The renegade who took on the NFL (and the NBA

The renegade who took on the NFL (and the NBA

ABOUT 10 YEARS AGO, Gary Davidson sat down at a bar and noticed a giant man a few seats down staring at him.

Like … really staring at him. Dangerously staring at him. Davidson tried to nod his head in acknowledgment and leave it at that. But the guy wouldn’t look away. Davidson was in his late 70s back then, still with a poof of blondish hair and the looks of a man 20 years younger.

“Are you Gary Davidson?” the guy asked. Davidson smiled his movie-star smile at the guy, the one that has always gotten him out of trouble.

The man’s eyes never left him, though. Davidson was used to getting recognized — he’d been a rabble-rousing, troublemaking entrepreneur for decades. But this was getting unsettling, especially since this guy looked like he could have pretzeled Davidson up and stuffed him in a beer mug.

“Yes, I am,” Davidson said with some reluctance.

“You owe me f—ing money,” the guy said.

Davidson sipped his drink for a few seconds, wondering if maybe he was going to need to head for the exit.

The guy eventually gave him a pained smile, and the tension dissipated — a little bit, anyway. The guy had been a member of the World Football League, the first great rival of the post-merger NFL in the early 1970s. And he was one of many large men roaming Earth who probably feel like Gary Davidson cost them a few bucks.

Davidson paid for the guy’s tab, and they ended up reminiscing about the good old days of trying to take down the NFL. Many have tried in the past five decades, including the USFL reboot that kicks off this weekend. But the NFL has always retained its crown as the king of pro football, strengthening its hold every year for more than five decades now. Davidson doesn’t remember the guy’s name — just that he told Davidson he’d finished playing football and had become a successful real estate broker. “No hard feelings,” the guy said. “I’m glad we went for it. And besides, it gave me a bunch of good stories for the rest of my life.”

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That’s one big thing about the WFL: It is a nonstop fountain of stories and a story unto itself. The story of the WFL is one that includes a mortally wounded NFL dynasty, Elvis Presley, Arnold Palmer, the guy who played Sloth in “The Goonies,” an enraged Canadian Parliament, sheriff raids on locker rooms, and a member of the witness protection program trying to buy a team. It’s a story of a remarkable dumpster fire that damn near kneecapped the NFL.

And in retrospect, the WFL might have had the only real chance at supplanting the king of the football mountain, launching a broadside to the modern NFL in its infancy that didn’t work out … but changed football forever.

IN THE LATE 1960s, Davidson was on a heater the likes of which we’ve never seen before or after. He was a lawyer and real estate developer in California, with the irrational confidence that sometimes accompanies being good-looking and wealthy, with lots of wealthy friends. He was the perfect frontman for the wildest, most aggressive blitz attack on professional sports that this country has ever seen.

Before he went after the NFL, Davidson took aim at the NBA by forming the American Basketball Association in 1967. Then he launched the World Hockey Association in 1972. Both leagues had all sorts of innovative ideas — the ABA brought the 3-point line and the dunk contest to the mainstream, to name just a few.

But at the core of both business plans was one overarching strategy: Aggressively pay players and cater to them, then broadcast to the world how much the entrenched leagues used and abused their talent. He was 50 years ahead of his time on player empowerment.

Davidson pushed hard to blow up the leagues’ strict hold over when players could turn pro, creating a hardship rule that allowed college players to leave early for the ABA. That led Julius Erving and a stream of other young stars to leave college and join the ABA. The league ultimately folded, but four teams — the Nets, Nuggets, Pacers and Spurs — were absorbed into the NBA, along with some of the ABA’s key innovations.

In hockey, Davidson advocated for the WHA to be even more aggressive. The league challenged the NHL’s reserve clause, which bound players to teams in perpetuity. A federal district court in Philadelphia agreed, allowing the WHA to raid NHL rosters, where players earned an average salary of $25,000-$30,000. Davidson wanted his owners to double, triple and even quadruple that number, and they did.

Gary Davidson shows off ABA, WHA and WFL memorabilia in 2008. His upstart leagues challenged the NBA, NHL and NFL in the 1960s and 1970s. Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty

He specifically seized upon public comments from legend Bobby Hull, who was in a contract spat with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1972. When asked if he’d consider the upstart WHA, Hull said, “It would take a million dollars.”

Within a few weeks, Hull was standing at a news conference with an enlarged $1 million check as the newest member of the WHA. Another 60-plus NHL players joined him shortly after. It’d be as if Sidney Crosby and three entire NHL locker rooms emptied out for a startup league this offseason.

By the time Davidson set his sights on pro football, he had enough credibility that investors listened. He rallied potential owners, promising big returns and big ideas for a better brand of pro football. Even if you didn’t believe in Davidson’s ideas, people tended to believe that he believed, and that was enough to write a check. “I thought he was incredibly charismatic,” says former WFL team owner Howard Baldwin. “I thought he was the kind of guy who you became drawn to.”

Davidson had some brilliant concepts for football, some of which planted seeds for what we see on the field today. Davidson thought the NFL’s scheduling was ridiculous — at the time, the league played six preseason games and then 14 regular-season games. Davidson’s WFL would play 20 games, with no preseason.

He also didn’t understand why pro football games weren’t being played on Thursdays and vowed the WFL would own that night. He was perplexed why football would have uprights in the front of the end zone where players could run into them, so the WFL moved its goalposts behind the field. Davidson thought football would be a world game, and the WFL would place teams in Hawaii, Canada and Mexico and expand into Europe and Asia from there. He advocated for the hiring of the WFL’s first Black owner (Rommie Loudd), as well as pro football’s first Black team president (Louis Lee) and first female general manager (Dusty Rhodes).

The potential owners nodded along to most of Davidson’s suggestions, daydreaming about large returns on a modest investment (about $120,000 per franchise). Davidson’s MVP owner, a charismatic Canadian media mogul named John Bassett, loved the idea of putting a team in Toronto and became the key part of the WFL’s one-two punch. Davidson herded the ownership cats, and Bassett would work on pulling away players from the NFL.

But then everybody got greedy. Some of the owners started pushing to move up the original start date of 1975 by a year, hoping to capitalize on a likely NFL work stoppage in the summer of 1974. The idea was that with any kind of lockout, the league could make strong pitches to NFL players who were out of work. And if the NFL was off the field for a prolonged time period, the WFL could step right in and find a football-starved audience, too.

It made a lot of sense … and it probably killed the whole damn thing.

BASSETT’S FIRST ATTEMPT at landing NFL players was so audacious that nobody saw it coming — which might be why it worked.

Davidson had been egging him on to poach from the league’s preeminent dynasty at the time, the Miami Dolphins. Bassett thought he was joking at first. It’d be a little bit like telling The Rock that he should try to get Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Clyde Edwards-Helaire to leave Kansas City for a XFL franchise.

“The Dolphins?” Bassett asked.

“The Dolphins,” Davidson said.

At the dawn of the NFL, the Green Bay Packers were the league’s model franchise, winning the first two Super Bowls in 1966 and ’67. But right after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Dolphins had emerged as the league’s rising Death Star.

In Year 1, rookie coach Don Shula guided a promising young roster to a 10-4 record before a first-round playoff loss. But the league’s dominant team core had begun to jell. Shula had five future Hall of Famers on the same offense: quarterback Bob Griese, fullback Larry Csonka, wide receiver Paul Warfield, center Jim Langer and guard Larry Little. The Dolphins got to the 1971 Super Bowl before losing to the Cowboys, then Shula & Co. won the next two Super Bowls in 1972 and ’73. The 1972 Dolphins, of course, ran the table, the only NFL team to ever go undefeated and win the Super Bowl. In 1974, the Dolphins got stunned on a late-game playoff miracle against the Raiders. But they still remained the center of the NFL universe.

Bassett, who died in 1986, made inquiries with an unknown number of Dolphins and began to zero in on three semi-interested specific targets who were all still a year away from the end of their NFL contracts: Warfield, Csonka and running back Jim Kiick. He offered them a wild concept — that they could sign a personal service deal in the spring of 1974, play that season in the NFL, then jump to the WFL. “We knew if we did it, every other question for the entire season would be about the WFL,” Csonka says.

Bassett brought all three players and their wives to Toronto, and they loved the city and believed him when he said the WFL was going to work. They really liked Bassett’s head coach, John McVay, who would later go on to play a key front-office role with the 49ers dynasty in the 1980s. You may have heard of his grandson, Sean McVay.

Bassett knew how to tap into what so many NFL players felt — that they were poorly paid and beholden to their teams in a way that is hard to comprehend 50 years later.

Warfield asked for a preposterous guaranteed three-year contract of $900,000, three or four times what he would have made with the Dolphins — and he couldn’t believe Bassett’s answer. “He said he respected what my contributions could be and he said he would give me what I asked for,” Warfield says. “As football players, that just wasn’t how things were back then. I essentially almost passed out when they gave me what I wanted.”

Bassett then went to Csonka and Kiick and poured on the charm, using Warfield’s interest to spark their own. Csonka and Kiick had a fascinating relationship for two guys competing for carries. Both had bitter contract disputes with the Dolphins in 1971, eventually signing for the same amount, $50,000, with the same amount of fines ($2,800 each) for their simultaneous holdouts.

That drew them close together, and they started rooming together on the road through their mutual disdain for the way NFL teams got away with treating their stars. They wrote a double-bylined book together in 1973 and had appeared on the cover of Esquire to promote it. Picture the Tom Brady-Rob Gronkowski goofy buddy tandem, just with two running backs.

Csonka had told Shula about the trip to Canada, and Shula asked him to promise that he wouldn’t sign anything without talking to him first. The money was so life-changing, though, that when Csonka called Shula, it was a foregone conclusion. He’d been offered a $500,000 signing bonus on the spot, part of a much larger three-year deal. Csonka couldn’t say no. It was the biggest contract in pro football history by about $150,000.

Bassett tried to talk Csonka out of calling Shula from his office, but Csonka said he had to follow through on his promise. Before he picked up the phone, Bassett told him if the Dolphins walked out of the office that day without taking his offer, they would have to start over their negotiations later. They all decided they would sign the paperwork … but not until after Csonka let Shula know.

“Coach, I am signing with the WFL,” Csonka told Shula on the phone.

“But Larry, you said you would come see me before you signed anything,” Shula said.

“No, Don, I said I would talk to you. I’m talking to you right now, on the phone,” Csonka said. He told him the dollar figures, and Shula eventually said he was devastated but understood.

“Do what you gotta do,” Shula said, and that’s the day the Dolphins dynasty essentially ended. Csonka got a total of $1.4 million per year, Warfield $900,000 and Kiick $700,000 — all were mind-blowing numbers at the time.

The Dolphins marched to the playoffs again in 1974, but the whole season had an undercurrent of a franchise’s final gasp — one that would end earlier than expected because of the WFL. Oakland beat Miami 28-26 in the AFC playoffs on a late-game touchdown heave, and Csonka, Kiick and Warfield all walked off the field for the final time as Dolphins together.

“It was decidedly sad because we all thought we had a shot,” says Csonka, who is publishing a book about his wild life in football in October. “It was hard for me to believe that it was over. I think there would have been more championships in store if we hadn’t left.”

Canada was about to have its first NFL stars.

Or not.

From left: Paul Warfield, Jim Kiick and Larry Csonka are all smiles after signing a $3 million deal to play for the Toronto Northmen of the World Football League. Behind them: their rep, Ed Keating, and general manager Leo Cahill. Erin Combs/Toronto Star via Getty

BEFORE THE FIRST WFL SEASON even kicked off in June 1974, the league had an international incident. Canadian politicians were enraged about Bassett trying to land a team in Toronto, fearing it would irreparably harm the CFL. So the country’s parliament threatened Bassett with the Canadian Football Act, which would have formally banned Bassett’s Toronto team.

At first, Bassett shrugged off the concern, insistent on his vision. But eventually, the threat became real enough that he felt he had no choice but to relocate the team, which Davidson supported. Suddenly, the Miami trio was informed that when they arrived, they’d be members of the Memphis Southmen.

But hey, other than a team having to relocate before it played its first game, the first four weeks of the season were a rousing success — on paper, at least. The NFL did indeed have a work stoppage, and the WFL was able to rope in some brazen players who were willing to jump ship. The biggest steal? Houston Oilers defensive end John Matuszak, the No. 1 pick in the 1973 draft.

Matuszak was a long-haired wild man who’d ultimately move on to movies and TV, and he couldn’t believe how poorly management treated NFL players. After a bitter dispute as a rookie, he entered the work stoppage of his second year ready and willing to stick it to the NFL Man. In August, he handed in his Oilers equipment, drove across town and signed to play with the Houston Texans, in clear violation of the contract he’d signed the year before.

The WFL had a terrific July, with exceptional attendance (about 43,000 per game) and tremendous buzz across the nation. It’s hard to find an equivalent for the specific fame of Davidson by that point — a young, cool owner type who was successfully challenging the NHL and NBA at the same time and had now set his gaze on attacking the NFL. He was a 1-of-1.

But things deteriorated quickly. Matuszak made it seven plays into his Texans debut before lawyers and Texas Rangers (the guys with badges and guns, not the baseball team) showed up on the sideline and handed him a restraining order to keep him from going back into the game. The crowd booed and Matuszak shrugged, but his WFL career was over. He returned to the Oilers in what was the first of the league’s many LOL moments.

Even more problematic was news surfacing that the teams in Jacksonville and Philadelphia both admitted to papering their home crowds with free or greatly reduced tickets, a significant ding to the WFL’s credibility after a month of bragging to Sports Illustrated and The New York Times about incredible fan interest.

Davidson’s concerns about locking in 12 franchises with solid owners proved to be well-founded. By Week 6, two teams were well on their way to folding and two others were changing cities — the Matuszak-less Texans moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, and became the Steamers around the same time the New York Stars morphed into the Charlotte Hornets. “I’d say about a month in, I knew we probably weren’t going to make it,” Davidson says now.

The key to making the ABA and WHA work had been pretty simple: Owners had money and were willing to lose a lot of it for a few years. Davidson had rushed to round up millionaires for the WFL who could pony up the $120,000 franchise fee and also absorb several years of losses — he flat-out told most owners they were going to leak money until Year 3 even if everything broke right.

Everything most certainly did not break right. Detroit’s ownership ended up being 32 co-investors, which was a recipe for disaster. Half weren’t as wealthy as they looked on paper, and the bickering of 32 stakeholders led to nonstop confusion and money shortfalls. When the team filed for bankruptcy after Year 1, its paperwork listed 122 different people and companies to whom it owed money.

It didn’t help that the U.S. economy was going through a significant downturn in the post-Nixon years, with 1973-75 being the worst recession since the Great Depression. New York Stars owner Bob Schmertz, a real estate developer, watched his net worth plummet from $25 million to $5 million right after the launch of the league, causing him to pull back on his investment in the WFL. Jacksonville owner Fran Monaco got into such dire financial straits that he borrowed $27,000 from his head coach, Bud Asher, to meet player payroll … and then fired Asher without repaying the money.

Davidson admits the league could have vetted better, but he points to the overall financial mood as a significant factor. Upton Bell, the Charlotte owner, thinks that is a cop-out. “If he had gotten solid people, the league could have made it,” Bell says. “We needed people who had money and could afford to struggle for the first few years. If Gary had been more careful, maybe waited a year, who knows?”

There were emergency meetings, then follow-up emergency meetings, trying to steady the ship. League executives started joking about how you could tell how tense the meeting was going to be by the amount of swag — WFL hats, T-shirts, pens — that Davidson had set out at each seat. “Oh boy, they’re bringing in the bulls—,” owners would mumble to each other.

As one particularly tense meeting wound down in a hotel conference room, everybody’s eyes widened a bit when a league official announced one final motion for the session: Which owner could pay the hotel bill when they were done?

Even teams like Hawaii and Memphis, with owners who had deep pockets, lost north of $3 million in the first year. In worse corners of the league, money began to dry up and owners got panicky and began to pull out. Game checks for Portland Storm players had been bouncing for weeks on end when players began publicly asking fans for donations, including food and places to stay. Two other teams, the Birmingham Americans and the Florida Blazers, missed payroll multiple times, too.

For one road game, a Florida judge ruled the Blazers couldn’t leave the state unless Bell, the Charlotte owner, agreed to pay for travel and the game checks for players. The total bill: about $75,000 … and Florida ended up beating Charlotte in the game. “When was the last time a team paid an opponent to come beat them?” Bell says. “But there was nothing else I could do. It was a couple days before the game and we were sold out already.”

When Davidson heard Detroit players hadn’t been paid in a month, he rallied money from league coffers to pay half what they were owed. But when the courier arrived and handed out the checks in the locker room, players were enraged it wasn’t the full amount and took their frustrations out on the poor courier. “They roughed him up pretty good,” Davidson says.

That first year was a brutal roller coaster for everybody who had left the NFL. For people like Dusty Rhodes, the WFL represented an open road, a place where there was no establishment, no “this is how it’s always been done,” as she heard sometimes during her time in the front office with the NFL’s Patriots. She saw nothing but an opportunity when she took a job as an assistant GM for the WFL’s New York team, in charge primarily of player contracts and negotiations. “I thought we were gonna make it,” she says. “I really did. Things were looking good when the league kicked off.”

But her franchise ended up being perhaps the league’s hottest mess. The team played home games on Randall’s Island in New York at the start of 1974, with bathrooms and locker rooms she describes as deplorable. Players complained constantly about how dim the lighting was for game nights — hallways, bathrooms and the locker rooms were so dark they had to be lit by candle.

Then, one month into the season, Rhodes found out the team had been sold, from Schmertz to Bell, and was relocating to Charlotte. She kept her job, but money had gotten so tight that the team once didn’t make payroll. On a road trip to play in Hawaii, the team won the game and went to the airport to fly back to Charlotte … but Rhodes was told the franchise credit had been declined and their tickets were canceled.

Staring out at 60 members of the team, she thought she had only one option: She somehow got the airline to put the tickets on her credit card, money she never got reimbursed for. “It was north of $30,000,” she says. “It took me years to pay off all that debt.”

The mountain of bad press put the WFL into a tailspin, and after yet another emergency meeting in October, Davidson made a shocking announcement after a tense standoff with Chicago owner Tom Origer: He would raise his hand and be the fall guy, would resign from his commissioner job. “I thought everybody involved deserved a fresh start, and maybe they’d get that if I stepped aside,” he says now.

By the end of the regular season, WFL executives were just hoping to end on an OK note. Birmingham and Florida played in World Bowl I, with Davidson hoping a great final game might be able to stem some of the stumbles. He remained an investor in the league and its biggest cheerleader and adviser, just not its face anymore. “We needed a good end to the season, then we could regroup,” he says.

Somehow, though, the WFL had saved its worst for last. The game was almost delayed because the Americans were found to owe $237,000 in back taxes, leading to a tense last-minute agreement with the IRS to let the government get first dibs on a 60% share of the World Bowl I gate.

But the Americans players were worried enough about the money situation that they briefly refused to play unless ownership promised them their game checks and championship rings if they won. The league had to step in and sign off on a guarantee that they’d get what was owed them.

The financial news had become such a punchline that when the WFL announced it would give the league MVP a $10,000 bonus at the World Bowl, so many people belly-laughed that the league felt as if it had to visually show there was still some money lying around.

So as World Bowl I kicked off in Birmingham, in an eventual 22-21 win for the home team, players took the field with a bizarre sight in the end zone: security guards standing around a card table that had $10,000 in $1 bills stacked in piles.

The game was actually exciting. And as the 32,376 fans in attendance filed out after the game, there was a feeling in the stadium that maybe, just maybe, the WFL had gotten a rocky rookie year out of the way and had some momentum going into Year 2. But what nobody knew at the time was that as Birmingham players and coaches celebrated in the locker room, city cops were raiding the locker room. A late court order had been served, and all Birmingham assets were seized. The league champs drank beer, smoked cigars and watched as a crew of debt collectors hauled out their cleats, helmets, uniforms and even the World Bowl I trophy.

Season 1 might have staggered to the finish line, but there was renewed optimism for Season 2. The Miami trio would finally arrive, along with incredible curiosity and fanfare, and new leadership had the revamped ownership group looking less scraggly. Davidson was no longer the lead singer of the league. But he had taken a critical role on the executive committee of the league and as a co-owner of the Southern California franchise. He had butted heads with several owners amid all the friction, but he remained the WFL’s godfather, especially with its most influential owner, Bassett.

The move reinvigorated the WFL. New commissioner Chris Hemmeter, a respected real estate and resort developer, took over with some renewed buzz around the league. From his quieter role, Davidson thought maybe Year 2 — and the Miami trio — would get the league back on track.

Then the league had one of the wildest, most disastrous seasons a sports league would ever have.

UPTON BELL GOT A MYSTERIOUS CALL one day early in the 1975 season. The man on the other end of the line, Paul Sasso, was offering to invest $100,000 in a Charlotte franchise that Bell had already publicly acknowledged was about to drown.

“I’ve been reading about your plight and your attempt to raise money,” Sasso said. “I love football, and I have my own private jet. I would love to come and meet with you.”

Bell didn’t even pretend to care where the money was coming from — it was either let the team bleed out or take the meeting and hope it would work out. So he did. He had to. His previous 12 months had been an exciting nightmare. Bell had gotten a late-season 911 call from league management to take over the then-New York franchise, and he was self-aware enough to know why. His dad was Bert Bell, an NFL pioneer who helped build the Eagles and Steelers franchises, then was the league commissioner from 1946 to 1959.

“This league could use the Bell name,” said Baldwin, the Davidson confidant who had reached out.

Bell had made a name for himself, rising to head of the Baltimore Colts scouting department before becoming the Patriots GM in 1971-72. But now he could take the next step in being another Bell football pioneer in this renegade league. So he jumped at the chance, and met with Schmertz, the Stars owner, midway through the disastrous 1974 season.

In retrospect, Bell realizes he should have smelled the bag of diapers he was being handed. Schmertz not only offered to give Bell the team at no cost but even threw in an additional $10,000 just to unload the franchise. “Here, this will help you get started,” Schmertz said.

All Bell had to do was take on sole ownership of the team, becoming responsible for all payroll and future costs, plus some lingering bills. In the fine print, Bell’s ownership agreement promised a nice chunk of change if he ever sold the team, which he had decided to move to Charlotte.

Turns out, a free pro football team plus a $10,000 signing bonus is absolutely too good to be true. The team moved to Charlotte halfway through the season.

But he also felt as if he had a little momentum heading into 1975, getting swept up alongside the rest of the league. Csonka, Kiick and Warfield had leaped from the NFL to the WFL, inspiring somewhere north of 60 other players to jump ship, too. There were intense negotiations to bring over Joe Namath, too, and both Raiders quarterbacks — Kenny Stabler signed a deal to join the league in 1976, and backup Daryle Lamonica signed for the 1975 season.

Basically, every good NFL player had at least an initial conversation with the WFL because of the shocking pay increases they were seeing in every newspaper.

Months before the Sasso phone call, Bell rallied smaller investors, including $5,000 from Arnold Palmer. Palmer came to all the Charlotte games and even threw in a brand-new Cadillac from his car dealership for Bell to drive. Palmer asked for a large block of tickets to bring his dealership employees to games, and he liked to come, too. Palmer’s only request? Don’t hype his attendance, and don’t show him on camera. “He was such a humble man about it,” Bell says. “I always appreciated that he was in it for the right reasons.”

Things were looking up. And the truth is, the product on the field was going to be quite good by 1975. The three Dolphins ended up being the perfect fit for the league — just as good as advertised, but not so good that they dwarfed the rest of the talent on the field. “The football was respectable — comparable to the NFL,” says Warfield, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983. “It was close to the caliber of the NFL, and the games were exciting.”

So Memphis quickly emerged as a life raft for Charlotte and the rest of the league, and the ex-Dolphins gave Bassett’s team quite a bit of sizzle. In a town without another pro sports team, the Southmen had become a scrappy Canadian outcast, with a full stadium for almost every home game. Elvis Presley himself had become a superfan, sitting in a suite with Bassett on game day. Bassett, in turn, would attend Elvis’ shows.

“I remember once Johnny was sitting in the crowd and Elvis went backstage and came back out with a football,” Baldwin says. “He stopped the show for a few minutes and told everybody how much he enjoyed the Memphis Southmen, then he threw the ball to John Bassett in the crowd.”

Larry Csonka of the Memphis Southmen in action against the Southern California Sun on July 14, 1975. Heinz Kluetmeier /Sports Illustrated via Getty

But the A-list shoutouts took the league only so far. Bell’s Charlotte team was especially stung by the baggage of the league’s first year — which included that problematic deal he struck with Schmertz, the old owner of his team.

First, he got a call that he was responsible for an old $26,000 cleaning bill from a New York company. Then, when the team was on a road trip to Shreveport early in the 1974 season, Bell got a call from the sheriff in Charlotte.

“I have a court order to seize your team’s equipment in Shreveport, and I have communicated with the sheriff there,” Bell was told.

He owed another $25,000 for pads, helmets and all the other equipment the team had received in the ownership swap. Bell didn’t know what to do — the game with Shreveport was an hour from kickoff, and the cops there had been instructed to take the equipment immediately. Bell negotiated a deal to let the game happen, then they could seize the equipment and he’d try to straighten it out.

“What I actually did was call out to our people on the road in Shreveport and tell them to see if they could sneak out a back entrance after the game and get the hell out of there,” Bell says now.

He was informed that, unfortunately, there was no good getaway for 50 or so giant men carrying their football equipment. So Bell stuck to the deal he had made, letting the Shreveport sheriff impound the equipment until Bell could take care of the bill the next week.

The season only continued to spiral from there, so when a random investor named Paul Sasso called, Bell had no choice but to listen.

On the day of their meeting, Sasso did indeed fly into Charlotte on a private jet, and he said he could provide $100,000 immediately. He began to unfold a paper that Bell hoped was a financial document about the funding, but instead, it was a confusing drawing of Sasso’s idea for a new stadium that would be built underground.

Sasso was surrounded by big guys, many of whom appeared to have guns on them, so Bell couldn’t say out loud what he was thinking: “What the f— is an underground football stadium?”

Toward the end of the meeting, Bell asked what Sasso did for a living. “Construction management,” Sasso said, with a laugh.

Bell didn’t take the money, and he’s lucky he didn’t. He found out later who Sasso really was — an ex-mobster from New York who became an FBI informant and was moved to Tennessee to live in hiding. But he was such an unreliable con man that Sasso eventually pulled off a virtually unheard-of feat — he got kicked out of the witness protection program, and later was found dead in the trunk of a 1980 Buick. His arrival on a jet? It was actually an unauthorized use of an FBI jet that Sasso somehow sweet-talked the bureau into letting him use.

“Listen,” Bell says, “this was a wild league. I have a hundred stories like that.” Charlotte was the tip of the iceberg. The whole league was crumbling. Namath had backed out of a WFL deal nearly three months before the season, causing TV interest to evaporate. By the time the Southmen took the field on Oct. 20 to face the Birmingham Vulcans, Csonka says nobody could concentrate on the game. Almost half the players in the league hadn’t been getting paid when they were supposed to, and every locker room was full of guys who thought they could smell the rotting carcass of the WFL even as it tried to survive. Birmingham trounced Memphis and the Miami trio that day, 21-0, and a few days later it became official.

League executives huddled together and reached a nightmare verdict: The WFL had to fold.

From left: WFL president Chris Hemmeter, Paul Warfield, Calvin Hill, Jim Kiick, John Gilliam and Larry Csonka on April 16, 1975. AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis

ON A RECENT ZOOM CALL, Davidson is seated beside his wife of 40 years, Kate. Behind them, it’s chaos. They have several friends over at the house, and a few brought dogs to hang out with the Davidsons’ dog, Bella.

Bella is a handful. Davidson says she’s a cattle dog, and it’s easy to see in the background. She never stops moving. Kate says they have 30 doors in the house, and when they go away, she and Gary methodically have to walk the house and close every single one of them to lessen the chance that Bella finds an exit and heads for the hills outside their California home.

For 60 straight minutes, the Davidsons talk and Bella circles the house in the background, dragging the other dogs along behind her. Around and around and around. Occasionally one dog starts yipping at another, and Bella jumps in to calm them down and keep them moving. It’s quite a fitting backdrop as her dad tells stories about trying to herd wealthy potential football team owners who might or might not actually be wealthy and/or be in the witness protection program.

At one point, Kate gets pulled away to help a friend who has swung by the house to borrow one of her dresses. While she’s in the other room, Gary stops talking about the chaos of trying to blow up pro sports 50 years ago and decides to tell the love story of Gary and Kate Davidson.

They have always made their friends shake their heads, half in disbelief, half with envy. Gary says he had gone through a painful divorce at the same time as the WFL launch, and Kate and Gary saw each other playing tennis once and that’s all it took. As he’s describing that tennis match, Kate returns, and chimes in with her side of the story.

She had been dating an Australian guy, and she immediately broke up with him after meeting Gary. The Australian dude had gone home to visit family on a Tuesday, and when they talked a few days later, she dumped him.

“I met the love of my life,” she said.

“But — how do you know that?” he said. “I left on Tuesday, and it’s Saturday.”

“I just do,” she said. “He’s the one. Don’t come back. It would be a waste of time.”

He didn’t come back. Gary and Kate went on one dinner date, and it confirmed the connection they had already felt on the tennis court. Two weeks later they were engaged. They’ve been together ever since, though early on, they did it for the bets. “Our friends had a lot of money on us not making it,” Kate says.

They both laugh really hard at that. Gary says he has early Parkinson’s now, and he’s slowing down a bit. He misses how much they used to walk and play tennis together. They still walk almost every day, and Bella will keep anybody young. “I can’t keep up with cattle dogs anymore,” Gary says.

He’s 87 now, but as he holds up old magazine covers for the Zoom camera, he still looks a lot like the guy who made every major sports commissioner sweat for the first half of the 1970s.

“So handsome,” Kate interjects. “So well-dressed.”

When he digs deep into the memory bank for WFL stories, he alternates between some of the agonizing missteps and the major successes. He smiles and jokes about some of the debacles, then comes directly back with some key piece of sports history that he played a part in. He has lived a life of risks and rewards unrivaled in sports.

He says he’s proud of what they accomplished — the WHA and ABA had profound successes that shaped the future of both pro hockey and basketball. The WFL, for all its face-plants, put a jetpack on the conversation about player compensation, opened up the possibility of Thursday night football and planted the first seeds about shortening the preseason in favor of a longer regular season. And the NFL has been trying to spread football beyond the U.S. for decades since the WFL. He played a part in the careers of Dr. J, Bobby Hull, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield, and on and on. What a life.

Southern California Sun quarterback Daryle Lamonica in action against the Memphis Southmen on July 14, 1975. Darryl Norenberg/US Presswire

Davidson also certainly has people like the big guy in the bar out there in the world. But most people affiliated with the league are proud of the chances they took, including the players who jumped ship. “I don’t regret it for a second,” Warfield says. “I think that year, year and a half, that the WFL was in existence really changed the course of football history. I’m proud to have been a part of it.”

Like many players, Warfield returned to the NFL after the WFL imploded. Csonka eventually went back to the Dolphins, but the team’s run was over. The Raiders and Steelers had taken over in the meantime.

Matuszak bounced around, winning two Super Bowls with the Raiders between 1976 and ’82, then he set his sights on Hollywood. “The Tooz” became a hulking, mulleted TV and movie regular, appearing on “The A-Team,” “MASH” and “Miami Vice” as well as “North Dallas Forty,” “One Crazy Summer” and “The Goonies.”

Davidson’s old friend Howard Baldwin focused on hockey. His WHA team, the New England Whalers, merged into the NHL and later became the Hartford Whalers. He sold his shares of the Whalers in 1988, investing some of his profits in an ownership stake in the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But Baldwin eventually settled into the perfect final chapter of his life, as a storyteller. He married a movie producer, Karen, and they formed Baldwin Entertainment Group together in the late 1990s. They’ve produced a steady stream of movies over the past 20 years, including “Mystery, Alaska” and the Oscar-winning “Ray,” starring Jamie Foxx.

Baldwin is 79 now and as full of life as ever, always on the lookout for the next thing he could make into a movie. After the WFL collapse, he’d fallen out of touch with Davidson for about 35 years. They weren’t on bad terms; they just went in different directions. But around 2010, Baldwin decided to track down his old friend and see how he was doing. They started going out to dinner, Howard and Karen Baldwin with Gary and Kate Davidson.

The dinners are long, raucous affairs. Too many stories, too much wine, and more than a few jokes about how it’s nice to be able to pay the tab at the end of the night. The meals go two or three hours sometimes, and Baldwin was struck by how captivating it was to again hear about some of the wilder days in Davidson’s tall-tale life. They usually end up looking at each other and saying, “Wait, did that actually happen?”

The answer is often yes, and all four of them just shake their heads. It was in one of those moments, watching everybody’s disbelief, that Baldwin had an idea. He hired two screenwriters to start working on a script, and they’re now close to going out to studios with what he thinks is the next great movie: “It’s time for the world to know the story of Gary Davidson,” he says.

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