Saturday, June 1, 2013

Tommy Reamon Interview, WFL Tri-MVP

Life is full of decisions.  Following the 1973 college football season at the University of Missouri Tommy Reamon faced a big one.  He could either compete for a roster spot on an established NFL franchise or compete for a roster spot in the upstart World Football League.  As it turns out each team that drafted him went on to play in their respective league championship games.  The Pittsburgh Steelers went onto Super Bowl IX while the Florida Blazers went on to play in the first ever World Bowl.  The decision Reamon made took him on an incredible journey…

WFL Nation: What were you doing prior to joining the World Football League in 1974?
Tommy Reamon: I was at the University of Missouri.  I played running back at the University of Missouri and before the draft for the World Football League I was also drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

WFLN: When were you drafted by the Steelers?
TR: The same year as the Florida Blazers which was originally the Virginia Ambassadors and it happened simultaneously.  They had the draft in the same month in February.
(Ed. note- In 1974 the NFL draft was held Jan. 29-30, the WFL draft was held Jan. 22 & Feb. 5)

WFLN: When did you first hear about the World Football League?
TR: Probably during the Christmas holiday of my senior year.  The word was coming out that there was another league forming and it would be pretty much playing during the summer and at that time there was only the NFL so basically that was something new and it appeared from when they started talking about it that it was going to be geographical.  And I was from the state of Virginia and there was a team in the state of Virginia and I was going to be drafted by that team.

WFLN: So, were you drafted by Virginia or were you drafted by Florida?
TR: Well, the long story, Virginia Ambassadors started out in Norfolk, Virginia.  It was sold after we started practice at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  The team was sold when we were practicing and we then had to then get on a train and head to Orlando, Florida where it was purchased from by Rommie Loudd the president and it was named the Florida Blazers.

WFLN: So what was that like for you guys when you were on that train heading down there?
TR: Not a difficult situation but one of, our security or insecurity of we didn’t know what was what.  We just know that we had finished training camp and that the team was sold and we were going to play football in a new city.

WFLN: So everybody just packed up and everybody just went all at once?
TR: Yes.  I mean some guys shipped cars on the train and I had family drive a car down to Orlando while we were on the train.  So it was different people trying to secure their families as well as get transportation down there too.

WFLN: Aside from the teams move what were your first impressions of the league as a whole?
TR: I was excited for the league and my story is kind of well documented.  I did a book called “Rough Diamonds: A Coaches Journey” that I talk about.  The experience was one that I looked forward to because I thought my talents might not have been utilized as much as I wanted to at Missouri as a running back and I was drafted by the Steelers.  So I went into training camp for a weekend with the Steelers and two weeks later the World Football League camp opened and so I had to make a decision on going to the new league because I wanted to play more and the NFL was doing their strike year.  And I was concerned – and quite concerned – that our practice with the Steelers, with Lynn Swann, [John] Stallworth and Jack Lambert and all those guys and when the veterans returned I would get cut.  So I was kind of a rookie, scared and the World Football League opportunity was appealing to me to get my talents utilized.  And that is exactly what I went through as a 21-year-old kid.

WFLN: I noticed you were selected in the 23rd round by the Florida Blazers.  I know you went on to be one of three league MVP’s.  But did you have any concerns being drafted in the 23rd round that you might not get those opportunities you’re talking about?
TR: Well, yes.  Anytime you get drafted, even today, anytime you get drafted you’re honored to get drafted because you’re selected as one of the best.  Regardless of what team.  Then the next thought is now I’ve got to make it.  And I’ve got to prove that I can play.  And so I don’t remember what round it was, it didn’t matter.  It was the fact that I was selected and given an opportunity to then compete.  And that’s what I wanted my best chances after looking at the Pittsburgh situation and the Florida Blazers situation that it was my best chance to play.

WFLN: After experiencing the Pittsburgh Steelers camp and then going to the World Football League how would you describe the differences in training camp, amenities, etc. between the NFL and WFL?
TR: When you leave the Pittsburgh Steelers situation like I did saying “Hey, I’m going with the World Football League” I then had the greatest honor to be coached around a guy named Jack Pardee who was the head coach.  Who was a former Washington Redskins player and coached under George Allen.  He had a camp full of veteran players which in a sense it was similar to an NFL training camp so I knew no different because of what Jack Pardee was exposed to himself.  So our camp environment was with veteran players and I was one of the youngest players in camp.  And so I just fit right in and worked my butt off and trying to win the coaches over as well as learn from those veteran guys how to do things.

WFLN: Do you have any specific stories about Jack Pardee?
TR: Jack Pardee is one of the greatest people I’ve ever met.  His private story is he had cancer, he beat it, he returned.  His personality and conversations that we always had made me feel that he cared as a relationship coach even though he was the head coach.  He helped me as the younger player because he used to look at me as a Larry Brown.  At that time Larry Brown was a great running back with the Washington Redskins in those 1970 years and I kind of learned from him about survival and fight and challenge and I think that came across from his own personal experience of beating cancer and returning.  And so the most powerful thing that I learned was the maturity and the guidance I got from older guys because it was mostly veteran people from the NFL with this new team called the Florida Blazers.

WFLN: How did the fans embrace the Blazers?
TR: I thought at first there was a lot of speculation of what the level would be from the fans but then they started rallying.  We did a lot of community things.  We got to hang out at Disney World.  We started going out there a lot.  We started being visible to the community.  It was something new to that area because Disney World was probably the biggest attraction and so we started doing a lot of different community things which was good and it appeared that it was a lot of excitement.  At that time you know you’re still competing against a new environment and the NFL so evidently they had to do a lot of things which we did for community support.

WFLN: What are some of your memories of the teams games in 1974?
TR: Well, as I look back on it it was a great learning experience for me personally.  And what I remember was the survival of a team trying to save itself, establish itself.  We were very good in the league but we had a lot of distractions and those distractions came about through finances.  You know when the team wasn’t getting paid or the players wasn’t getting paid.  So what I learned and I got from that was I loved the game and wanted to be the best I could be.  Whether or not I wanted to prove to get back to the NFL at one point if the league did not make it.  So the insecurity of the finances was yet a priority in our minds but for me it was an opportunity that goes back to why I chose the World Football League was to get my talents utilized.  So those are the kinds of things that me personally, Tommy Reamon, went through that year.

WFLN: Can you give me any specifics what you mean when you talk about the financial part of it?
TR: Well, here’s a good one.  I signed for a small bonus and I had a brilliant guy suggest to me “Why don’t you get your salary deferred for tax reasons” and my salary would start when the season started thereafter.  And once the time came for me to start getting my salary we started having financial problems where the players weren’t getting paid.  And so here I was being brilliant deferring my payments.  I went until about 10 games into the season, no 5 games into the season and I never got anything.  And so I was basically playing for free.  And so that’s a financial thing.  I did not get a penny from the World Football League season that year.

WFLN: Did you ever get paid?
TR: No.

WFLN: You never got paid for the 1974 season?
TR: No.  I did not.

WFLN: How did that make you feel?
TR: I was so young and you remember what I said from the beginning.  I wanted to prove myself and I wanted my talents utilized as a running back.  And as it was going on throughout the season all the adversities, the not getting paid, I had the opportunity to show I was as good as I thought I was.  And my talent was being utilized.  And I was happy about that.  And so you know I was performing and wasn’t getting paid.  I remember eating, they worked out something dealing with Wendy’s.  The very first start of the Wendy’s franchise.  Man I was eating at the Wendy’s and McDonalds.  That was all the money I had if I did have money.  But we could eat there free.  And so I was eating, I was playing football with some great coaches who were trying to keep us motivated and throughout not getting paid and we were winning football games.  But more important personally I was being satisfied because I went there to get what I was getting and that was to play and getting my talents utilized.

WFLN: Well, what did you do about living situations and you mentioned you were eating at Wendy’s and McDonalds, but what did you do about where you lived?
TR: They set up a hotel, one of the hotels in the area and let the players stay in a hotel.  So for an entire football season I lived in a hotel not far from the airport where we practiced.  So that’s where I lived.  And many of the other players did too.  So basically I had a place to stay, I had some places to eat, so for me at 20/21 years old I was fine.  But I wasn’t getting a salary to play the games.

WFLN: You mentioned everyone else got paid up to a certain point.  After that certain point of maybe a few weeks into the season did the rest of the team not get paid as well?
TR: The rest of the team did not get paid at all.

WFLN: And you guys played in the championship game.
TR: Yeah.  And the only money that I got from the World Football League $3,333.33 for the Co-Most Valuable Player of the World Football League.  And I got that weeks after the Bowl game.

WFLN: You played in 1975 as well, correct?
TR: Right, I returned the next year.  That’s another story.

WFLN: OK, we’ll get to that in a minute then.  Staying in 1974, do you have any specific memories about any particular games?
TR: I was very successful in some games against the New York Stars which I rushed for over 177 yards.  It was my coming out party as a star running back.  And then the Chicago Fire game which I had a great game.  I threw a pass for a touchdown and I had 100 something yards rushing.  I see that vividly.  And then the final Bowl game against Birmingham I thought I had scored the tying touchdown, no extra point.  And I was across the goal line and the official said that I didn’t cross the goal line and we lost the game.  And I see it like it was yesterday.  I coached a lot in a movie called North Dallas Forty years later and at the end of the movie it’s so devastating because I look back at the World Football League and the play ended the game and it was controversial but I was the one that was involved to create the controversy cause I know I got across the goal line.  So those are probably the games that I think about as I’ve lived my life.
(Ed note- Reamon rushed for 179 yards against the NY Stars)

WFLN: You went on to become one of three players to win the MVP award.  What was that like for you?
TR: At the time that it was happening after the game when they awarded me the trophy, I had hurt my shoulder in the game.  So I was hurting standing up there trying to grin and smile.  However, it made me feel like I had accomplished my personal goals.  It became a very difficult situation where as staying together as a full team to even get to that point of being MVP for a playoff team.  So I remember that there as I’m standing there and selected as one of the MVP’s but I remember how it felt because it was right after the game.  And I was sore and hurt and my shoulder was hurting and I was trying to enjoy the moment.  But it had represented everything that I had gone through and dreamed for and that’s what the World Football League experience gave Tommy Reamon.

WFLN: I saw they presented it [the MVP award] at halftime and Tony Adams was there.  They did a presentation when you were in the locker room.  They did another presentation for you after the game?
TR: Yes.

WFLN: And this was following the team’s [Florida Blazers] loss in the championship?
TR: Yes.

WFLN: How did they do that?  Can you explain it more?
TR: It was on the side of the field and afterwards I had the trophy up there.  And afterwards he talked about the money (laughs) and that’s all I remember.  I remember that happening and he said you have an award for $3,333.33 because the $10,000 was split between three people.  And so it was on the side of the field, I remember holding the MVP trophy and them telling me what I’d won.  So if they did one at halftime I was in the locker room hurting trying to deal with my shoulder (laughs).

WFLN: Do you have the trophy?
TR: No.  I did not walk away with it.  No.

WFLN: Do you have a trophy?
TR: No.  Do not.  No.  I do have a plaque about the Most Valuable Player.  But the trophy itself, no.

WFLN: Do you know what happened to the trophy?
TR: I have no idea.

WFLN: I want to move onto the ’75 season.  What happened to the Florida Blazers franchise from the ’74 season?
TR: At the end of the season nobody knew what was going to be what.  We just had an experience of a lifetime.  And I was the co-MVP of the league.  I was more concerned then what was going to be next for me after I healed.  So I started dealing with negotiating with the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Florida Blazers had stopped.  Because Rommie Loudd the owner and whatever happened happened and it was non-existent.  And then they said that if you played with the Florida Blazers you were a free agent to go with anybody else.  So because I was the MVP I was then pursued by Jacksonville Express for the second year.  So I was negotiating with the Pittsburgh Steelers who had just won a Super Bowl and the Jacksonville Express because I was a key figure for the World Football League in hoping to return.  So the Florida Blazers right after the game became non-existent because of Rommie Loudd not being able to fulfill obligations and Jack Pardee then took the head-coaching job with the Chicago Bears.  So that’s pretty much how it ended in my mind and memory and I think everybody was scrapping to say ‘what’s next?’  But for me personally I was trying to negotiate with two teams.
(Ed note- In early 1975 the Blazers were purchased and moved to San Antonio)

WFLN: Did you have any concerns after not being paid at all in 1974 and returning to the World Football League?
TR: Yes I was and what happened in the negotiations, and it’s relived today in negotiations with pro football, but I was drafted by the Steelers and they had just won the Super Bowl.  I was the co-MVP of a new league.  So now who needs who the most?  You know, you just win a Super Bowl with Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, and John Fuqua and I’m over here the MVP.  So in a sense the personality of me is ‘who needs me or who wants me the most?’ and it comes down to money basically because I didn’t make money the first year.  So the Jacksonville Express signed me for nearly $100,000 under a personal service contract with the owner.  And the Pittsburgh Steelers had negotiated with me, I was hoping the Pittsburgh Steelers would trade me to the Chicago Bears because Jack Pardee wanted me in Chicago [Pittsburgh still had Reamon’s draft rights].  Well, what happened was the Pittsburgh Steelers played around with the negotiation and they wouldn’t trade me.  They told the Bears that they had to give two #2 draft choices if they wanted to trade for me and that’s where I wanted to go.  But guess who they [the Bears] drafted that year?  The great Walter Payton.  And so it didn’t work with the negotiation with Pittsburgh so I chose the money and went back to the World Football League and the Jacksonville Express.
(Ed note- The Chicago Bears drafted Walter Payton with the 4th overall pick in 1975.  Payton finished his career as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.  He’s currently ranked 2nd behind Emmitt Smith)

WFLN: Did they give you any guarantees that ‘you will get paid this year’ at all?
TR: Yes, yes.  I was guaranteed I get $35,000, if I remember, I remember cashing a check at the bank once and then what happened the rest of the year after the fifth game of the season I cracked my ribs.  And this is a true story man, it’s in my book, I cracked my ribs, I go to play that night.  They inject me with Novocain cortisone in me so I could play and one of the needle points punctured my lung.  And so here I was trying to play and I couldn’t breathe so basically I couldn’t play the second half.  And then that night I was taken to the hospital and I had a collapsed lung and I missed the rest of the season.  But I had to be paid because I was under a personal service contract with the owner.  I didn’t get the total amount but I got somewhat of that money the second year.  But I did not finish the year.  Weeks later after I kept trying to make sure that I got the rest of my money the league folded completely.

WFLN: How did you find out the league was folding?
TR: There was talk about it because things wasn’t going financially right for it.  But I wasn’t so much worried about it because I was hurt but I wanted to make sure I got my personal service money from the owner.  And you know as I look back on it today you can sue somebody for that because the owner was close to the people dealing with puncturing my lungs.  So you know I look back and I say “Wow.  Things are so different.”

WFLN: How would you summarize your experience in the World Football League?
TR: Other than the second year when I got hurt and then I went on to Pittsburgh and I didn’t play the rest of the year my memory of the World Football League was so wonderful because of the first year in which I proved to myself and showed that I was a great back under the most dramatic financial situations other people and myself went through.  And it just showed that we played because we loved the game and not to get paid.  And today you know that’s unheard of.  And it made me a better man through my entire life since then.  But I learned a lot from that that influenced my life as for survival and liking the game.  Cause I am a high school coach.  You know I coached some NFL players, Michael Vick, Aaron Brooks.  Quite a few, the list goes on.  And so I have memories that I can share with kids and people that that experience helped make me a better person.