Monday, July 25, 2011

Jerry Byrd Interview

In September of 1974 the Houston Texans franchise packed up their gear and made a nearly 250-mile trek to Shreveport, Louisiana.  The Texans became the first team in the World Football League to change locations.  Jerry Byrd, who was the sports editor of the Shreveport Journal at the time, began to cover the team for his paper. Byrd has covered sports for almost five and a half decades and has authored five books.  Over the course of 13 months in the mid 70’s he witnessed the ups and downs of the WFL.

WFLN: When did you first hear of the World Football League?
JB: Well, there had been a lot of stories about it.  The Houston team moved here in September of ’74 and that’s the first time I had any interest in it.

WFLN: What were your first impressions of the league?
JB: Well, it was just a league that didn’t have much money (laughs).  I know all the players were always upset when they missed a payday and that happened every once in a while.

WFLN: How often?
JB: It happened a lot.  I don’t know exactly how many times but not only the Steamer players but also the players of other teams that played here.

WFLN: How did Shreveport get a team?
JB: Well, they had a team in Houston and I don’t think they were doing very well there and on September 18, 1974 they moved the team from Houston to Shreveport.  That was the first time I covered the WFL.  I went to Birmingham for a game between the Birmingham Americans and the Steamer.

WFLN: What were your first impressions of the team and coaching staff?
JB: Well, (cracks up) I don’t know.  I mean I had covered the [Dallas] Cowboys and the [New Orleans] Saints and it was a long way from the AFL, obviously.  But I didn’t have any, as far as first impressions.  I was just covering the games.  The coach of the team in Houston had been Jim Garrett.  And when they decided to move the team to Shreveport he told his players to check it out before they moved because, well, he called Shreveport “rinky-dink town.”  He eventually wound up working in some capacity with the Dallas Cowboys and also his son coached the Cowboys for a while, I think (Ed. Note- Jason Garrett is currently the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys).  But when he was replaced the coach became Marshall Taylor.

WFLN: Was Jim Garrett suspended?
JB: Yes, I think he was.  I think he was suspended after he made that “rinky-dink” statement.  Yeah, he was suspended by the commissioner of the WFL who was Gary Davidson.  And Henry Lee Parker, he had been an assistant coach with the Saints before that.  But he was the leagues director of football operations and he flew into Birmingham the night Shreveport played Birmingham and not only was Jim Garrett suspended but the quarterback of the team, a guy named Mike Taliaferro, he left the team and went back to Houston.  Parker is the one who named Marshall Taylor the head coach a few days after that.

WFLN: What do you recall about the first game against the [Birmingham] Americans, that you saw?
JB: Well, I recall the American’s won (laughs).  I don’t recall very much about the game.  I know they didn’t have a name yet for the Steamer and they just put “Louisiana” on the scoreboard.  It was at Legion Field in Birmingham and they called the visiting team “Louisiana.”  But before that game, while they were in Houston, the team had a record of 3-8 (Ed. Note- record was 3-7-1) so they had not been very good.  And Birmingham won the game 42-14.  So it wasn’t a very close game.

WFLN: How did Shreveport embrace the Steamer?
JB: Well, I thought Shreveport did better than most of the other places in the WFL.  There was some controversy about just what the attendance was.  I think they claimed the attendance was 24,000-30,000 at various games and I think it was probably a lot less than that.  It was probably in the teens - 14 or 15,000.  But Shreveport, I think, supported the team better than most of the other teams in the WFL.  Although the crowds were not that big they were enthusiastic and made a lot of noise.

WFLN: Did the league inflate the attendance numbers?  Did the team inflate the numbers a lot?
JB: I think so.  I think that was going on a lot.  And I think that went on here.  In fact I wrote a column about that and they called a press conference and it was called mainly to refute my column (laughs).

WFLN: What was that like for you to have a press conference called like that?
JB: Well, that’s the first and only time that’s ever happened to me.  But I just went to the press conference and took notes and asked questions.  But like I say, that was the first time that has ever happened.  The best-known player of that team was Jim Nance the fullback.  He had played in the AFL with Boston with the Patriots and he was pretty much at the end of his professional career.  Richmond Flowers was a defensive back.  He had played with the Cowboys.  He wasn’t as old as Jim Nance was.  But the quarterback after they moved here became D.C. Nobles who had played at the University of Houston and he was well known in this area because of that.  Two of the running backs were Paul Gipson and Warren McVea and they had also played at the University of Houston.  Houston is about 230 miles away from here so people here were familiar with them.

WFLN: I recall reading stories about the financial issues.  Did you ever witness any of the ways the players dealt with the financial issues?
JB: I had some calls from some players who were asking me if I knew a good lawyer (laughs) to deal with that problem and told them that if they could find one he’d have a lot of customers up here because all the players, like I say, they announced attendance figures 20,000-25,000 and then one week they said all the game receipts would be pledged to paying off two weeks of back pay to the players and so that week the official attendance was announced at 10,697.  And just looking at the crowd it looked about the same number that had been in the other games.  And I wrote a column, the league was… “figures don’t lie as they say, but liars sometimes figure” and that’s when they called the press conference.  Henry Lee Parker was not very happy with that column (laughs).

WFLN: Who was the most interesting person you met on the team and why?
JB: Probably the coach Marshall Taylor was interesting although I can’t tell you exactly why.  Jim Nance, I enjoyed being with him for a while.  I asked him what it was like for a guy being in Boston, a black player in Boston, to playing in the south.  And he said he had no problem with it.  He said the most racist place he had ever lived was in Boston.  He said he had received death threats while he was up there.

WFLN: Despite the leagues struggles, how was the Shreveport Steamer as a franchise?
JB: Well, like I say I thought it was one of the stronger teams in the franchise.  I think the Steamer and the league as a whole did the same thing the federal government is doing right now.  They spend a lot more money than they made.  And that was the problem.  The guys’ salaries were higher than the attendance would support.  And eventually that caught up with them and that’s what caused the death of the league after a year and a half.

WFLN: Do you think the league could have had a chance to survive?
JB: Well if they had been a little more realistic, yeah.  I think they... well, they tried to pay these guys who had played in the NFL a lot more than they could afford to pay them.  And I think it could have survived if they had not tried to pay the players the same type of money that they had made in the NFL.

WFLN: In 1974 you wrote an article about how Shreveport was the only team in the league not to make the post season.  What do you recall about the last game and them not making the playoffs?
JB: Well, that was just, the lead of my story was everybody made the playoffs except Shreveport.  Well, the point of the story was not that Shreveport had the worst team in the league but that there were too many teams in the playoffs.  You know?  When all but one team makes the playoffs.. I had never heard of that happening in any other league that I covered.

WFLN: Could anything have been done to save the league at all?
JB: Well like I say I think it would have helped if their salaries had been a little more realistic than they were.  Like I say, they spent more money than they earned so that wasn’t a very smart way to run any business.  And I think the Steamer actually, like I say, I think they had more support here than most of the other teams in the league.  One of the most ridicules things that happened that year was, I went to Philadelphia to cover a game and they played in Municipal Stadium up there where they have the Army/Navy game at that time up there and it held 100,000 spectators and they probably had 2,000 at the game.  You know, so it was like playing in an empty stadium.

WFLN: At the time when you were covering the team, when people learned you were covering the league what would your friends and colleagues say to you about their thoughts on the league?
JB: I think the people around here were just happy to have a pro team of any kind.  They were happy to have the Steamer here.  And I think they gave it about as much support as anybody could have realistically expected.  You know.

WFLN: Is there anything else you recall about the league?
JB: That’s about all I can think of.  You know like I said I flew to Philadelphia and flew to Anaheim, California to cover games but the crowds and also the coverage in places like that was very small.  They got lots of coverage in the two papers here at that time [Shreveport Journal & Shreveport Times] because, you know, it was the only game in town.  We did not have a major college football team here and you know that was the only professional team we had up to that time.  But the main thing you can recall was the financial problems that they had.  I remember when the Detroit Wheels played here in October of ’74.  They were really upset and they called a meeting which I went to where they were, I think their previous owner had just declared bankruptcy and the players had not been paid in several weeks and they were all ready to leave I think.  Well, one time with Detroit a practice had been called off because the team could not afford to get it’s uniforms out of the laundry.  I mean it was just, they were trying to operate a professional team without having any money at all.

WFLN: Were you there, or around, when the Steamer found out that the league was folding?
JB: Oh yes.  That was the next year.  It was not a big surprise.  It wasn’t just the Steamer that folded, it was the league that folded.  The WFL.

WFLN: Do you recall the players reactions to that?
JB: Well everybody was just disappointed.  We had enjoyed it while it lasted but it was over.  And like I say, it was not unexpected because they had been losing money.  Marshall Taylor, who was the coach at that time, he was the eternal optimist.  And he said that he thought the league would find ways to make it go but everyone thought that he was not being realistic and as it turns out they were right.

1 comment:

  1. great job on this... keep it up.... lots of fun to read:)