Make no mistake, Philadelphia is a football town. The Vince Lombardi Trophy will anoint its 49th champion this Sunday, but our hometown Eagles still crave their first. They did, though, bring the city three pre-Super Bowl titles, and since the last one in 1960, Philadelphia has fielded a number of contenders on the professional football field.
The most notable of these, the Philadelphia Stars, was the best team of the ill-fated United State Football League. In each of the USFL’s three seasons, 1983-85, the Stars played in the championship game, winning the latter two. However, the last of these was as the Baltimore Stars, as the team relocated south in 1985 when the USFL elected to play its games in the fall and owner Myles Tanenbaum knew they could not compete for attention with the Eagles. When the league folded in 1986, the decision to abandon the fourth-largest market in the country was a major factor.
In 2004, Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb put together one magical season at the Linc with an NFC Championship title, falling three points short in a Super Bowl won by a Patriots team who may or may not have cheated. The same year, developer Craig Spencer and New Jersey legend Jon Bon Jovi brought a different brand of football across the street to the then-Wachovia Center. The Philadelphia Soul joined the Arena Football League, the fast-paced indoor game that began play in 1987. In 2008, they defeated the San Jose SaberCats 59-56 in Arena Bowl XXII, bringing Philadelphia its most recent football title. The league suspended operations in 2009 but resuscitated the following year; the Soul did not rejoin until 2011, however. Under new primary owner and former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, they’ve continued to play at the Wells Fargo Center.
In 2001, wrestling promoter Vince McMahon formed the XFL, football’s answer to WWE. It crashed and burned that same year, and fortunately, Philadelphia was spared any affiliation with this sideshow.
And then there’s the Bell.
Perhaps the most overlooked of all these upstart leagues was one that formed in 1974—and disbanded halfway through its second season, 1975. The World Football League—not to be confused with the World League of American Football, yet another short-lived NFL knockoff—
brought its brand of football to Philadelphia in a team called the Philadelphia Bell (no ‘s’).
Twelve teams comprised the WFL, whose main objective, obviously, was to give the NFL a run for its money. The league wanted a team in Philadelphia and needed a big name associated with it in order to draw the skeptical city’s attention. Few names in ’70s Philadelphia were bigger than the Kellys, that of Princess Grace of Monaco and her father Jack and brother Jack, Jr., each Olympic athletes. In addition to his rowing accolades, Jack, Jr. was a star center on Penn Charter’s football team and remained a diehard football fan—one who eventually agreed to serve as president of the WFL’s Philadelphia Bell.
With the Bell and competitors like the Chicago Fire, the Hawaiians, the (original) Houston Texans, and the Southern California Sun, the WFL debuted its product in summer 1974. The Bell, whose roster included a later-Invincible wide receiver/tight end by the name of Vince Papale, would play its home games in the 100,000 seat JFK Stadium in South Philadelphia. By the looks of ticket sales prior to the first game, interest was high in the City of Brotherly Love.
That summer, Mike Schmidt had his breakout season, leading the league in homeruns for the first time on a Phillies team that attracted crowds of 30,000 plus. The first home game for the Bell coincided with a home game for the Phillies just across Pattison Avenue at The Vet. While a little over 33,000 people paid to see the Phils play, an astounding 55,000 came out to JFK to watch their new gridiron warriors. Even more outrageous, the following home game had a paid attendance figure over 64,000. At least that’s what the public was told.
In a turn of events the media dubbed “Papergate,” the team’s Executive Vice President Barry Leib gave away tickets to businesses who, in turn, gave away the tickets, in the interest of drumming up support. When it came time to pay the City of Philadelphia taxes on the receipts, the 55,000 figure of the opener actually became just over 13,000; of the “64,000” who attended the second game, only some 6,000 paid full price. To avoid tarnishing the family name and reputation, Jack Kelly, Jr. quickly resigned from the team. The news shocked the rest of the young league and left a bad taste in the mouths of the other teams. One incident turned an already uphill battle into a nearly insurmountable mountain for the WFL.
While the whole fiasco gave the NFL a good sigh of relief, the Bell certainly can be proud of one thing. In their second and final year of 1975, they became the first professional football team to hire an African American as head coach, when they replaced Ron Waller with Willie Wood. (It took the NFL fourteen more years until Art Shell became the first African American coach of the league’s modern era.)
As the country gears up for Super Bowl XLIX, it’s clear that the NFL has been, in the words of the great Captain Lou Albano, “often imitated, never duplicated.” And though some of the imitators have brought their respective leagues’ championships home to Philadelphia, it’s just not the same. With big moves already on the horizon for year three of the Chip Kelly era . . . maybe next year?
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Special thanks to John Pettit and the Temple University Collections Research Center.