When Csonka, Kiick and Warfield signed with the Toronto Northmen for a combined total of $3 million, everybody figured the World Football League was on its way a lot quicker than the old AFL. After all, the AFL was knee-deep in pro wrestlers, cowboys, antique Olympians, mystics, and castoff construction workers for a good part of their first five years of existence. Back then, no one thought of tapping Paul Hornung or Bart Starr on the shoulder and asking him if he would be interested in mere cash. These were gods and they were playing in the big leagues. The AFL could buy some rookies, but what made it stand out were the porous pass defenses, jetburner receivers, and well... flakes. You know. Madmen. The unforeseeable. The untamed. The masters of errata.
When Chief Wahoo McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins went back to punt, the statisticians' palms got wet. How do you calculate a punting average with some kicks going for minus yardage? When Ernie Ladd got on the scales in summer camp, they had to take him out to a truck inspection station. Doctors' scales only go to 300 pounds. When Booth Lusteg went to the Buffalo Bills training camp, they were willing to take a chance because he claimed to be only 23. He was actually 27 and had no previous kicking experience. He booted the Bills to the playoffs. The New York Titans were going to strike because they weren't sure they would receive money in return for their checks.
The early AFL built up a steady following that rooted for indisputable stars like Lance Alworth and Babe Parilli and George Blanda--and thrilled to the bizarre bounces that the ball took when the talent of the Hall of Famers mixed democratically with the hall of flamers.
Is there any hope for the WFL when it starts with the centerpiece of the dullest football team ever created? Csonka the bulldozer was the instrument of this death by perfect execution. Would you pay $9 a game for a package of seven season and three exhibition games to watch a bulldozer clear palmetto scrub for a supermarket parking lot? This was equivalent to the thrill of watching the Miami Dolphins sweep to their last two championships. All their games were sold out--who could watch it? It was the space program serving up Apollo 19 for a re-re-run. I hate to say it, but give me the days when Flipper was flipping out of a bucket at the end of the Orange Bowl for every one of Miami's infrequent touchdowns and before Csonka had his NASA-engineered suspension helmet--in his first year in the league it was an existential crisis when the big guy plunged into the line because he was always getting knocked unconscious. A runaway truck with an eggshell bumper. Five times he woke up on the sidelines while an awful lot of people held their breath.
Now it looks like the WFL has dangerous tendencies to start the Rozelle way. After the Dolphin desertion followed a deluge of consistent talent--Calvin Hill, Ken Stabler, Ted Kwalik, and Nick Buoniconti. The only flaw with all the money spent to get these guys was the possibility that it was finite. And thus a ray of hope for connoisseurs of the brilliant balmy vagaries of the busted play. Hopefully, the Lucre/Lunatic law would take effect: an imbalance of money would leave room for a whole new generation of eccentrics.
When Sports Illustrated listed the coaches for the new franchises, there seemed to be a depressing number of Hall of Famers. Babe Parilli (NFL) would coach the New York Stars. Tom Fears (NFL) was top man for the Southern California Suns. Jack Pardee (NFL) would lead the Washington Ambassadors. Further down on the list of twelve included three others from the NFL, two from the Canadian Football League, and one each from the college ranks. But after the name of Bud Asher, new coach of the Jacksonville Sharks, were these electric, unapologized-for credentials: NEW SMYRNA BEACH HIGH SCHOOL.
When I read that, I knew the league had possibilities.
Baron "Bud" Asher is one of the mythic figures of my home town. Since he arrived in the mid-fifties after a career as a 5 ft. 9 in. scrub quarterback who ran the opposition's plays against Wally Butts' University of Georgia varsity, Asher has never stopped running. Asher makes Sammy Glick look like a turtle with shinsplints.
In the late fifties, Asher founded the Daytona Beach Bulldogs--a midget league football team for boys aged 10-13.
Midget football had one big advantage over schoolboy sports--no limitations on practice. Asher's boys had playbooks that would have broken Karl Sweetan's foot if he had dropped one. They began practice in midsummer and by the time the season was over in December had combed the country from Miami to Levittown to Chicago looking for a team that could play with them.
Practice was three hours a day. As an undersized and underaged nine year old, I pleaded with Asher to let me be a part of this elite corps. He looked me in the eye, then drew his bulldog-like face right up to an inch of my nose and said: "Do you want to be part of a winner? Do you want to contribute to making the Bulldogs national champions? Do you want to be on that field in front of over 50,000 people when we go up to Chicago and play during the halftime of the Bears game? Are you willing to pay the price?"
By then I was shaking in my short sleeve shirt as Asher's mouth started going so fast it left a wake of spray all over me. I felt like I was being blessed. "Well, you're too young to play this year. But you can still be a part of the Bulldogs. I need an equipment manager."
Prouder of myself than ever before, I saluted Asher and ran all the way home to tell my mother the good news. I did not wipe the spray off my face until dinner.