July 17, 2014

1974: Late TD Propels Blazers to Win Over Wheels

July 17, 1974 marked the home debut of the Detroit Wheels, one of the teams in the newly-formed World Football League. Having lost their first game at Memphis the previous week, they were hosting the Florida Blazers with hopes of breaking into the win column.

The Wheels had a large group of investors, but were quickly showing signs of financial trouble to come. Dan Boisture had been hired away from Eastern Michigan to be head coach, and the team found itself playing at that college’s Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, over 30 miles from Detroit, having been unable to get a lease for Tiger Stadium. With a limited budget for players, the Wheels made little effort to sign NFL veterans, looking to Canada instead. QB Bubba Wyche, formerly of Saskatchewan, directed the offense and WR Hubie Bryant was the WFL’s early receiving leader after gaining 153 yards on seven catches in the opening week, although he was suffering from an eye injury.

The Blazers were coached by ex-NFL linebacker Jack Pardee and had won a narrow victory over The Hawaiians in Week 1. QB Bob Davis (pictured above) had NFL experience, having most notably served as backup to Joe Namath with the Jets, but the offense managed just eight points in the opener.

There were 10,631 fans in attendance at Rynearson Stadium for the Wednesday night contest. Several hundred people watched the action for free from a nearby hill. The atmosphere was festive, with a rock band playing prior to the game.

The Blazers scored first, driving 62 yards in eleven plays on their opening series, and Bob Davis threw to WR Matt Maslowski for a six-yard touchdown. The pass for the action point attempt failed, but the visitors held a 7-0 lead (in the WFL, touchdowns counted for seven points and were followed by an action point, which could not be kicked).

Detroit came right back, going 80 yards in ten plays that ended with FB Sam Scarber running ten yards for a TD. The Wheels also failed to add the action point, and the score remained 7-7 until, with 29 seconds left before the end of the half, Les Perry kicked a 26-yard field goal for Florida.

The Wheels regained the lead in the third quarter when Bubba Wyche connected with RB Jim Rathje, who eluded several tacklers after the catch on the way to a 41-yard TD. The attempt to run for the action point came up short, but the home team was ahead by four points.

That remained the situation until late in the fourth quarter. Florida put together a series that covered 82 yards in 18 plays and was capped when RB Tommy Reamon scored on a five-yard run with 1:37 remaining. This time, the Blazers added the action point on a pass from Davis to TE Greg Latta, and now it was Florida on top by four.

There was still enough time for the Wheels to come back, however. Wyche threw to WR Charlie McKee for a 43-yard gain, and when the receiver fumbled at the end of the play, Sam Scarber recovered at the Florida seven with the clock now down to 1:07.

Scarber ran for two yards and Rathje picked up four to reach the one yard line. After Rathje was stopped for no gain, and with no timeouts remaining, Wyche hurriedly fired a fourth down pass into the end zone, but it fell incomplete. Florida came away with an 18-14 win.

The Wheels outgained Florida (340 yards to 308) although the Blazers had the edge in first downs (18 to 13). There were no turnovers, but lots of penalties, with Detroit flagged 9 times at a cost of 87 yards and the visitors penalized seven times for 50 yards.

Bob Davis completed 14 of 20 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. RB Jim Strong led the ground attack with 89 yards on 18 carries and was also Florida’s leading receiver with four catches for 29 yards. RB A.D. Whitfield also had four receptions, for 18 yards. Tommy Reamon contributed 65 yards on 16 rushing attempts, which included the game-winning TD.

For the Wheels, Bubba Wyche was successful on 14 of 29 throws for 221 yards and a TD. Sam Scarber (pictured at left) rushed for 74 yards on 11 attempts that included a touchdown. Charlie McKee topped the receivers with three catches for 69 yards.

“Sure it boosted our spirits,” said a relieved Coach Pardee of the Blazers. “Any game you win like that has to make you feel good.”

Detroit had to hurriedly prepare for a weekend game at Honolulu and lost, and kept on losing until reaching 0-10 before finally pulling out a victory in the return meeting with the Blazers. It was the only win for the Wheels, who failed to finish out the season and ended up at the bottom of the Central Division with a 1-13 record. Florida, which also suffered from major financial problems, fared much better, topping the Eastern Division at 14-6 and advancing to the WFL Championship game (called the World Bowl) before losing to the Birmingham Americans.