The Charlotte Observer
JUST A YEAR AGO, THE HORNETS DIED
Assistant Coach Tom Beer threw the play cards for the upcoming Hawaii game in the air. As they descended lazily in the glaring sun, Beer walked off the Charlotte Hornets' practice field at Gus Purcell's Day Camp, never to return again.
Moments before, Head Coach Bob Gibson had interrupted the Wednesday Practice, gathered the hot, sweaty Hornets around him informed them that all of them were out of jobs. Just minutes before that, Gibson had been called off the field to the telephone. The voice on the other end was that of Upton Bell, the Hornets' president-general manager, who had just been on the losing end of a vote that folded the World Football League.
The day was Oct. 22, 1975. A year, two days ago. It is a day indelibly fixed in the minds of those it affected, a day that changed their lives - some for the better, some for the worse, some for... well, for some, they still don't know.
Those who endured it won't forget the day, like the ay President Kennedy was shot - you don't forget what you were doing at the time or how you found out.
"I woke up this morning," former Hornet punter Robby Reynolds said Friday, "knowing it was the anniversary. I've been remember it all week."
"I can tell you exactly what happened," said Herb Paterra, and Hornet assistant who is now head coach at North Mecklenburg High School. "I knew something was wrong when Coach Gibson was not on the field. He was always out there and the first 25 minutes he was not there. I first thought he might be sick. I'd known throughout the week the league was having problems and when he came out, know Coach Gibson as I do, he had a downcast look on his face and I knew something was up.
"It pulled the rug from under me," Carl Collins, and offensive lineman, specially recalls seeing the Hornets cap on Gibson's head and the whistle in his hand an that his buddy John Culpepper (a guard) had gotten hurt the play before. "Everybody said something (the team or the WFL) just went down," said Collins, now working with Innovative, and alcoholic rehabilitation program here.
"It was the worst thing I ever had to do - to tell those people the league was over," said Gibson. "I didn't say too much. I just said, 'That was it.'"
And yes the players have varied recollections of the scene.
"Never before had Coach called a team meeting in the middle of a practice," said Jeff Woodcock, a Hornets safety. "Never before had we done that, I felt something strange and I wondered why he's doing this. Somebody said he's giving us a break, and he said, 'I sure am. It's going to be a long break.'
"Everyone looked around and said, 'Oh no.' No on was expecting it at the time; it caught me off guard. And with the looks on everybody's faces, it's something I won't forget. For sure."
Randy Rhino recalls not thinking twice about Gibson leaving the field. "We had no hint of what was going to happen," said the Charlotte-bred safety, now in the CFL, at Montreal. "But when Coach called us up, we knew something was wrong. Coach was emotional about it.
"When he told us it was over , there was a kind of silence and nobody knew what to say. We walked off the field, and I'll probably remember that the rest of my life - the silence that went over everybody."
Lee McGriff, a Hornet receiver, remembers a different ending.
"I've been told that story so many times," said McGriff. "We'd worked out for about two hours, we'd just gotten beat at Philadelphia and Coach was awful mad at us. We were due to play on a special and have highlights of our game against Hawaii. It was pretty hot that day, everybody was dying and yelling, 'Give us a water break, do something,' and the old guys were really yelling at him (Gibson) when he ran off the field. 'Are you going to get water? Back up. We need a break.'
"I remember these words: "You can have the longest break of your life. It's all over.' The guys around the year before said they knew it was going to happen, and the guys were ripping off their helmets and throwing them and throwing their pads.
"Then Tim George (also a receiver) and I turned to each other and went down to one knee and started laughing. We didn't want to cry. It'd been an incredible year for both of us and it was finally going good for him and me in Charlotte. We thought we'd found a home and this was the only thing left that could have happened."
(This past week of the year is developing into a bad one for McGriff, He experienced a similar sensation Wednesday when he was waived by Tampa Bay of the National Football League a club he started for through three games this season."
Buffalo defensive tackle Marty Smith and Denver offensive tackle Glenn Hyde - both little known names in Charlotte - are the only 1975 Hornets still working in the NFL (Washington center Bob Kuziel, Kansas City offensive tackle Matt Herknhoff and Green Bay tight end Bert Askson, also in the NFL; were members of the 1974 Hornets.) Tight end Danny Whyte of Detroit, wide receiver James Thompson of Washington and defensive end John Bushong of Dallas are on injured reserve lists for the year.
Rhino, Hamilton offensive guard Larry Butler, British Columbia linebacker Dave Benson and Toronto's linebacker Tom Chandler, running back Matt Williams and cornerback Steve Dennis (off the '74 Hornets) are active in the CFL.
Several players in these established leagues said they wouldn't trade their experiences in the unstable WFL, and in Charlotte.
"I wouldn't want to go through it again," McGriff said before being cut at Tampa. "But I really kind of cherish the memory. I played in the WFL and I'll tell my son that. I get kind of a kick out of that.
"It was such a blur of time in there, but my memories are so vided of everything in Charlotte. I meta lot of nice people in Charlotte, and because of that league I'll always cherish those friendships - not just the guys on the team but the people and I'll always cherish that."
Chandler now has "the financial ball rolling again and am back on my feet," but has the idea he's repeat the last two years.
"If I had it to do over and knew that it would happen that way and I'd meet the people I did. I'd probably do it again," he said. "When it ended it was an extremely bitter point in my life - I was real sad for a lot of people who I knew were at the end their football playing and would have hell to got thought to find another job. It didn't help me financially to set up a stable life, but an awful lot of good came out of it, and for some bizarre reason I'd probably do it again."
Rhino can't end his love for Charlotte, where he starred in high school at South Mecklenbrugh and Olympic and again in the pros with the Hornets, even though he's now playing in Montreal's Olympic Stadium in front of 60,000 to 70,000 people, four time what the Hornets drew on good nights.
"It was my home, Missy (his wife) and I enjoyed it so much to be around my friends I grew up with and we miss it a whole lot. We talk about it all the time. I wish it would have stayed and I could be playing football there."
The lack of regrets extends to the coaches.
"I think about them as found memories," said North's Paterra. "I'll always look back on it as a good experience. We probably had something some people never have as far as a staff is concerned - we were among people who were sincere and willing to help each other and work very hard at it. It was a family-type affair, more or less a utopia."
Gibson never goes a month without contacting his Hornet assistants.
"I think what I miss most is the togetherness of that squad and type of people we had," said Gibson. "Everybody was in the same boat, sticking together, with almost as genuine love for each other."
Gibson is now offensive assistant with Detroit. "Nothing is as good as being a head coach when you're winning," said Gibson, "but it's not going to kill me one way or another if it doesn't happen again."
The coaches except for Beer, of his own choosing, are still connected with football. Smith is a regular on Buffalo's defense and Hyde is a second-stringer at Denver. Butler has been nominated for all-CFL after only seven games, and Rhino is a starter on the 1975 Grey Cup runnerup.
There are, of course, former Hornets who aren't in football but would like to be, and it is odd, based on their performances here, some of those who made it and some who didn't.
"Smith couldn't start for us," said Bell, recalling that the 260-pounder from Louisville played in just two Charlotte games last season. "And you can't tell me Marty Huff is not good enough to play for the Redskins. He can play in the NFL anywhere."
But Huff is not. And he's bitter. "The mood I was in for five weeks (after getting cut) was no the best in the world," the veteran linebacker said. "I'm not doing much of anything now."
"I could go to Canada but I didn't want to go. There's some (NFL) team around I know I can play on and it's a matter of picking up and going on."
Hyde hung on with Denver after being cut by New England but Butler, supposedly the better guard while here, was dropped by Green Bay after a switch to backup center. The Appalachian grad now feels regret. "I want nothing to do with the NFL again," says Butler., who was with Calgary in the CFL in 1973. "I like it better up here, every things worked out for the best... and at least I'm getting paid."
there are former Hornets who are not getting paid - or at least not much - like Tom Sherman, Charlotte's popular quarterback. He was cut by Calgary recently, saw his football future fizzle and is seeking a coaching job around his native Pittsburgh.
The Hornet who can at least afford being without a salary but still doesn't have a fulltime job is Upton Bell. He owed $150,000 when the WFL folded and he, too, has decided he wants back in football, or at least in sports. He turned down an offer as general manager of the Boston Ballet because it would have required a three-year commitment, and a post as general manager of the North American Soccer League club fell through.
Bell rooms on weekdays with John Evenson, the Hornet's public relations director, now assistant p.r. man with the New York Jets, and goes home to Boston on weekends to see his wife and son. "I've been down in New York on some jobs, doing some work in the financial world and doing a sports talk show on WMCA before Monday night radio (football) broadcast with John Sterling (the Hornets' TV announcer).
"I have income from different things I'm doing but not a great deal. I've doing but not a great deal. I've paid off a certain amount to the bank but I still have more to pay. I don't really have any regrets, although financially I guess I could. It's the chances you take."
"Outside our win in the Super Bowl in 1970 (while with Baltimore) and the sudden-death playoff game against the Packers, my greatest experience in pro sports was opening night against Memphis in 1974. There was no more electrifying crown than that in pro sports. That game had to be a classic. There was not all the refinements of the NFL, but it was close, down to the wire and was one of the most exciting games I ever saw."
Bell of course, remembers the bad also. He was still upset at what he feels was a desertion of the WFL at the end by Memphis Southmen owner John Bassett, and feels twinges over the seven months of trying to raise money for he 1975 season. "I don't thin I'd eve want to dot he again physically," he says (he lost 23 pounds to 142.)
"But you know, if another league came along, knowing myself as I do, yes, I'd do it again."
Bell didn't leave Charlotte for good until July. To Carl Collins's thinking, Bell is lucky to be gone, eve if he doesn't have a job, because Bell didn't have to be around here two days ago.
"I get kind of sick every time I go by that stadium," said Collins. "I feel a little nausea. The crowds were not that big, but they were full of fire, and I miss it so."
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