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Sports Illustrated

The Brief, Influential Life of the World Football League

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Sports Illustrated

December 5, 1974, was a chilly night at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, site of the World Bowl. It was a slightly warmer night in Jacksonville, Florida, the scheduled site of the first championship game of the World Football League, but when the Jacksonville Sharks folded fourteen games into the season, the idea of holding the title game there seemed a little, well, like piling on.

The night was shaping up to be a classic battle between the hometown Birmingham Americans and the Florida Blazers. The Americans had the league’s second-best record during the regular season, going 15-5 during the 20 game schedule, and the Blazers arrived in Birmingham by upsetting the best team in the league, the Memphis Southmen, in the semifinals.

Truth be told, winning was the easy part of getting to the World Bowl. Three days before the Big Game, the Americans threatened to not play because they hadn’t been paid in five weeks. The owner begged them to show up on the promise that if they won, he would give them championship rings. No mention was made of back pay, however. The Blazers, meanwhile, hadn’t been paid in four months. Throughout the season, Florida coaches had been charged with not only calling plays, but also making sure bathrooms were filled with toilet paper. Every week Florida players found themselves at the local McDonald’s for their free meal of the day.

Nevertheless, despite all the financial issues, both teams made it to 72,000-seat Legion Field, less than half of which was filled for their world championship tilt.

Game on

Tri-MVP Ceremony With Delta Burke

At halftime, the Americans had a 15-0 lead and looked to be in complete command. The first touchdown was scored by Birmingham's cruelly named running back Joe Profit.

Fans were entertained at the break by the announcement of the league’s Most Valuable Player—or, in this case, players. Running back Tommy Reamon of the Blazers, running back JJ Jennings of the Memphis Southmen, and quarterback Tony Adams of the Southern California Sun were all named Tri-MVPs. Each player received a 1/3 share of the $10,000 prize given for winning the award. Because of the financial issues throughout the season, the league thought it best to give the players cash, fearing the possible public humiliation of three $3,333.33 checks bouncing.

Helping to make the presentation at halftime was Miss Florida 1974, Delta Burke. Missing was Jennings, who, despite the risk of having a check mailed to him, chose instead to have a tonsillectomy that day. Adams was there and Reamon, who was playing in the game, had to be pulled from the locker room. He came out, took his envelope, ran to the stands, and handed it to his mom before rejoining his teammates to get ready for the second half.

Art Cantrelle Scores in the World Bowl // Courtesy of Greg Allred (wfl1974.com)

When the clock hit double zeros, the Americans had survived a furious comeback to nip the Blazers, 22-21.

As both teams made their way off the field, Billie Hayes from Florida tried to retrieve the ball. He was gang-tackled by a group of Birmingham players, who thought the ball should be theirs. After all, they did win. A fight broke out between the teams. The ball popped out, and a ball boy named Walter Bridges picked it up and started running.

Where he was going, no one was sure, but at that point both teams decided it was more important to get the ball back than it was to fight each other. En masse, they took off after him. Needless to say, they got the kid and the ball. Birmingham tackle Paul Costa handed it—the ball, that is—to team captain Ross Brupbacher who said, “The game ball goes to the city of Birmingham…and I hope they bring us back next year to play.”

Prior to the final whistle, Americans running back Jimmy Edwards had been ejected from the game. As he made his way to the locker room, he discovered Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies were waiting to confiscate the team’s uniforms, helmets, and equipment due to an outstanding balance owed to Hibbett’s, the sporting goods store that supplied the team.

Edwards ran back on the field to warn his teammates, a few of whom took their jerseys off after the game and handed them to family members. Back in the locker room, a deputy approached team trainer Drew Ferguson and asked if his shoes had come from Hibbett’s. When he said yes, he had to hand them over. And so, after a joyous celebration, the World Football League champion Birmingham Americans went home with nothing more than a title, and their trainer went home in his socks.

Said Head Coach Jack Gotta, “I don’t know what happens tomorrow, but tonight is the greatest night of my life.”

The Right Guy at the Right Time

Gary Davidson was the right guy at the right time. He was the quintessential anti-establishment guy, and his defiant heart was filled with an indomitable '70s spirit. Before the WFL, Davidson was the co-founder and president of two professional sports leagues, the American Basketball Association in 1967 and the World Hockey Association in 1971. These weren’t just rival leagues. These were the rebels with a cause, and their cause was to change the game, both literally and figuratively. The ABA had a red-white-and-blue basketball, a three point shot, a slam-dunk contest, and Dr. J. The WHA had a blue puck (Davidson was talked out of a red one), were the first to sign European players, and brought the world the professional debut of a skinny little Canadian kid named Wayne Gretzky. When the ABA and WHA both folded after 9 and 7 years respectively, the NBA and NHL each cherry-picked four of their franchises to bring into their leagues, one of which is the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs.

“Davidson was a very aggressive businessman,” says Greg Allred, a WFL aficionado. His blog, wfl1974.com, chronicles much of the story of the Americans' championship season, and his knowledge of the league runs deep. “He understood show business and marketing, and he had an innate ability to sell a product. He was a very shrewd guy.”

Tackling the NFL

Bumped SI Cover

The labor agreement between the National Football League's Players Association and the NFL was up for renewal, and at the heart of the discussions was the idea of free agency. Since the NFL formalized a merger with the American Football League in 1966, the players were at the mercy of the owners—they had no alternate league to find work. Obviously, NFL owners were okay with that. There was talk of the first-ever players strike in 1974, and considering the average salary of an NFL player at the time was a little over $30,000, it seemed logical the athletes would welcome the idea of having another option.

On October 3, 1973, Davidson announced the WFL would begin play on July 10, 1974. He had worked quickly to compile a group of owners for twelve teams across the country: the Birmingham Americans, Boston Bulls, Chicago Fire, Detroit Wheels, Florida Blazers, Honolulu Hawaiians, Houston Texans, Toronto Northmen, New York Stars, Philadelphia Bell, Southern California Sun and Washington Ambassadors. Years later, Davidson was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying: “We made mistakes in ownership selection. We let people come into the league because of a time frame that we might have held back on if we have decided to start play in 1975 instead of 1974.”

Of the teams named at that first press conference, only three would ultimately keep their original city and ownership group. And while all new leagues have some degree of chaos and upheaval when they begin, the WFL took the chaos to the next level:

* The Orlando team was sold and quickly moved to Jacksonville. The owner, Frank Monaco, had enough money to make one payroll, so he borrowed money from his coach and then fired him.

* The Detroit franchise was nearly sold to a guy named Bob Huchul, who, as it turned out, had been arrested 30 times and faced more than 25 lawsuits from previous business ventures.

* The team in Washington couldn’t find a place to play, so they moved to nearby Baltimore. Unable to find a lease in Baltimore, they moved to Norfolk, Virginia. Still not able to make things work, the owner sold to someone who moved the team to Orlando and they became the Florida Blazers. The franchise moved four times before they ever stepped on the field.

* John Bassett Jr., a successful Canadian businessman and clearly the most financially solvent owner in the league, owned rights to the Toronto Northmen. Subsequently, the Canadian government stepped in and introduced legislation to ban any professional football in the country other than the Canadian Football League. Bassett promptly packed up and moved his team to Memphis, changing his Northmen to, more accurately, the Southmen. (As an aside, between 1993 and 1994, the Canadian Football League, apparently not so protective of their league and their country anymore, admitted six American teams.)

As the July kickoff approached, ownership was (somewhat) in place. Now, the league actually needed players.

They held the first round of their college draft in January and the first pick was quarterback David Jaynes of the University of Kansas.

Appreciative of the honor, Jaynes said thanks but no thanks and wound up having a short and uneventful career with the Kansas City Chiefs. They also held a pro draft and the first pick was running back Charlie Evans of the New York Giants. He also said no. Ultimately, most rosters were comprised of college kids, CFL players, some minor leaguers, and more than 300 NFL players who opted to jump.

In February, Davidson announced the league had signed a TV contract with independent network TVS to broadcast a national game of the week on Thursday nights.

In March, Memphis owner Bassett made headlines on every sports page in the country when he signed three of the biggest stars from the World Champion Miami Dolphins—Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield—to an estimated $3 million contract to play for the Southmen in 1975.

When Calvin Hill of the Cowboys and Ted Kwalick of the 49ers signed to play for the Honolulu Hawaiians in 1975, Sports Illustrated jumped on the bandwagon and was prepared to run an April 15, 1974 cover featuring the two players and Davidson under the headline: “Pro Football Goes to War.”

Unfortunately, while pro football went to war, Hank Aaron went to bat. When he hit his record-breaking 715th home run that week, the WFL cover didn’t make the newsstands.

Some might have called this a sign.

New League, New Game

Courtesy of Greg Allred (wfl1974.com)

Just like the ABA and WHA, Davidson and his new league weren’t going to follow the old rules. He promised an exciting, energetic brand of football, playing directly off the growing criticism that the NFL was boring.

Along with their twenty game regular season, a gold football with orange stripes, hip, modern uniforms, and the world’s largest collection of sports teams that didn’t end in the letter “S” (Bell, Fire, Southmen, Storm, Sun, Steamer), the league instituted eleven unique rules including:

* Moving the kickoff from the 40 to the 30 to improve run backs
* Moving the goalposts from the front of the end zone to the back line
* A fifteen minute overtime period to decide ties (more like soccer than sudden death)

Because there was a belief that the NFL was becoming a field goal kicker dominated league, the WFL instituted other rule changes to lessen the importance of kickers. Those included:

* Missed field goals would be returned to the spot of the miss
* No extra points. Touchdowns would be worth 7 not 6, and everyone had the opportunity to get an “Action Point” where you could run or pass your way to an extra point from the two yard line.

NFL owners and Commissioner Pete Rozelle, fearful WFL games might be more wide open and exciting than theirs, quickly adopted versions of many of these rules changes. And forty years later, the WFL seems prescient, as the NFL is now considering eliminating the extra point as well. Even Keith Olbermann recently gave the WFL some praise.

Season one for the WFL kicked off on July 10, 1974. It was a great debut.

Five opening night games totaled nearly 200,000 fans. The Philadelphia Bell outdrew the Phillies by more than 20,000. Even Elvis showed up in Memphis to watch the Southmen’s opening game.

The league was getting positive press. Life was good. And it didn’t hurt that the NFL was on strike.

The WFL had—at least for a short while—become the NFL. It was the only game in town.

Then August arrived and things started to spiral. There were revelations that attendance numbers were, to put it mildly, inflated. Of the 120,000 fans at the first two Philadelphia Bell games, more than 100,000 got in either free or for a significantly reduced price. Jacksonville was doing the same thing. Rumors started circulating that teams across the league were struggling to meet payroll. The Southern California Sun, one of the more stable teams in the league, were running away with the Western Division when their owner, Larry Hatfield, was indicted by a federal grand jury for making false statements to obtain loans—one of which was the loan for the Sun.

The Detroit Wheels ran out of adhesive tape and had to borrow it from other teams. Management of the Portland Storm appealed to the team’s booster club to help feed the players before games. At one point, Birmingham flew to Portland for a game, and when they got on the bus to take them to the hotel, the bus didn’t move. After several minutes of awkward silence, the bus driver said he needed to be paid in advance because the last time he drove a WFL team somewhere he had been stiffed. The players dug into their pockets and pooled enough money to get the bus moving.

There was also this strange event in Houston: Defensive end John Matuszak suddenly bolted the NFL Houston Oilers for the WFL Houston Texans. This was a huge coup for the league, as Matuszak was one of the biggest defensive names in the NFL. Exactly seven plays into his new job with the Texans, he was handed a restraining order on the sidelines, forbidding him from playing.

He waved the paperwork to the crowd and spent the rest of the game on the bench. The courts later ordered he couldn’t join the WFL until his NFL contract ended after the 1977 season.

Halfway through the season, the Houston Texans moved to become the Shreveport Steamers and the New York Stars moved to become the Charlotte Hornets. In early October, the WFL suspended the Detroit and Jacksonville franchises because of financial issues. Three days later, it turned out “suspension” was secret code for “You guys don’t have a team anymore.”

That first year, the league lost nearly $20,000,000 and put Gary Davidson into bankruptcy. After an internal power struggle, he walked away and never was involved in sports again. The league named Chris Hemmeter, owner of the Honolulu Hawaiians, as commissioner. Hemmeter made it clear there would be some changes, and that there would be a second season.

The question was, did anyone care?

A few days after the World Bowl, shaken, battered, and determined league officials met in New York City to concoct a survival strategy. Commissioner Hemmeter announced the “Hemmeter Plan,” a profit-sharing plan to ensure that players would be paid in 1975. It stipulated that the players would receive a percentage of the owners’ profits, and if there were no profits, the players would receive $500 a game.

The league came back in season two with eleven teams, some new, some moved, and some completely re-formed. Some teams were still looking for coaches when the season started. In July, the Philadelphia Bell named former Green Bay Packers safety Willie Wood their head coach, making him the first African American head coach in pro football history.

The new ownership group in Chicago tried to make a splash by offering a $5 million contract to Joe Namath. CBS allegedly said that if Namath signed with the WFL, they would be willing to talk TV contract. Simultaneously, Namath was offered a $5 million contract to be a spokesman for Faberge. It wasn’t too difficult a decision for Namath, who stayed with the Jets, got a big payday from Faberge and was forced to work in unbearable conditions like this:

The CBS contract rumor disappeared and the league found itself with no national TV carrier. Any TV broadcasts for the 1975 season would be local. This would prove another huge financial burden.

Nevertheless, they pushed on. Even without Davidson, the WFL continued to bring out-of-the-box ideas to the table. The league announced they would be testing a uniform change for every team during the preseason. The official press release explained:

All offensive linemen will wear purple pants, running backs green pants and receivers orange pants, while defensive lineman will be dressed in blue, linebackers in red and defensive backs in yellow. The various colors are emphasized by vertical striping. Quarterbacks and kickers will wear white.

The various colored pants are the idea of William B. Finneran, a New York management consultant who also invented the Action Point. Finneran refers to the pants idea as “color dynamics” which he defines as “the concept of implementing means whereby one’s visual appreciation of dynamic movement is significantly increased.”

"Most importantly," says Finneran, “color coding is for the benefit and enjoyment of the fans. It has no significant impact on the game itself." The concept will insure easier comprehension of the game and for those sometime fans, such as women. In a sense the color grids will serve as the TV "color commentator" for the crowd at the stadium since they will help explain the action. They will also of course improve viewing on color television.

Says JJ Jennings, “The league had a lot of good ideas. That wasn’t one of them.” The pants were shelved before the season started.

Those Pants // Courtesy of Richie Franklin (charlottlehornetswfl.com)

On the bright side, the WFL finally got its Sports Illustrated cover in 1975, featuring Csonka, Kiick and Warfield preparing for the season in Memphis.

This was a much “cleaner” cover than the last time Csonka and Kiick were on the cover of SI together—in 1972 when Csonka gave the one-finger salute and nobody noticed until it was too late.

Year two of the WFL kicked off at the end of July 1975 with eleven teams. By week three, that number was down to ten, as the Chicago Winds folded. By early October, with continued financial strife and poor attendance, the league held an emergency meeting and Hemmeter defiantly declared the league would survive. It did...for nine more days. On October 22, he announced the league was disbanding. In his closing remarks, Hemmeter cited the reasons for failure were bad weather, competition with the NFL, media skepticism, and the availability of star players.

Thirty two games in, the WFL was officially dead

Even today, former players agree that if you stripped away all the financial issues, the football itself was great. “We could hold our own with anybody,” says Reamon. Now a high school coach in Newport News, Virginia (he coached Michael Vick and current Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin among others), Reamon says, “I was the youngest guy on our team. We had a lot of older NFL guys and they all said the quality of the game we played was second to none.”

During the ’74 season, Reamon had made the unwise decision of having his salary deferred to the end of the year, meaning he had earned a total of $1,500 (his bonus) for the entire season, plus the $3,333.33 for sharing the MVP award. “Honestly, I have no regrets,” he says. “For me, the WFL made sense in a lot of ways. The NFL was on strike and it was a chance to show them they made a mistake by not picking me in the first round. The WFL gave me an opportunity to showcase my talents.”

After the 1974 season, Reamon’s coach in Florida, Jack Pardee, jumped ship and took the head coaching job with the Chicago Bears in the NFL. The Bears tried to work a trade to get Reamon’s rights from the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they couldn’t agree on a deal. Instead, the Bears drafted a running back named Walter Payton. Reamon was later traded to the newly-formed Jacksonville Express in '75. He played for the Chiefs in the NFL in 1976, Saskatchewan in the CFL in ’77, and retired from professional football in ’78. “No regrets,” he says. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Despite being one of the Tri-MVPs, JJ Jennings was also traded in ’75 to Philadelphia when Csonka, Kiick, and Warfield showed up in Memphis. “There wasn’t any room for me or my hair,” he says. He agrees with Reamon that the play on the field was more than solid. “Our team was a bit of an outlier in the league,” he says. “We had a great owner [Bassett]. Getting paid was never an issue, and we were a quality organization through and through. I have no regrets. We kept a lot of people working for a couple of years and the football was good. Really good.”

Richie Franklin was a 13 year old when the WFL hit his TV. Since then, he’s dedicated countless hours, energy, and emotion to keeping the spirit of the WFL alive. “I was an impressionable young kid,” he says. “I thought the ball and the uniforms were so great. I had never seen anything like this before. It’s forty years later and no one can ever take those memories away.” His site, wfl.charlottehornets.com, is the definitive source of information on the league’s history, including interviews with players and details long since forgotten by most. “It’s been a labor of love,” he says. “I just want to keep the spirit alive.”

Looking back, a league that was seemingly a blip on the football radar had a remarkable impact. The WFL created rule changes which still exist today, helped open the door for NFL free agency, created coaching opportunities for men like Jack Pardee, Marty Schottenheimer, Jim Fassel, and Lindy Infante, and launched the NFL careers of Danny White, Alfred Jenkins, Pat Haden, and more.

“Ultimately, the death of the WFL was unstable ownership and lack of a TV contract,” says Allred. “But in terms of football the way we know it today, the WFL was a very forward thinking league.”

As it turns out, too forward, too soon.

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History
Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Courtesy of Dave Drason Byrzynski

Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

Courtesy of Dave Drason Burzynski

If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

Photo (C) by Brian Bukantis, www.wrestleprints.com

According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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How All 32 NFL Teams Got Their Names
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What do newspaper headline type and the New Deal have to do with the Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles? Here are the stories behind the nicknames of the NFL’s 32 teams—and what they were almost called.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

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The franchise began play in Chicago in 1898 before moving to St. Louis in 1960 and Arizona in 1988. Team owner Chris O’Brien purchased used and faded maroon jerseys from the University of Chicago in 1901 and dubbed the color of his squad’s new outfits “cardinal red.” A nickname was born. The team adopted the cardinal bird as part of its logo as early as 1947 and first featured a cardinal head on its helmets in 1960.

ATLANTA FALCONS

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Shortly after insurance executive Rankin Smith brought professional football to Atlanta, a local radio station sponsored a contest to name the team. Thirteen hundred people combined to suggest more than 500 names, including Peaches, Vibrants, Lancers, Confederates, Firebirds, and Thrashers. While several fans submitted the nickname Falcons, schoolteacher Julia Elliott of nearby Griffin was declared the winner of the contest for the reason she provided. “The falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight,” Elliott wrote. “It never drops its prey. It is deadly and has great sporting tradition.” Elliott won four season tickets for three years and a football autographed by the entire 1966 inaugural team.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

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Ravens, a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, beat out Americans and Marauders in a contest conducted by the Baltimore Sun. Poe died and is buried in Baltimore.

Of the more than 33,000 voters in the Sun’s phone-in poll, more than 21,000 picked Ravens. “It gives us a strong nickname that is not common to teams at any level, and it gives us one that means something historically to this community,” said team owner Art Modell, who had attempted to buy the Colts nickname back from the franchise that left Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984. The Marauders nickname referenced a B-26 built during World War II by the Glenn L. Martin Company, a predecessor to Lockheed Martin that was based in Baltimore. Other names considered included the Railers, Bulldogs, Mustangs, and Steamers.

BUFFALO BILLS

 
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The Bills nickname was suggested as part of a fan contest in 1947 to rename Buffalo’s All-America Football Conference team, which was originally known as the Bisons. The Bills nickname referenced frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody and was selected over Bullets, Nickels, and Blue Devils. It helped that the team was owned by the president of Frontier Oil, James Breuil. Buffalo was without a team from 1950 to 1959, when owner Ralph Wilson acquired a franchise in the AFL. Wilson solicited potential nicknames from fans for his new franchise and ultimately chose Bills in homage to the city’s defunct AAFC team.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

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Panthers team president Mark Richardson, the son of team owner Jerry Richardson, chose the Panthers nickname because "it's a name our family thought signifies what we thought a team should be—powerful, sleek and strong." Richardson also chose the 1995 expansion team’s color scheme of black, blue, and silver, a choice that initially came under scrutiny from NFL Properties representatives. According to one newspaper report, the concern was raised at the 1993 NFL meetings that a team nicknamed the Panthers that featured black in its color scheme would appeal to street gangs and reflect poorly on the league.

CHICAGO BEARS

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In 1921, the Decatur Staleys, a charter member of the American Professional Football Association, moved to Chicago and kept their nickname, a nod to the team’s sponsor, the Staley Starch Company. When star player George Halas purchased the team the following year, he decided to change the nickname. Chicago played its home games at Wrigley Field, home of baseball’s Cubs, and Halas opted to stick with the ursine theme.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

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Team owner, general manager, and head coach Paul Brown nicknamed Cincinnati’s AFL expansion franchise the Bengals in 1968 in honor of the football team nicknamed the Bengals that played in the city from 1937-1942. According to Brown, the nickname “would provide a link with past professional football in Cincinnati.” Brown chose Bengals over the fans’ most popular suggestion, Buckeyes.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

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There’s some debate about whether Cleveland’s professional football franchise was named after its first coach and general manager, Paul Brown, or after boxer Joe Louis, who was nicknamed the “Brown Bomber.” Team owner Mickey McBride conducted a fan contest in 1945 and the most popular submission was Browns. According to one version of the story, Paul Brown vetoed the nickname and chose Panthers instead, but a local businessman informed the team that he owned the rights to the name Cleveland Panthers. Brown ultimately agreed to the use of his name and Browns stuck.

DALLAS COWBOYS

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The Cowboys, who began play in the NFL in 1960, were originally going to be nicknamed the Steers. The team’s general manager, Texas E. Schramm, decided that having a castrated bovine as a mascot might subject the team to ridicule, so he decided to go with Rangers instead. But fearing that people would confuse the football team with the local minor league baseball team nicknamed the Rangers, Schramm finally changed the nickname to Cowboys shortly before the season began.

DENVER BRONCOS

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Denver was a charter member of the AFL in 1960 and Broncos, which was submitted along with a 25-word essay by Ward M. Vining, was the winning entry among 162 fans who responded in a name-the-team contest. A Denver team by the same name played in the Midwest Baseball League in 1921.

DETROIT LIONS

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Radio executive George A. Richards purchased and moved the Portsmouth Spartans to Detroit in 1934 and renamed the team the Lions. The nickname was likely derived from Detroit’s established baseball team, the Tigers, who won 101 games and the AL pennant that year. As the team explained it, “The lion is the monarch of the jungle, and we hope to be the monarch of the league.”

GREEN BAY PACKERS

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Team founder Earl “Curly” Lambeau’s employer, the Indian Packing Company, sponsored Green Bay’s football team and provided equipment and access to the field. The Indian Packing Company became the Acme Packing Company and later folded, but the nickname stuck.

HOUSTON TEXANS

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Houston’s 2002 expansion franchise became the sixth professional football team nicknamed the Texans. The Dallas Texans were an Arena Football League team from 1990 to 1993 and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones revived the team in 2000. He was planning to keep the old nickname, but ultimately renamed the team the Desperados. Houston owner Bob McNair chose Texans over Apollos and Stallions.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

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The Baltimore Colts, a member of the All-America Football Conference from 1947-1950, were named in honor of the region’s history of horse breeding. The name remained when a new franchise began play in 1953 and after the team relocated to Indianapolis in 1984.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

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The Jaguars nickname was selected through a fan contest in 1991, 2 years before the city was officially awarded an expansion team and 4 years before the team would begin play. Other names considered included the Sharks and Stingrays. While Jaguars aren’t native to Jacksonville, the oldest living jaguar in North America was housed in the Jacksonville Zoo.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

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The Chiefs began play in the AFL in 1960 as the Dallas Texans. When the team moved to Kansas City in 1963, owner Lamar Hunt changed the team’s name to the Chiefs after also considering Mules, Royals, and Stars. Hunt said the name was locally important because Native Americans had once lived in the area. Hunt may have also been swayed by Kansas City mayor H. Roe Bartle, whose nickname was The Chief. Bartle helped lure the team to Kansas City by promising Hunt that the city would meet certain attendance thresholds.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

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Team owner Barron Hilton sponsored a name-the-team contest and promised a trip to Mexico City to the winner in 1960. Gerald Courtney submitted “Chargers” and Hilton reportedly liked the name so much that he didn’t open another letter.

There are varying accounts as to why Hilton chose Chargers for his franchise, which spent one year in Los Angeles before relocating to San Diego. (The franchise is back in the Los Angeles area for the 2017 season.) According to one story, Hilton liked the name, in part, for its affiliation with his new Carte Blanche credit card. The owner also told reporters that he was fond of the “Charge!” bugle cry played at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

LOS ANGELES RAMS

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The Rams, who originated in Cleveland in 1936 and spent 1946 through 1994 in the Los Angeles area before moving to St. Louis, came back to LA last season. The team traces their nickname to the college ranks. Principal owner Homer Marshman and general manager Damon “Buzz” Wetzel chose the nickname because Wetzel’s favorite football team had always been the Fordham Rams. Fordham—Vince Lombardi’s alma mater—was a powerhouse at the time.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

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A name-the-team contest drew nearly 20,000 entries and resulted in the nickname for the Miami franchise that entered the AFL as an expansion team in 1966. More than 600 fans suggested Dolphins, but Marjorie Swanson was declared the winner after correctly predicting a tie in the 1965 college football game between Miami and Notre Dame as part of a follow-up contest. Swanson, who won a lifetime season pass to Dolphins games, told reporters she consulted a Magic 8-Ball before predicting the score of the game. Miami owner Joe Robbie was fond of the winning nickname because, as he put it, “The dolphin is one of the fastest and smartest creatures in the sea.”

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

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According to the Vikings’ website, Bert Rose, Minnesota’s general manager when it joined the NFL in 1961, recommended the nickname to the team’s Board of Directors because “it represented both an aggressive person with the will to win and the Nordic tradition in the northern Midwest.” The expansion franchise also became the first pro sports team to feature its home state, rather than a city, in the team name.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

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Seventy-four fans suggested Patriots in the name-the-team contest that was conducted by the management group of Boston’s original AFL franchise in 1960. “Pat Patriot,” the cartoon of a Minuteman preparing to snap a football drawn by the Boston Globe’s Phil Bissell, was chosen as the team’s logo soon after. While the first part of the team’s name changed from Boston to New England in 1971, Patriots remained.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

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New Orleans was awarded an NFL franchise on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1966. The nickname was a popular choice in a name-the-team contest sponsored by the New Orleans States-Item, which announced the news of the new franchise with the headline, “N.O. goes pro!” The nickname, chosen by team owner John Mecom, was a nod to the city’s jazz heritage and taken from the popular song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

NEW YORK GIANTS

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New York owner Tim Mara borrowed the Giants nickname from John McGraw’s National League baseball team, a common practice by football teams during an era when baseball was the nation’s preeminent team sport.

NEW YORK JETS

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Originally nicknamed the Titans, the team was renamed the Jets in 1963 after Sonny Werblin led an investment group that purchased the bankrupt franchise for $1 million.

According to a contemporary New York Times story, the franchise considered calling itself the Dodgers, but nixed the idea after Major League Baseball didn’t like it. Gothams also got some consideration, but the team didn’t like the idea of having it shortened to the Goths, because “you know they weren’t such nice people.” The last finalist to fall was the New York Borros, a pun on the city’s boroughs; the team worried that opposing fans would make the Borros-burros connection and derisively call the squad the jackasses.

Eventually the team became the Jets since it was going to play in Shea Stadium, which is close to LaGuardia Airport. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the name was supposed to reflect the “modern approach of his team.”

OAKLAND RAIDERS

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Chet Soda, Oakland’s first general manager, sponsored a name-the-team contest in 1960. Helen A. Davis, an Oakland policewoman, submitted the winning entry, Señors, and was rewarded with a trip to the Bahamas. The nickname, an allusion to the old Spanish settlers of northern California, was ridiculed in the weeks that followed, and fans also claimed that the contest was fixed. Scotty Stirling, a sportswriter for the Oakland Tribune who would later become the team’s general manager, provided another reason to abandon the nickname. “That’s no good,” Stirling said. “We don’t have the accent mark for the n in our headline type.” Responding to the backlash, Soda and the team’s other investors decided to change the team’s nickname to Raiders, which was a finalist in the contest along with Lakers.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

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In 1933, Bert Bell and Lud Wray purchased the bankrupt Frankford Yellowjackets. The new owners renamed the team the Eagles in honor of the symbol of the National Recovery Act, which was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

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Pittsburgh’s football team shared the same nickname as the city’s baseball team, the Pirates, from 1933 to 1940. Before the 1940 season, owner Art Rooney held a rename-the-team contest. A change couldn’t hurt, as Pittsburgh had failed to post a winning season in its first 7 years. Joe Santoni, who worked in a mill for Pittsburgh Steel, was one of several fans who suggested Steelers. Santoni received a pair of season tickets, which he would renew every year until his death in 2003.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

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The 49ers, who began play in the All-America Football Conference in 1946, were named after the settlers who ventured to the San Francisco area during the gold rush of 1849.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

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There were 1,700 unique names among the more than 20,000 submitted in a name-the-team contest in 1975, including Skippers, Pioneers, Lumberjacks, and Seagulls. About 150 people suggested Seahawks. A Seattle minor league hockey team and Miami’s franchise in the All-America Football Conference both used the nickname in the 1950s. “Our new name suggests aggressiveness, reflects our soaring Northwest heritage, and belongs to no other major league team,” Seattle general manager John Thompson said. The Seahawks’ helmet design is a stylized head of an osprey, a fish-eating hawk of the Northwest.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

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A panel of local sportswriters and representatives from the NFL expansion team, including owner Hugh F. Culverhouse, chose Buccaneers from an original list of more than 400 names in 1975. The nickname, which was a popular choice among fans in a name-the-team contest, was a nod to the pirates who raided Florida’s coasts during the 17th century.

TENNESSEE TITANS

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After relocating from Houston to Tennessee in 1995, the team played two seasons as the Oilers before owner Bud Adams held a statewide contest to rename the team. Titans was chosen over nicknames such as Tornadoes, Copperheads, South Stars, and Wranglers. “We wanted a new nickname to reflect strength, leadership and other heroic qualities,'' Adams told reporters.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

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One year after he acquired an NFL franchise in Boston, George Preston Marshall changed the team’s nickname from Braves to Redskins. According to most accounts, the nickname was meant to honor head coach and Native American William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, though some question whether Dietz was a Native American. The Redskins kept their controversial nickname when they relocated to Washington, DC, in 1937.

A version of this post originally appeared in 2010.

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