July 24, 2010
The Birmingham Americans and Memphis Southmen (or Grizzlies, as they were popularly referred to by the local fans) had won their first two World Football League games in 1974 and had already established themselves as among the better franchises in the league’s short history. The clubs met for the first time before 61,319 fans at Birmingham’s Legion Field on the night of July 24 in what proved to be a high-scoring affair.
The Americans, under Head Coach Jack Gotta, split the quarterback duties between veteran George Mira and Matthew Reed. The stable of running backs was led by former Bengal and Oiler Paul Robinson and included Jimmy Edwards, Carl Bartles, Charlie Harraway, and Art Cantrelle. WR Dennis Homan, a local favorite who had a modest NFL career after coming out of Alabama, had been drawing the primary coverage by opposing defenses, and this opened the door for fast rookie WR Alfred Jenkins.
Memphis was coached by John McVay and had created a sensation earlier in the year by signing three key members of the NFL champion Miami Dolphins (FB Larry Csonka, HB Jim Kiick, and WR Paul Warfield) to contracts for the ’75 season. However, those players were not available for 1974 and so the offense was led by RB J.J. Jennings, a former Rutgers standout; QB John Huarte, a former Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame who had been a career backup in the AFL and NFL; TE Gary Shirk, from Morehead State; and tall (6’5”) WR Ed Marshall.
The tone of the game was set on the Memphis offense’s first play when Huarte fumbled the snap and DE Dick Trower recovered at the Southmen nine yard line. Bartles ran three yards for the touchdown, and while the action point was no good, Birmingham had an early 7-0 lead.
After a Bob Etter field goal for Memphis cut the lead to 7-3, Mira threw to Jenkins for a 38-yard touchdown; once again the action point failed. Again, Mira connected with Jenkins for a long touchdown pass play that covered 74 yards for a 21-3 advantage (once more, the action point attempt was unsuccessful).
The Southmen came back as Huarte passed to Shirk for a 35-yard TD and, with a successful action point, the Birmingham margin was narrowed to 21-11. However, the Americans scored once more prior to the half as Mira connected on four passes in a 59-yard drive that culminated in a 12-yard touchdown throw to Homan. With yet another failed action point, the tally stood at 28-11 in favor of Birmingham at halftime.
Memphis scored quickly in the third quarter thanks to a five-play drive that featured a 46-yard run by RB John Harvey. Harvey completed the drive with a two-yard TD run and, after a successful Huarte-to-WR Roger Wallace pass for the action point, the Southmen were back in the contest at 28-19.
Mira suffered a sprained ankle while scrambling during the next possession, but that didn’t slow the Birmingham offense as Reed threw to Jenkins for a 52-yard touchdown on his first play. The Americans finally converted an action point and led by 36-19.
The Southmen didn’t give up as they responded with an 80-yard drive that ended with a one-yard TD run by Harvey, although they failed to make the action point. Again, Birmingham responded with a touchdown as Reed connected with TE Jim Bishop on a four-yard scoring pass. With a failed action point, the Americans now led by a 43-26 margin.
Aided by a pass interference call in the end zone, the Southmen came back once more to score on a one-yard TD run by Jennings, but a failed action point attempt kept the margin at ten points (43-33). Once more the Americans drove right back down the field with Robinson scoring on a two-yard touchdown carry and a successful action point. The back-and-forth nature of the second half finally ended when LB Steve Conley intercepted a Huarte pass and gave Birmingham good field position at its own 49. After a 31-yard carry by Robinson, Jimmy Edwards swerved his way to an 18-yard touchdown run. The action point was missed, but the margin proved decisive as the Americans defeated the Southmen, 58-33.
The Birmingham quarterbacks, Mira and Reed, combined for 367 yards and five touchdowns. Paul Robinson led the runners with 93 yards on 18 carries with a TD. The defense had forced six turnovers, including two fumbles and four interceptions. But the most spectacular performance was turned in by Alfred Jenkins as he caught 5 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns (it could have been more, but an apparent long scoring play was called back due to a penalty – one of 14 the Americans committed). The 200 yards would remain the single-game record for pass receiving yards in the WFL’s short history.
For Memphis, John Huarte passed for 224 yards with a TD, but had four passes picked off. John Harvey rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, while Ed Marshall caught 6 passes for 114 yards.
Birmingham went on to finish at 15-5, putting them in second place in the Central Division behind the Southmen, who survived the high-scoring loss to post the league’s best record at 17-3. However, in the postseason Memphis was upset in the semifinal round by the Florida Blazers, who ended up losing the league championship game to the Americans.
Alfred Jenkins was a consensus All-League pick after catching 60 passes for a WFL-best 1326 yards with 12 touchdowns. He would parlay his notable WFL showing into an outstanding nine-year career with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.