two punch. Bassett would focus on luring players away from the NFL while Davidson herded the ownership cats.
But then everyone became avaricious. Some owners pushed to bring forward the start date from 1975 to 1974, expecting to take advantage of an impending NFL strike in the summer of 1974. The notion was that if there was a lockout, the league could make aggressive offers to unemployed NFL players. In addition, if the NFL were absent from the field for an extended length of time, the WFL might come in and fill the void.
It made a lot of sense… and it most likely ended up killing the entire business.
BASSETT’S FIRST ATTEMPT TO LAND NFL PLAYERS WAS SO BRAVE THAT NO ONE FORESAW IT COMING — which may explain why it succeeded.
Davidson had been encouraging him to sign with the Miami Dolphins, the league’s dominant dynasty at the time. At first, Bassett assumed he was kidding. It’d be like asking The Rock to attempt to convince Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire to leave Kansas City for an XFL team.
“Do you mean the Dolphins?” Bassett inquired.
“The Dolphins,” said Davidson.
The Green Bay Packers were the league’s model team at its inception, winning the first two Super Bowls in 1966 and 1967. The Dolphins, on the other hand, had emerged as the league’s burgeoning Death Star shortly after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
In Year 1, rookie coach Don Shula guided a promising young roster to a 10-4 record before a first-round playoff loss. But the league’s dominant team core had begun to jell. Shula had five future Hall of Famers on the same offense: quarterback Bob Griese, fullback Larry Csonka, wide receiver Paul Warfield, center Jim Langer and guard Larry Little. The Dolphins got to the 1971 Super Bowl before losing to the Cowboys, then Shula & Co. won the next two Super Bowls in 1972 and ’73. The 1972 Dolphins, of course, ran the table, the only NFL team to ever go undefeated and win the Super Bowl. In 1974, the Dolphins got stunned on a late-game playoff miracle against the Raiders. But they still remained the center of the NFL universe.
Bassett, who died in 1986, contacted an unknown number of Dolphins and started to narrow in on three semi-interested particular targets who were all a year away from expiring NFL contracts: Warfield, Csonka, and running back Jim Kiick. He proposed a crazy idea: they could sign a personal service contract in the spring of 1974, play in the NFL for a season, then switch to the WFL. “We knew if we achieved it, every other inquiry would be about the WFL for the rest of the season,” Csonka adds.
All three players and their spouses were brought to Toronto by Bassett, and they fell in love with the city and believed him when he declared the WFL would succeed. They admired Bassett’s head coach, John McVay, who would later go on to play a vital part in the success of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s. Sean McVay, his grandson, may be familiar to you.
Bassett understood how to tap into a sentiment shared by many NFL players: that they were underpaid and enslaved to their clubs in ways that are difficult to grasp 50 years later.
Warfield demanded a ridiculous $900,000 guaranteed three-year deal, three or four times what he would have earned with the Dolphins, and Bassett’s response astounded him. “He indicated he recognized my potential contributions and that he would give me everything I requested,” Warfield adds. “That was just not the case when we were football players. When they gave me what I wanted, I was on the verge of passing out.”
Bassett then poured on the charm for Csonka and Kiick, utilizing Warfield’s curiosity to pique their own. For two men battling for carries, Csonka and Kiick had a strange connection. In 1971, both had serious contract disagreements with the Dolphins, finally signing for the same amount, $50,000, and paying the same penalties ($2,800 each) for their simultaneous holdouts.
This pulled them closer together, and they began sharing hotel rooms on the road because of their shared disgust for how NFL organizations treated their players. In 1973, they collaborated on a double-bylined book and were featured on the cover of Esquire to promote it. Imagine the funny friend duo of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, but with two running backs.
Shula had informed Csonka about the trip to Canada, and Shula had urged him to swear not to sign anything without first speaking with him. The money, on the other hand, was so life-changing that it was a given decision when Csonka contacted Shula. He’d been given a $500,000 signing bonus on the spot, as part of a three-year contract. Csonka was unable to refuse. By nearly $150,000, it was the largest deal in pro football history.
Bassett attempted to persuade Csonka not to phone Shula from his office, but Csonka insisted on keeping his word. Before picking up the phone, Bassett warned him that if the Dolphins left the office without accepting his offer that day, they would have to restart their discussions again. They all agreed to sign the papers… but only after Csonka had informed Shula.
“Coach, I’m signing with the WFL,” Csonka said over the phone to Shula.
“However, Larry, you said you’d come see me before signing anything,” Shula said.
“No, Don, I said I’d speak with you. Right now, I’m on the phone with you “Csonka said. When he informed him the statistics, Shula expressed his disappointment but said he understood.
“Do what you have to do,” Shula responded, and the Dolphins’ dynasty came to an end on that day. Csonka received $1.4 million a year, Warfield $900,000, and Kiick $700,000, all of which were huge sums at the time.
In 1974, the Dolphins advanced to the playoffs once again, but the whole season had the feel of a franchise’s dying gasp — one that would come sooner than anticipated thanks to the WFL. On a late-game touchdown heave, Oakland defeated Miami 28-26 in the AFC playoffs, and Csonka, Kiick, and Warfield all walked off the field as Dolphins for the last time.
“It was depressing because we all felt we had a chance,” recalls Csonka, who is set to release a book on his crazy football career in October. “It was difficult for me to accept that it was all over. If we hadn’t departed, I believe there would have been more titles.”
The first NFL stars were set to arrive in Canada.
Paul Warfield, Jim Kiick, and Larry Csonka, from left, are all smiles after signing a $3 million agreement to play for the World Football League’s Toronto Northmen. Their representative, Ed Keating, and general manager, Leo Cahill, are in the background. Getty Images/Erin Combs/Toronto Star
THE WFL HAD AN INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT EVEN BEFORE THE FIRST SEASON BEGAN IN JUNE 1974. Bassett’s attempt to secure a club in Toronto infuriated Canadian officials, who feared it would irreversibly hurt the CFL. As a result, the Canadian Football Act, which would have legally outlawed Bassett’s Toronto squad, was threatened by the country’s government.
Bassett brushed aside the issue at first, intent on his goal. But, finally, the danger grew so severe that he felt compelled to move the squad, which Davidson agreed to. Suddenly, the Miami trio was told that they would be joining the Memphis Southmen when they arrived.
But, hey, the first four weeks of the season were a rollicking success — on paper, at least — except from a club needing to move before its first game. There was a labor stoppage in the NFL, and the WFL was able to snag a few bold players who were ready to abandon ship. Houston Oilers defensive end John Matuszak, the first overall choice in the 1973 draft, was the largest bargain.
Matuszak was a long-haired wild guy who’d go on to work in movies and television, and he couldn’t believe how horribly NFL players were treated by management. He entered the work stoppage in his second year primed and eager to stick it to the NFL Man after a heated argument as a rookie. He turned in his Oilers gear, drove across town, and signed with the Houston Texans in August, in plain violation of the contract he’d signed the previous year.
The WFL had a fantastic July, with record-breaking attendance (about 43,000 per game) and nationwide interest. It’s difficult to find an equivalence for Davidson’s unique celebrity at the time — a young, cool owner who was effectively fighting the NHL and NBA at the same time and had now turned his attention to the NFL. He was a one-of-a-kind individual.
However, things swiftly worsened. Matuszak had only made it seven plays into his Texans debut when attorneys and Texas Rangers (the people with badges and pistols, not the baseball club) arrived on the sideline and issued him a restraining order prohibiting him from returning to the game. Matuszak shrugged as the audience booed, but his WFL career was gone. In what was the first of many LOL moments in the league, he returned to the Oilers.
Even worse, after a month of gloating to Sports Illustrated and The New York Times about extraordinary fan engagement, news broke that the clubs in Jacksonville and Philadelphia both acknowledged to papering their home audiences with free or drastically cheap tickets, a big damage to the WFL’s reputation.
Davidson’s fears about securing 12 franchises with stable owners were justified. By Week 6, two teams were on the verge of dissolving, and two more were moving cities: the Matuszak-less Texans relocated to Shreveport, Louisiana, and became the Steamers, while the New York Stars became the Charlotte Hornets. “About a month in, I realized we weren’t going to make it,” Davidson admits today.
The key to making the ABA and WHA function had been rather straightforward: the owners had money and were ready to lose a significant portion of it for a few years. Davidson had scrambled to find billionaires for the WFL who could pay the $120,000 franchise price and also withstand many years of losses — he assured most owners that even if everything went perfectly, they would lose money until Year 3.
Everything did not go according to plan. Detroit’s ownership structure ended up with 32 co-investors, which was a nightmare waiting to happen. The fighting of 32 stakeholders resulted in continual confusion and financial deficiencies, since half of the participants were not as affluent as they seemed on paper. The team’s documentation cited 122 different persons and corporations to whom it owed money when it filed for bankruptcy following Year 1.
The fact that the US economy was in a substantial slump in the post-Nixon years, with the worst recession since the Great Depression in 1973-75, didn’t help matters. Bob Schmertz, the owner of the New York Stars and a real estate developer, had his net worth collapse from $25 million to $5 million shortly after the league’s start, prompting him to reduce his investment in the WFL. Fran Monaco, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, was in such a financial bind that he borrowed $27,000 from his head coach, Bud Asher, to cover player salaries… and then sacked Asher without returning the loan.
Davidson thinks the league should have done a better job of vetting, but he believes the general financial situation was a major role. That, according to Charlotte owner Upton Bell, is a cop-out. “The league could have made it if he had acquired good people,” Bell adds. “We wanted individuals who were financially secure and could afford to suffer for a few years. Gary could have waited a year if he had been more cautious.”
There were emergency meetings, followed by follow-up emergency meetings, all in an attempt to keep the ship afloat. The amount of swag — WFL hats, T-shirts, pens — that Davidson had set out at each seat started league executives joking about how you could tell how tense the meeting was going to be by the amount of swag you could tell by the amount of swag you could tell by the amount of swag you could tell by the amount of swag you could tell by the amount of swag you could tell by the amount of swag you could tell by Owners would murmur to one another, “Oh boy, they’re bringing in the bulls—-.”
Everyone’s eyes widened a little when one especially contentious meeting in a hotel conference room came to a close when a league official presented one last motion for the session: Which owner could pay the hotel bill when they were done?
Even clubs with wealthy owners, such as Hawaii and Memphis, lost more than $3 million in their first year. Money started to dry up in the worst parts of the league, and owners were panicked and began to withdraw. Players with the Portland Storm had been bouncing game checks for weeks when they started openly soliciting supporters for contributions, including food and lodging. The Birmingham Americans and the Florida Blazers, two other clubs, also missed payroll on many occasions.
A Florida court decided that the Blazers couldn’t leave the state for one game unless Charlotte owner Tom Bell agreed to pay for travel and game checks for the players. The whole amount came to almost $75,000… and Florida ended up winning the game. “Can you remember the last time a team paid an opponent to come out and defeat them?” According to Bell. “But I was at a loss for what to do. We were already sold out a couple of days before the game.”
When Davidson learned that Detroit players hadn’t been paid in a month, he gathered funds from the league’s treasury to pay them half of what they owed. When the courier came in the locker room and gave out the checks, the players were furious that they weren’t for the entire amount, and they took their emotions out on the hapless messenger. “They really roughed him up,” Davidson adds.
For everyone who had left the NFL, that first year was a roller coaster ride. The WFL provided an open path for individuals like Dusty Rhodes, a place where there was no institution, no “this is how it’s always been done,” as she heard from the NFL’s Patriots’ front office. When she accepted a position as an assistant general manager for the WFL’s New York squad, she regarded it as a golden chance. She was in charge of player contracts and negotiations. She recalls, “I believed we were going to make it.” “I really did. When the league began, everything seemed to be going well.”
Her team, on the other hand, became the league’s hottest disaster. At the start of 1974, the team’s home games were held on Randall’s Island in New York, with facilities and locker rooms she characterizes as “deplorable.” Players were continually complaining about how bad the lighting was on game nights, with halls, restrooms, and locker rooms having to be lighted by candlelight.
Then, a month into the season, Rhodes learned that the club had been sold from Schmertz to Bell and that they would be moving to Charlotte. She retained her employment, but the team’s finances had become so tight that they had once missed payroll. The team won a game on a road trip to Hawaii, and when they arrived at the airport to fly back to Charlotte, Rhodes was informed that the franchise credit had been denied, and their tickets had been canceled.
With 60 members of the squad in front of her, she believed she had just one option: for the airline to charge the tickets to her credit card, which she never got repaid for. “It was in the neighborhood of $30,000,” she recalls. “Paying off all that debt took me years.”
The WFL was in a spiral as a result of the negative publicity, and after yet another emergency meeting in October, Davidson made a bombshell statement during a heated confrontation with Chicago owner Tom Origer: he would raise his hand and be the fall man, resigning as commissioner. “I believed everyone involved needed a new start, and I figured if I stood away, they’d get it,” he recalls today.
WFL management were only hoping to finish on a positive note at the conclusion of the regular season. In World Bowl I, Birmingham and Florida faced off, with Davidson hoping that a strong finish would help to avert some of the setbacks. He remained a league investor, as well as its strongest supporter and advisor, but he was no longer its face. He explains, “We needed a successful conclusion to the season so we could recover.”
The WFL, on the other hand, had saved the worst for last. The game was almost postponed when the Americans were discovered to owing $237,000 in unpaid taxes, forcing a tight last-minute deal with the IRS to give the government first dibs on a 60% share of the World Bowl I gate.
The American players, on the other hand, were so concerned about their financial predicament that they momentarily refused to play until ownership guaranteed them game checks and championship rings if they won. The league had to step in and sign off on a promise that they would get the money they were entitled.
The financial situation had become such a joke that when the WFL announced a $10,000 prize for the league MVP at the World Bowl, so many people burst out laughing that the league felt compelled to prove there was still some cash on hand.
As the World Bowl I began in Birmingham, with the home team eventually winning 22-21, players were greeted by a strange sight in the end zone: security officers standing around a card table with $10,000 in $1 notes placed in heaps.
The game was really rather entertaining. And as the 32,376 spectators in attendance filed out after the game, there was a sense in the stadium that maybe, just maybe, the WFL had gotten over its rough first year and had some momentum heading into Year 2. Nobody knew at the time, however, that as Birmingham’s players and coaches were celebrating in the locker room, city police were searching it. All Birmingham assets were taken when a late court order was issued. The league champions drank beer, smoked cigars, and stood there watching their cleats, helmets, outfits, and even the World Bowl I trophy being dragged out by a group of debt collectors.
Season 1 may have stumbled to the final line, but Season 2 had a fresh lease of life. The Miami trio would eventually arrive, amidst much anticipation and hype, and the revised ownership group would seem less scraggly under new leadership. Davidson was no longer the league’s primary vocalist. He had, however, played a key role on the league’s executive committee and as a co-owner of the Southern California team. Despite the squabbles with various owners, he remained the WFL’s godfather, notably with the league’s most powerful owner, Bassett.
The WFL was revitalized as a result of the transfer. With some increased excitement surrounding the league, new commissioner Chris Hemmeter, a known real estate and resort entrepreneur, took over. From his more quiet position, Davidson hoped that Year 2 — and the Miami trio — would help the league get back on track.
The league then endured one of the most bizarre and terrible seasons in sports history.
UPTON BELL RECEIVED A SUSPICIOUS CALL EARLY IN THE 1975 SEASON. Paul Sasso, the guy on the other end of the line, was proposing to invest $100,000 in a Charlotte business that Bell had previously publicly admitted was on the verge of bankruptcy.
“I’ve been following your predicament and your fundraising efforts,” Sasso added. “I’m a huge football fan who also owns a private aircraft. I’d be delighted to meet with you.”
Bell didn’t care where the money came from; it was either let the team bleed away or take the meeting and hope everything worked out. That is exactly what he did. He had no choice. His past 12 months had been nothing short of a thrilling nightmare. Bell had received a late-season 911 call from league administration asking him to take over the then-New York club, and he knew why. Bert Bell, his father, was an NFL pioneer who helped develop the Eagles and Steelers clubs before serving as commissioner of the league from 1946 to 1959.
“This league could use the Bell name,” said Baldwin, who had sought out to Davidson.
Bell had built a reputation for himself as the director of the scouting department for the Baltimore Colts before becoming the Patriots’ general manager in 1971-72. But now he has the opportunity to become another Bell football pioneer in this renegade league. So he took advantage of the opportunity and met with Schmertz, the Stars’ owner, in the middle of the terrible 1974 season.
Bell now knows that he should have sniffed the diaper bag before accepting it. Schmertz not only promised to give Bell the club for free, but he also offered an extra $10,000 simply to get the franchise off his hands. “This will assist you in getting started,” Schmertz stated.
All Bell had to do was assume sole control of the team, which meant he was now liable for all salary and future expenditures, as well as any outstanding liabilities. Bell’s ownership deal said that if he ever sold the club, which he had planned to relocate to Charlotte, he would get a sizable sum of money.
A free pro football club and a $10,000 signing bonus turned out to be much too good to be true. Midway through the season, the squad relocated to Charlotte.
He did, however, feel as though he had some momentum coming into 1975, catching up with the rest of the league. Csonka, Kiick, and Warfield had made the move from the NFL to the WFL, prompting around 60 additional players to do the same. Joe Namath and both Raiders quarterbacks — Kenny Stabler negotiated a contract to join the league in 1976, while backup Daryle Lamonica joined for the 1975 season — were also subject to lengthy talks.
Because of the astounding compensation rises they were seeing in every newspaper, every excellent NFL player had at least an initial chat with the WFL.
Bell had gathered smaller investors months before the Sasso phone call, including $5,000 from Arnold Palmer. Palmer attended all of Charlotte’s games and even provided Bell with a brand-new Cadillac from his car business. Palmer requested a huge block of tickets so that he could bring his dealership staff to games, and he enjoyed going himself. Palmer’s only stipulation? Don’t make a big deal about his presence, and don’t show him on camera. Bell notes, “He was such a modest guy about it.” “I’ve always admired him for being in it for the right reasons.”
Things were starting to look up. And, to be honest, by 1975, the product on the field was going to be rather excellent. The three Dolphins turned out to be the ideal match for the league, as outstanding as projected but not so good that they overshadowed the rest of the field’s quality. Warfield, who was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983, adds, “The football was decent — similar to the NFL.” “It was on par with the NFL in terms of quality, and the games were thrilling.”
As a result, Memphis rapidly became a life raft for Charlotte and the rest of the league, and the ex-Dolphins provided a lot of oomph to Bassett’s squad. The Southmen had become a gritty Canadian outsider in a community without another pro sports team, with almost every home game being sold out. On game day, Bassett sat in a suite alongside Elvis Presley, who had become a superfan. Bassett, in turn, would go to Elvis Presley’s concerts.
“I remember Johnny being in the audience once, and Elvis going behind and coming out with a football,” Baldwin recalls. “He took a few minutes out of the act to tell everyone how much he loves the Memphis Southmen, then tossed the ball to John Bassett in the audience.”
The Memphis Southmen’s Larry Csonka in play versus the Southern California Sun on July 14, 1975. Getty Images/Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated
But the celebrity endorsements only got the league so far. Bell’s Charlotte squad was particularly harmed by the baggage of the league’s first season, which included the thorny arrangement he made with Schmertz, the team’s previous owner.
First, he received notification that he was liable for a $26,000 cleaning bill from a New York firm. Then, early in the 1974 season, while on a road trip to Shreveport, Bell received a call from the sheriff in Charlotte.
“I have a court order in Shreveport to take your team’s equipment, and I’ve spoken with the sheriff there,” Bell was informed.
He owed another $25,000 for the pads, helmets, and other gear the team had gotten as part of the ownership change. Bell was at a loss about what to do; the game with Shreveport was an hour away, and the police in Shreveport had been told to grab the equipment right away. Bell worked up an agreement to allow the game to go place, after which they could grab the equipment and he would attempt to straighten things out.
“What I really did was phone out to our folks on the road in Shreveport and tell them to see if they could slip out a back entry and get the heck out of there after the game,” Bell recalls today.
He was told that there was no viable escape route for the 50 or so gigantic guys lugging their football equipment. So Bell kept to his word and allowed the Shreveport sheriff seize the equipment until he could pay the charge the next week.
The season only got worse from there, so Bell had no option but to listen when a strange investor named Paul Sasso contacted.
Sasso did actually travel into Charlotte on a private plane on the day of their meeting, and he indicated he could offer $100,000 right away. He proceeded to unfurl a paper that Bell assumed was a financial paperwork concerning the funds, but it turned out to be a jumbled design of Sasso’s plan for a new subterranean stadium.
Bell couldn’t speak out loud what he was thinking since Sasso was surrounded by enormous people, several of whom looked to have weapons on them: “What the f—- is an underground football stadium?”
Bell inquired about Sasso’s profession at the conclusion of the encounter. With a giggle, Sasso added, “Construction management.”
Bell was fortunate that he didn’t accept the money. Later, he discovered who Sasso actually was: a former New York gangster who became an FBI informant and was sent to Tennessee to live in hiding. But Sasso was such an untrustworthy con artist that he ultimately pulled off an almost unheard-of feat: he was booted out of witness protection and subsequently discovered dead in the trunk of a 1980 Buick. Is he coming in on a plane? It was an unlawful use of an FBI plane that Sasso managed to persuade the agency to allow him to use.
“”Listen, this was a crazy league,” Bell adds. That is one of a hundred tales I have.” The tip of the iceberg was Charlotte. The league as a whole was collapsing. Namath had pulled out of a WFL pact almost three months before the season began, which caused television interest to dwindle. Nobody could focus on the game when the Southmen hit the field on Oct. 20 to play the Birmingham Vulcans, according to Csonka. Almost half of the league’s players hadn’t been paid on time, and every locker room was filled with individuals who felt they could smell the WFL’s decaying corpse even as it struggled to stay afloat. Birmingham beat Memphis and the Miami trio 21-0 that day, and it was official a few days later.
Davidson and the other executives gathered together and came to the horrifying conclusion that the WFL would have to collapse.
On April 16, 1975, WFL president Chris Hemmeter, Paul Warfield, Calvin Hill, Jim Kiick, John Gilliam, and Larry Csonka pose with Paul Warfield, Calvin Hill, Jim Kiick, John Gilliam, and Larry Csonka. Suzanne Vlamis/AP Photo
Davidson is sat next to his wife of 40 years, Kate, on a recent ZOOM CALL. Chaos reigns behind them. They have numerous guests around, and a few have brought their dogs to play with Bella, the Davidsons’ dog.
Bella is a handful to deal with. Davidson claims to be a cow dog, which is evident in the backdrop. She is always on the go. They have 30 doors in the house, according to Kate, and when they leave, she and Gary must go through the house and shut each and every one of them to reduce the chances that Bella may discover an escape and flee to the hills outside their California home.
The Davidsons converse for 60 minutes as Bella rounds the home in the background, pulling the other dogs behind her. Around and around, and around, and around, and around, and around, and around, Bella comes in to settle them down and keep them moving as one dog begins yipping at another. As her father narrates tales of attempting to herd rich prospective football team owners who may or may not be affluent and/or in the witness protection program, it’s a perfect background.
Kate is dragged away at one point to assist a friend who has been by the home to borrow one of her clothes. Gary chooses to narrate the love story of Gary and Kate Davidson while she is in the other room, and he stops talking about the pandemonium of attempting to blow up pro sports 50 years ago.
Their pals have always shaken their heads, partly in astonishment, half in jealousy. Gary claims he was going through a difficult divorce about the same time that the WFL began, and all it took for Kate and Gary to fall in love was seeing each other play tennis once. Kate reappears and adds her two cents to the narrative as he describes the tennis match.
She had been dating an Australian man and had broken up with him as soon as she met Gary. On a Tuesday, the Australian man went home to see his family, and when they spoke a few days later, she ditched him.
She remarked, “I met the love of my life.”
“How do you know that?” you may wonder. he stated “It’s Saturday, and I left on Tuesday.”
“I just do,” she said. “He’s the real deal. Please don’t return. It would be pointless to do so.”
He did not return. Gary and Kate went on a dinner date, which reaffirmed the bond they had formed on the tennis court. They got engaged two weeks later. They’ve been together ever since, but it started off as a bet. “Our friends bet a lot of money that we wouldn’t make it,” Kate explains.
They both burst out laughing at that. Gary claims he now has early Parkinson’s disease and is slowing down. He longs for the days when they could stroll and play tennis together. They still go for walks practically every day, and Bella has the ability to keep anybody looking youthful. Gary adds, “I can’t keep up with cattle dogs any longer.”
He’s 87 today, but he still looks a lot like the man who made every major sports commissioner sweat throughout the first half of the 1970s as he holds up vintage magazine covers for the Zoom camera.
Kate adds, “He’s so gorgeous.” “You are really well-dressed.”
He alternates between some of the excruciating errors and the great accomplishments as he goes deep into the memory vault for WFL memories. He chuckles and laughs about some of the mishaps, then returns with a major piece of sports history in which he had a role. He has had an unequaled life of risks and rewards in athletics.
He’s happy of what the WHA and ABA did, claiming that their achievements affected the future of both pro hockey and basketball. Despite its flaws, the WFL gave the discourse regarding player remuneration a boost, paved the way for Thursday night football, and sowed the seeds for a shorter preseason in favor of a longer regular season. Since the WFL, the NFL has been attempting to expand football outside of the United States. He influenced the careers of Dr. J, Bobby Hull, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield, and a long list of others. What an adventure of a life.
Daryle Lamonica of the Southern California Sun in play against the Memphis Southmen on July 14, 1975. US Presswire/Darryl Norenberg
There are individuals like the large man at the bar out there in the world, and Davidson is one of them. However, most individuals associated with the league, including the players that defected, are proud of the risks they made. “I haven’t a single regret,” Warfield adds. “I believe the WFL’s presence for that year, or year and a half, impacted the trajectory of football history. I’m honored to have had a role in it.”
After the WFL folded, Warfield, like many other players, returned to the NFL. Csonka finally returned to the Dolphins, but the team’s winning streak had come to an end. In the meanwhile, the Raiders and Steelers had taken control.
Matuszak moved about for a while, winning two Super Bowls with the Raiders from 1976 to 1982, before deciding to pursue a career in Hollywood. On “The A-Team,” “MASH,” and “Miami Vice,” as well as “North Dallas Forty,” “One Crazy Summer,” and “The Goonies,” “The Tooz” established himself as a gigantic, mulleted TV and movie regular.
Howard Baldwin, Davidson’s longtime buddy, concentrated on hockey. The Hartford Whalers were formed when his WHA club, the New England Whalers, amalgamated with the NHL and became the Hartford Whalers. In 1988, he sold his Whalers shares and invested part of the proceeds in a Pittsburgh Penguins ownership investment.
Baldwin, on the other hand, found the right closing chapter of his life as a storyteller. In the late 1990s, he married Karen, a movie producer, and the two co-founded Baldwin Entertainment Group. Over the last two decades, they’ve released a continuous stream of films, including “Mystery, Alaska” and the Oscar-winning “Ray,” starring Jamie Foxx.
Baldwin is now 79 years old and as vibrant as ever, constantly on the hunt for the next project he can adapt into a film. He hadn’t spoken to Davidson in around 35 years after the WFL’s demise. They weren’t on terrible terms; they just went their own ways. Baldwin decided to search down his old acquaintance and see how he was doing about 2010. Howard and Karen Baldwin, together with Gary and Kate Davidson, began going out to dinner.
Dinners are lengthy and rowdy events. There were too many tales, too much wine, and too many jokes about how good it is to be able to pay the bill at the end of the night. The lunches might often last two or three hours, and Baldwin was struck by how fascinating it was to hear about some of Davidson’s wilder days. “Wait, did that really happen?” they generally exclaim as they glance at one other.
When the response is affirmative, all four of them just shake their heads. Baldwin got an idea while seeing everyone’s surprise at one of those times. He recruited two screenwriters to begin work on a story, and they’re close to pitching studios on what he believes will be the next big thing: “It’s past time for the world to hear Gary Davidson’s tale,” he adds.
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