Orlando would be the second team in the United States awarded a WLAF franchise during March of 1990. The Orlando Thunder’s majority owner was Raj Bhathal, a Newport Beach swimwear magnate who preferred to let Dick Beam, a former Rams executive run the front office. Originally unable to purchase the rights to the Surge or the Riders, Bhathal bought the majority stake in the Orlando franchise. The Thunder played in cavernous Citrus Stadium but were unable average over 20,000 fans in either season. They are probably most fondly remembered for their uniforms- which were neon green, and were recently voted #2 on the worst uniform list of all-time on ESPN.
Led by legendary CFL coach Don Matthews in 1991, the Orlando Thunder initially employed a run and shoot variant. His most notable coach was former Charger wide receiver Wes Chandler who would get his break coaching with the team. Their first game would be against the San Antonio Riders in a stunning offensive contest on USA Network. The Thunder would win 35-34, led by quarterback Kerwin Bell wearing the newly invented helmet camera. He’d throw 3 bombs to league leading receiver Byron Williams, -one of the oldest players in the league and an incredibly fast receiver. Williams would finish with 11 touchdowns receiving, leading the league.
At runningback the team would rely on Myron Jones, -but Eric Mitchel (a Barry Sanders backup at Oklahoma) would spark the team later on in the season. He’d finish second on the team in receptions and have a whopping 6.7 yards per carry. Carl Painter, another NFL vet, would finish as the league leader in kick off returns with 597 yards and a 24.9 yard average.
On defense Winfred Bryant (6 sacks) and Wayne Dickson (5 sacks) would pace the team lead. In the secondary underrated Mike Nettles would make 3 picks and 4 sacks. Safety Billy Owens would also contribute 3 sacks and turn in an interception from the defensive backfield. Errol Tucker would also chip in 2 interceptions, and also lead the WLAF in with a 20.7 punt return average, taking one of them back for a touchdown.
In week 2 the Thunder would tack up 58 points on the Skyhawks giving them a two week total of 93 points- one of the highest combined two week totals for the opening of a football team’s season in sports history. The problem is that the Thunder happened to give up as much yards and points as they scored. After their first two victories, the Thunder dropped 5 straight, drubbed in 4 straight games, 35-12, 33-13, 31-6 and finally 42-6 to the New York New Jersey Knights. After a 17-14 loss to the Galaxy, the Thunder would rebound, winning their final 3 contests, to finish 5-5 for 1991. It would be an uneven ending for the Thunder that season with extreme highs- and lows.
After the season, Beam would clean house, from top to bottom. The team attempted to lure a variety of names to the open head coaching position including: David Shula, Tom Walsh, Mike Gottfried, and Dick Coury but was unable to land any of them. In the end, the Thunder promoted offensive coordinator Galen Hall to head coach for the 1992 season. Hall continued to employ the spread offense but also incorporated a fullback and tight end more into the offense. Although Kerwin Bell performed servicibly in 1991, the team would take Scott Mitchell (allocated from the Miami Dolphins) and start him over Bell at quarterback. At runningback the team would bring in Darryl Clack (former Dallas Cowboy), and former 1st round fullback, Texas A&M product and New York Jet, Roger Vick. League leading Byron Williams would be traded in the middle of the night to the New York New Jersey Knights partially over a contract dispute and him playing in the CFL. In his place the team would employ Joe Howard Johnson and Kansas City Chief Willie Davis.
In the team’s 4-3 defense, the Thunder would add on the defensive line Karl Dunbar (future defensive line coach mastermind), and future radio personality Dan Sileo. Tracy Rocker was drafted with the team’s first overall pick, but he’d be injured and cut during training camp. Linebacker would see the return of Wayne Dickson, while in the secondary most of the team would be replaced, with Rogers and Nettles returning from the 1991 squad. Malcolm Floyd would make his debut with the Orlando Thunder, where he’d later in his career make his mark in the CFL.
The Thunder would improve their defense and cure their consistency woes in 1992. They came into San Antonio and beat the Riders handily in 1992, in a contest that was much closer than its score indicated en route to an 8-2 record, tying for the league best with Sacramento. They’d cruise into the playoffs and play in World Bowl II versus the Sacramento Surge, narrowly losing to them 21-17. Scott Mitchell would finish as the second leading passer in the league, Clack at runningback would finish 3rd with Vick at 5th. At wide receiver Johnson would finish 3rd in receptions with 56 catches. Johnson would receive All- World League honors, along with tackle Rick Cunningham, Darryl Clack, cornerback Glenn Rogers, and kicker Tracy Bennett. Galen Hall would be named coach of the year after the season as well, but all would be for not as after the 1992 season the WLAF would reorganize and the Thunder would not be heard from again. Despite the team’s 8-2 record, the Thunder had the smallest season ticket holder base in 1992 with less than 5,000 people. This also had put financial duress on Raj Bhathal, and it had been rumored that he was attempting to sell the franchise, or the league had been attempting to force his hand to do so.
Many years later the Thunder name would be reappropriated by the NFLE to be used as the name for the Berlin Thunder. Thankfully they wouldn’t utilize the same color scheme or logo. Orlando has had three professional franchises since the departure of the Thunder. Only one of them would end up successful. The Orlando Rage of the XFL lasted just one season in 2001- when the league folded under financial strain. (Galen Hall returned to coach the team.) Orlando then had to wait until 2009 to receive a new football franchise, when the UFL awarded the Florida Tuskers to the city. Despite the best intents of the league however, Orlando was unable to support the Tuskers either, and after the 2010 season the team was shuttered to Virginia. The only one that has weathered the storm has been the AFL entry Orlando Predators which has had a long and storied history in the city since 1991.
HC- Don Matthews
QB- Kerwin Bell, Scott Mitchell
RB- Darryl Clack, Eric Mitchel, Myron Jones, Grantis Bell, Roger Vick, Carl Painter
WR- Byron Williams, Bruce Lasane, Stacey Simmons
TE- Michael Titley
OL- Rodney Lossow
K- Charlie Baumann
DL- Karl Dunbar, Tracy Rocker
LB- Dean Witkowski, Wayne Davis
DB- Erroll Tucker, Rob Sterling
At this time I am still missing autographs on these cards from:
ProSet 1991 WLAF: John Guerrero, Billy Owens & Mike Withycombe.
Wild Card WLAF 1992:
Willie Davis, Glenn Rodgers, Joe Howard-Johnson, Rocen Keeton, Roger Vick, Todd Krumm.