Sunday, April 1, 2012

Jim “JJ” Jennings Interview, WFL Tri-MVP

Jennings playing for the Memphis Southmen
Courtesy of Richie Franklin/Jim Cusano WFL Photo Collection

On July 10, 1974 professional football burst on the scene in Memphis, Tennessee… and so did Jim “JJ” Jennings.  Coming off a senior season at Rutgers in which he led the nation in scoring, Memphis fans were given the opportunity to watch Jennings light up opposing defenses.  JJ finished his first season as a pro second in rushing yards and third in rushing TD’s.  Those results earned him a share of the MVP award.

WFL Nation: When did you first hear about the WFL?
Jim Jennings: After my senior year football season a couple of coaches talked to me about it and said it might be an alternative instead of going to the NFL.  You know, you may want to look into it.

WFLN: Were you drafted to the team [the Southmen] when they were in Toronto or Memphis?
JJ: When they were in Toronto.

WFLN: What was that like?  Did you get to go to Toronto?
JJ: Yeah, yeah.  They had me up there visiting and everything and actually when I went up there I ended up signing.

WFLN: What did you think of everything when you got there?
JJ: I loved the town.  I loved the mixture of people, the diversity up there and everything about it.  I liked the organization.  You know obviously it was backed by the Carling Brewery the Bassett family so you know it was going to be a stable franchise.

WFLN: How did you feel when they decided to move the franchise to Memphis?
JJ: Well (laughs) I wasn’t to thrilled by it.  Cause you know it was the deep south and I had actually been to Memphis the year before and I wasn’t crazy about the idea but obviously once I got down there I was fine.

WFLN: I saw you were also drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs [9th round, 222 overall].  Why did you choose the World Football League over the NFL?
JJ: Well, I thought the opportunity was better plus I was getting guaranteed money there too.

WFLN: Were you concerned at all about the finances of an upstart league?
JJ: No, I was thinking more in terms of the opportunity.  You know they gave me bonus money plus I was guaranteed, like I said, most of my contract so I wasn’t that worried about it.  I know down the road some of the teams had some financial problems but we never had those problems down in Memphis.

WFLN: How would you describe team owner John Bassett?
JJ: He was a great guy.  Very personable.  He was in with the players all the time talking to us and everything else.  He was a great owner.  You know we had everything a team needed.  We didn’t lack for anything.

WFLN: One of the biggest moments to make headlines across the nation for the World Football League was the Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield.  Do you remember when that happened and what you thought of it?
JJ: Yeah, I remember it and I had some serious thoughts about it because obviously it was going to affect my time in Memphis and as it turned out I was no longer going to be in Memphis that next year.  They decided to run the league again cause obviously Larry Csonka played my position and here I was the MVP of the league so all of a sudden I was basically out of a job.  A starting job anyway.

WFLN: Going back to when you played in Memphis how did fans in Memphis embrace the Southmen?
JJ: I thought we had some great fans.  I think we averaged probably when the season was over probably upper 20’s, lower 30,000 fans per game.
[Ed. note- Attendance started out strong and decreased over the course of the season.  In the end Memphis did well averaging over 21,000 fans a game]

WFLN: What do you recall about your first game against the Detroit Wheels?
JJ: Just being nervous but once you get hit I gained over 100 yards, caught a few passes and we won the game.

WFLN: I heard one of the people who was in attendance was Elvis.  Did you ever meet him when you were down there?
JJ: I did not meet him but there was an article in the paper that he was at the game and I was his favorite player.  I think I still have that article somewhere stashed away.  But I guess he was maybe a minority owner.  He might have had part of the team.  I’m not sure.  A very small part.
[Ed. note- I have only seen Elvis attending games as a fan, no record of part ownership]

WFLN: How did that make you feel when Elvis said you were his favorite player?
JJ: Wow, it was unbelievable.  You’ve got this rock icon and he’s mentioning my name as being one of his favorite players.

WFLN: Going back to the 1974 season.  What are some of your memories of the teams games?  Do you have any specific memories or anecdotes?
JJ: You heard about some of the other teams with the problems they had as far as equipment being confiscated and not being paid.  Our team was, you know, especially with some of the players that had already been in the NFL and came over they told us that this thing was run pretty much like an NFL franchise.  As far as the staff and the way things are run, the equipment, the facilities and everything else.  The first game I played stands out for me, I remember us clinching the title for our division.  I think we played Portland and we won it or we were out in Hawaii one or the other and that was really important. [Memphis defeated The Hawaiians on October 30 by a score of 33-31]  Another game that was important to me was when I was the first one in the league to get to 1,000 yards so that was a big time for me also.

WFLN: I think you guys also won 11 straight games.  How was your team able to find so much success over such a long season?
JJ: I think it had to do with the way the organization was run.  They did well as far as drafting and signing free agents.  As far as putting the team together we had good coaching.  We had two good quarterbacks in John Huarte and Danny White and everything just clicked.

WFLN: Was the 20-game schedule too much?
JJ: I think we kind of got worn down at the end.  You get dinged up a little bit but we managed through it.  You know unfortunately we got beat in the playoff game which we should have won and that didn’t work out too well.

WFLN: Why do you say that?  Why should you have won that game?
JJ: Well, I think we had the better team.  I just really believe we had a better team than that.

WFLN: Did you guys go into the playoffs thinking you were going to go to the World Bowl?
JJ: I don’t want to say we were overconfident but we felt good about ourselves.

WFLN: Do you have any memories about that playoff game against the Florida Blazers?
JJ: Just that we had an untimely fumble.  I think it was a punt and our punt returner I think fumbled the ball.  They got the ball back and they scored and we couldn’t answer.  We ended up losing the game.  That was very disappointing.  You know you played all those games.  Like you said we won all those games in a row, the organization as a whole was fantastic and to have it end that way we just didn’t feel that well about it.  And I kind of thought in the back of my mind that was it for me in Memphis too at that time.

WFLN: You went on to become one of three players to win the MVP award.  The only time the league awarded it.  What was that like for you?
JJ: It was a thrill.  I know they had a ceremony where they awarded it at halftime of the championship game but unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it down.  I was actually at the hospital getting my tonsils out at that time.  But it was a great honor.  You know my first year out of college to have that bestowed on me, I thought that was really nice.

WFLN: You couldn’t reschedule having your tonsils out?  Or it wasn’t going to work out for you to make it to the game?
JJ: I think looking back I just wanted to get them out.  I had been suffering for the last few weeks of the season with that as far as running a temperature and everything and I wanted to get them out.  Like you said when you talk about the long season you know you kind of get homesick too.  I wanted to get it out, get it done and I wanted to get on the road and get back home (laughs).  Cause I hadn’t really been home that whole season that I was down there.

WFLN: Did you get a trophy for winning the MVP?
JJ: I got a plaque.

WFLN: Did you ever get to see the trophy?
JJ: I think I saw it on TV. (laughs) You know when I was in my hospital bed watching it on TV.

WFLN: Really.  Do you know what happened to the trophy?
JJ: No.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with the World Football League website.  I think somebody said it’s down in Alabama somewhere.  Alabama Sports Hall of Fame I think.

WFLN: Okay.
JJ: Yeah, you’d have to check on that.  You’d have to check on the website.  I believe I saw someone said it was down there.

WFLN: So you watched the championship game from your hospital room?
JJ: Yeah, I did.

WFLN: Do you have any memories of watching that game?
JJ: Just feeling bad that we could have been in the game.

WFLN: The leagues financial difficulties have been pretty well documented.  You said you really didn’t experience that in Memphis.
JJ: No, not in Memphis.  No.  In Philadelphia a little bit but I ended up getting all my money in Philadelphia when I was traded up there.  You know up until the league folded.  I think it was in November of ’75.

WFLN: A couple of teams didn’t even make it halfway through the season [in 1974]. 
JJ: Right.  I think Detroit [Wheels].  Detroit was the first year I think but Chicago [Winds] the second year.  I don’t think they made it.  I forget who the other team was, I think it was Jacksonville [Sharks].

WFLN: I think Jacksonville had to be purchased by the league.  When those kinds of things started happening when you’re playing in a league like that what starts going through a lot of player’s minds?  What went through your mind when that started happening?
JJ: Obviously I was concerned about the league.  I didn’t know what was going to happen.  Obviously I was still young.  I was in my second year out of college and I had a good career going so I had something to fall back on as far as the NFL or the Canadian Football League.  As a matter of fact when the league folded I know Kansas City had me out there to run me through some tests and everything just to get me ready for next year if I was going to go out there.  And then I also was actually contacted by the Montreal Alouettes [of the CFL] to go up there and play with them during their playoff run.  I never signed with them but I did end up in Kansas City that next year.

Jennings playing for the Philadelphia Bell
Courtesy of Richie Franklin/Jim Cusano WFL Photo Collection

WFLN: I want to take you back to the 1975 season when you were traded to Philadelphia.  You touched on that a little bit before.  How did you feel about being traded to Philadelphia?
JJ: You know I was feeling both ways I guess.  You know I was happy because I knew I would be playing.  You know not playing behind Larry Csonka somebody that’s already been established.  A future hall of famer.  I felt good on that end but we were a pretty tight team, pretty much a family down there in Memphis and I knew I was going to miss those guys.  The team up in Philadelphia wasn’t as close knit as it was down in Memphis.  There was a lot of turnover personnel wise so it was hard to get close to a lot of people on that team and then you know coming in from a different team it’s tough to get close to some people.  So I had some work to do up there.  I didn’t have that great of a season as a matter of fact.

WFLN: Why is that?
JJ: I don’t know if I was prepared physically.  When I came into training camp I think I was overweight.  I had just gotten married and everything else so I could have prepared myself better and I blame myself for that.  The team wasn’t that good.  Plus then you, again, with this franchise who went through a whole lot of turmoil.  They fired their coach [Joe Gardi] before the season started and then Willie Wood came in and took over.  And like I said there was a lot of turnover on that team as far as personnel.  It was tough to get a squad where you have the same personnel there from week to week playing in the same positions.  Things did start to turn around.  We did become a pretty cohesive unit both offensively and defensively up in Philadelphia but then obviously the league folded and that took care of that.  I think we had a good chance to make the playoffs that year.

WFLN: Do you have any specific memories from that season in 1975?
JJ: Just some of the things where, I know we were out, I think we were playing the Southern California Sun and I remember that we were bussed from the hotel in school busses.  And I remember we were overloaded and I think we got there and the backdoor opened and some of the players fell out.  Another time I think we were going to Portland and we didn’t have any transportation from the airport and we ended up thumbing.  I think I ended up on the back of a truck to the hotel.  That kind of thing.  Like I said, it was a completely different scenario than what I was used to down in Memphis. 

WFLN: Interesting.  Do you have any more anecdotes like that playing with Philadelphia?
JJ: Some of them I can’t repeat (laughs) but those two really stand out in my mind.  Some of the stuff was comical compared to what I went through down in Memphis as far as logistics and everything.  It didn’t seem as professional as it did down in Memphis but I don’t know if that was a money issue or not.

WFLN: In 1975 the WFL had an interesting idea, which was to come up with different color-coded pants based on a players position.
JJ: Right, which didn’t go over too well.

WFLN: One of the more memorable photos is with Willie Spencer and Lonnie Stewart.  What did you think of the pants plan?
JJ: We all thought it was a joke.  We thought it was very comical and I don’t think anybody was going to wear those pants.

WFLN: Do you have any photos dressed up in different color pants?
JJ: No, actually I think I was in it for a game when they were going to present them to the fans on the field and I think they asked me and I refused to wear them.

WFLN: How did you find out the league was going to be folding?
JJ: I believe if my memory serves me correct I had driven into the stadium where we had been practicing and we were informed then.  And then I remember we all left and then we all went drinking.  A lot of us went drinking and we were thinking about what our next move was going to be because I know I finally got back home and I believe I got a call from Willie Wood who was the head coach.  He informed me that the Chiefs had called and they were trying to get a hold of me.

WFLN: Looking back on your experience in the league what would you say was the most challenging part?
JJ: For me I think the most challenging part was just the unknown when I first got off the plane down in Memphis.  You know starting a whole new career not only in football but in a new league and a new city.

WFLN: How would you summarize your experience in the World Football League?
JJ: For me it was a great experience.  Like I said the first year in Memphis there was a lot of talent on the team, we were a pretty close knit team, I thought we were treated very well as far as getting paid on time and the facilities, the equipment, the staff and so on.  So I have good memories from my first year in the league.

WFLN: And not your second year?
JJ: Oh yeah my second year I was playing, I made some good friends there.  It was fun playing in Philadelphia.  It was a closer location where my parents and a lot of friends of mine in New Jersey that I went to school with at Rutgers were able to attend the games.  So that was good on that part too.

WFLN: What have you been doing since football?
JJ: I’m currently working at Xerox corporation and I’ve been here since 1979 so basically the last year when I got cut in 1978 by the New England Patriots I came to work at Xerox and I’ve been here since.

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