Wednesday, March 23, 2016

25 Years Ago Today - The Start of the World League of American Football (WLAF)

I wrote and prepared the blog entries about the WLAF months ago, and so I apologize if it seems insensitive to post these just one day after the attacks in Belgium.

Please be assured that I took the incident to heart, and have many concerns regarding it, which I will write about in the days to come.

However, I just wanted to publish these blog entries about the WLAF, starting with this one today.

Just weeks after the New York Giants defeated the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV, the World League of American Football finally had it's debut.

Yes, March 23 1991. A quarter of a century ago on this day. The World League of American Football (WLAF) opened it's inaugural season, and I watched the original broadcast. The first game that ABC, the network that broadcast the games, aired featured the New York are team, the New York/New Jersey Knights. It was a road game, but this was not just a typical road game for an American football team, because this was not in the United States. It was not even in North America. This was in Europe. Barcelona, Spain, to be exact.

Of course, I was hopeful that the Knights might be a good team, that they might win the game. As I recall, they got shut out. They were not a bad team that season, but they were not all that great, either. They finished 5-5, and qualified for the playoffs. But they lost, at home, to the eventual World Bowl champions, the London Monarchs.

The fact that the Knights were not a great team was beside the point. It was cool to see some American football in spring. I think that there is something to be said about playing the sport in spring, and I think that the Canadian Football League, for one, might strongly benefit by switching to the spring time.

Then again, it did not exactly work out well for the WLAF, although that is besides the point.

In any case, one of the things that I found exciting about the WLAF was that, indeed, this was a league with teams around the world. Of course, it was restricted to just two of the six inhabited continents, but still, that was impressive. There were ten teams in five different countries. Three in Europe, including Spain, Germany, and Great Britain. Then, the rest were in North America, with six American teams and one Canadian team, the Montreal Machine.

It was exciting, and it would also work out to be the first professional football games (American football, that is) that I would attend. There was an accessibility to the WLAF that was lacking with the NFL and other leagues. It was not big or popular, so tickets were cheap and readily available.

The thing is, it lasted only two years. The teams were cool, and quite a few had really cool uniforms, including the New York/New Jersey Knights, the Birmingham Fire, the San Antonio Riders, the Frankfurt Galaxy, the Montreal Machine, and some others as well. It was fun, but two years was too short to really get into it all that much, although occasionally, I find myself missing the WLAF and wishing that they had stayed in business.

Well, actually, they did, although they became NFL Europe. But eventually, they, too, folded.

I remember feeling a slight thrill at seeing Lionel Manuel, a former member of the 1986 New York Giants Super Bowl championship team, playing for the Barcelona Dragons.

Footage from the first WLAF broadcast on ABC, which I remember watching.

A game between the eventual World Bowl champion London Monarchs, and the Birmingham Fire, who had a unique and awesome looking uniform.

Footage from another ABC broadcast of a WLAF game during that inaugural 1991 season, between the Barcelona Dragons and the winless Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks, who went 0-10 in 1991, and did not return for the 1992 season.

Footage from another game from that first season, this one between the San Antonio Riders and the Birmingham Riders. I thought that the brown and gold uniforms for the Riders looked pretty sharp.

Here's a bit of a game between the visiting San Antonio Riders and the Barcelona Dragons from that inaugural 1991 season. The San Antonio Riders are wearing their brown jerseys here, which again, I felt looked sharp.

A bit of a game between the visiting Birmingham Fire and the hosting Orlando Thunder, with their bright, neon colored jerseys.

Part of a game between the visiting Frankfurt Galaxy and the San Antonio Riders. The Galaxy had the third best record in the league that season at 7-3, but wound up missing the playoffs, if memory serves correctly, because of the format for the playoffs, and due to the fact that they were in the European Division, easily the best division in the league during that inaugural season of the WLAF. the London Monarchs almost went undefeated, racing off to a 9-0 start before losing their last game to the 8-2 Barcelona Dragons. Frankfurt finished 7-3, better than anyone else in the WLAF outside of their division, but not good enough to qualify for the playoffs. I surprise myself in writing this to remember so much about the records of each team. At least, I believe that what I am writing is accurate. The WLAF tried to do things a little bit differently, to spice things up and make the game look more enticing than the NFL in some respects, since they could not compete with the talent level in the NFL. So, in this clip, you see something that was completely new and unique back then - camera footage from the helmet of a player in the game, which really was quite cool!

One of the main draws to the World League of American Football was that it consisted of teams that gave an international flavor to the league. Obviously, there were the three European teams. But even in North America, there was a team outside of American borders: the Montreal Machine. Here is a clip of them against the San Antonio Riders. It is a bit surprising that the WLAF did not bring a team south of the border, into Mexico, because some exhibition NFL games had drawn huge crowds in Mexico City, and it very well might have bolstered the popularity of the WLAF, and helped it last a bit longer than it did (in my opinion, and also admittedly in retrospect).

Another clip of a 1991 WLAF game, this one between the NY/NJ Knights and the Montreal Machine. I went to some of the games, as already mentioned, and one of them was between these two teams, although I do not believe it was this one. It probably was in 1992, and I remember comedian Howie Mandel having a makeshift show at the end of the game, somewhere in the parking lot. I took my father to see that one, on what was a very hot and sunny day, as I remember it. Pretty cool stuff!

I do not believe that I went to this game, either, although I saw quite a few home games for the NY/NJ Knights. Their home uniforms looked awesome, incorporating the predominately silver and black look reminiscent of the Raiders of the NFL. At the time, it was still relatively rare, before it started to be copied to a ridiculous extent in the other North American sports. The coach of the Knights, Mouse Davis, had invented the run 'n shoot offense that was then in vogue, although it would fade away fairly quickly thereafter. The Knights are hosting the Sacramento Surge in this clip.

I actually remember watching this game in particular, between the Knights and Birmingham! Another good shot of the helmet cam here.

More footage from the inaugural season, this a bit of the game between the Orlando Thunder and the London Monarchs.

The London Monarchs at the San Antonio Riders from that 1991 season.

The colorful Sacramento Surge at the San Antonio Riders in 1991.

Clip of a 1991 game between the Birmingham Fire and the Montreal Machine.

The Sacramento Surge at the Birmingham Fire in 1991.

Another bit of footage from a game at Barcelona, with the Orlando Thunder as the visiting team. The Barcelona Dragons went 8-2 that season, and were the only team to defeat the eventual champions, the London Monarchs, preventing them from going undefeated in the final week of the regular season. But the two teams met in the World Bowl, and London exacted a strong measure of revenge by shutting Barcelona out, 21-0, to win the inaugural World Bowl.

A clip of a game between the Barcelona Dragons and the London Monarchs. I do not believe that this is the World Bowl, nor do I believe that this is the game that Barcelona won. They would meet in the World Bowl, and London would win easily, though.

The London Monarchs were easily the best team that first season of the WLAF, in 1991. This video documents that season of dominance for the Monarchs.

This was an interesting story of the irony of two locals from small town America who lived within minutes of one another growing up, winding up meeting in the grand sounding World Bowl in 1991. Stan Gelbaugh, quarterback for the eventual, inaugural World Bowl champion London Monarchs, talks about how his 1991 season in London was his favorite. It must have been a thrill for those American football players to spend a season or two (or more, since the WLAF continued exclusively in Europe and became known as NFL Europe for many years afterwards) to get to spend some time living abroad like they did.

The World Bowl (Clip)

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