San Antonio Riders

San Antonio Riders Helmet. (Autograph from Larry Benson, Mike Riley). ProSet WLAF 1991.

Record: 1991/ 4-6   1992/ 7-3

The San Antonio Riders were one of the founding franchises of the WLAF in 1991.  In April of 1991, Larry Benson (brother of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson) won the bidding war over Gavin Maloof for the right to the San Antonio market. (Maloof would settle for ownership of the Birmingham Fire instead.)  Benson would be the majority owner (over a small syndicate of owners) of the Riders (-a team that was almost called: ‘The Alamo’, ‘Lone Stars’ or ‘Trail Riders’,) which were managed by Tom Landry (former Dallas Cowboys coach). The Riders played in dilapidated Alamo Stadium in San Antonio, until an argument over beer sales ensued with the San Antonio School District, so the team moved its games up the road to tiny San Marcos/ Bobcat Stadium after the district jacked up the rent. With the relocation for 1992 completed this placed the Riders roughly halfway between Austin and San Antonio on the I-35 corridor.  The team hoped that once the Alamodome was completed in San Antonio, (a state of the art stadium when it was started, and not when it was finished,) the Riders would be able to relocate back there as early as 1993.
The San Antonio Riders were coached by Mike Riley, a Bear Bryant disciple and former defensive back at Alabama. Riley had been successful at the college level and also at the CFL. Hungry to make a puddle jump to the NFL,  Mike made the transition to the WLAF and assembled his team. Riley’s offenses were typical of ball control offenses of the time, however it most resembled the Washington Redskins system, sporting 3 wide receivers and a single back.  For the most part the team relied on a strong ground game supported by a tough defense.

The Riders were led intially by quarterback Jason Garrett, but injuries yielded him to Lee Saltz. The Riders scoured Team Dallas and located his backup, Mike Johnson.  Johnson then replaced Saltz after he too got injured. Mike ended up starting the majority of the wins for the Riders that season. The engine of the ground game was Ricky Blake, a bruising powerback who was assisted by Broderick Graves and Undra Johnson. The defense was led by All-World linebacker Tim Walton, and second team All-World players Mark Ledbetter and Donnie Gardner.  On offensive line the team
featured future CFL All Star Mike Kiselak, and future wrestler John Layfield. John Garrett, Billy Hess, Dwight Pickens, and Lee Morris would head up an all around underrated wide receiver corps.

San Antonio’s first game was a fireworks show against the spread offense Orlando Thunder, full of big plays and high scoring. There was no defense really by either team, and the 35-34 game would be the league’s highest scoring output of the season.  Orlando quarterback Kerwin Bell threw 3 touchdown passes to Byron Williams to pace the Thunder towards their victory, but when Teddy Garcia missed an extra point for San Antonio, this would provide to be the difference in the game.  The helmet camera was used by Kerwin Bell for the contest, and it was carried on USA Network.

The Riders established two rivals during that initial season- the Sacramento Surge and the Birmingham Fire.  Birmingham and San Antonio had very similar system philosophies and were in the same division. This made them natural rivalries. The Riders played a 12-16 yawner of a loss to the Fire where the team was unable to punch the ball into the endzone in 1991. In 1992, the Riders lost to the Fire early on 17-10 then beat them 17-14 later in that season.  The Riders would finish 4-6 in 1991.

Also in the same division, the Surge were a team that rose and fell at the same time as the Riders, and grew slowly into a pro style offense. The Riders beat the Surge in ’91 10-3 but in 1992 they would have two exciting slugfests.  In week 4, the Riders and Surge played an overtime thriller that ended in victory for the Riders 23-20 when the Riders were able to kick a FG, but the Surge were stopped by an interception. Unfortunately in the last week of the season the Surge won the rematch 27-21 to finish 8-2. The Riders finished at 7-3, behind the Sacramento Surge (8-2), Orlando Thunder (8-2), and Birmingham Fire (7-2-1), -and watching the playoffs, while the Barcelona Dragons (5-5) qualified based only on divisional standings.

The Riders during the 1992 season preserved some of their original roster, while tweaking it out with some NFL veteran presence. They were allowed to pick the rosters of the San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints for loaners. The biggest void the team had to fill was almost its complete running back stable.  To solve this problem the team grabbed Ivory Lee Brown (Arizona Cardinal allocation) and Tony Boles, (-a Dallas Cowboys castoff who was trying to resurrect his career after drug and law problems) for a change of pace. Stump Mitchell was also brought in as part of the NFL Minority Coaches Fellowship to help coach the running backs. Boles and Brown both got off to fast starts, but by week 3 Boles was AWOL, so Brown had to share the load with Cisco Richard and George Searcy. This did not stop the Riders from crushing people on the ground as Brown would finish first in rushing in 1992. Mike Johnson at quarterback got no respect. The Eagles loaned fan favorite Brad Goebel from Baylor to the Riders and he gave Johnson stiff competition.  Jim Gallery turned in a great 1992 season while Teddy Garcia went on to kick for the Dragons. Bobby Humphery, provided a mainstay veteran presence in the secondary after playing for the Jets and Rams in the NFL. Underrated Ronnie Williams at tight end would lead all players from that position with 35 receptions. The Riders sported a variety of All-World players in 1992. Center John Vitale would be named to the 1st team, as well as Ivory Lee Brown at runningback. On defense Chris Theinemen and Dick Chapura would both be named on the line. Consistent Tim Walton also made it again as well at linebacker.  The team finished with 32 sacks and 10 picks (2 tds) in 1992, but the Rider defense was stout- especially against the run.

My father and I attended all the Riders home games in 1992 (and the preseason game against the Glory before the season). For that first preseason game the team installed bleachers in the endzones for additional fans. (They wouldn’t need them again.) Fans were extremely hostile towards Babe Laufenberg of the Glory, since he had just played in the previous season for the Cowboys.  The Riders kept constant pressure in his face all day during the scrimmage and he was miserable. The game would serve as a tie breaker if the two teams were to finish with the same record after the season. -Unfortunately neither team would need it. During the teams’ regular season matchup, San Antonio kept the heat on Pat O’Hara instead but a freak hailstorm/ monsoon in the middle of the game interrupted play. That didn’t stop the Riders from drubbing them 17-0, as San Antonio’s smothering defense was on full display.

Bobcat Stadium had no box seating, so Larry Benson and Tom Landry were easily accessible by fans as they sat in the shade underneath the bleachers. In general, security was minimal and you could walk down on the field during warmups and on the field during halftime to ask for autographs. I’d talk to Mike Riley after the game about what they were trying to do and take photos with the players and team. (It obviously was a different time back then.)

Knowing the last game was do or die for the Riders and the (eventual World Bowl Champion) Surge, it was disappointing to see them lose 24-20 at home, but the largest crowd of the season showed up with a near 20,000 in attendance. It was even more frustrating that the NFL got impatient with the WLAF and suspended operations after the 1992 season never to play in North America again. The Riders pegged their total losses for 2 years at roughly $750,000 which wasn’t much, although the franchise was highly subsidized by the NFL.

In 1993, San Antonio would not be without a team for long as Benson would immediately sign up for the CFL unveiling the team as the San Antonio Texans in front of  the still half finished Alamodome. (The colors were inspired by the Texas flag and had a silver helmet, which in the end felt like the illegitimate step-son of the Cowboys and Oilers.) Mike Riley was also immediately named head coach.  The Texans though would never take the field as a CFL team- folding before the season even begun under financial strain. Going without a team for another season, the Sacramento Goldminers, (formerly the Surge and a Riders rival) moved to San Antonio taking the field with virtually the same staff and owner as the Surge re-dubbed as the San Antonio Texans in 1995. Despite having now a field that could accommodate the CFL game in the Alamodome and decent attendance, the Texans, Riders and Surge finally died after that season- as the CFL decided to fold the remaining USA franchises.

HC- Mike Riley
Other Coaches- Bill Bradley, Stump Mitchell
QB- Jason Garrett, Mike Johnson, Bobby McAllister, Brad Goebel
RB- Ricky Blake, Undra Johnson, Ivory Lee Brown
OL- Eric Norgard, Mike Kiselak
TE- Ronnie Williams
WR- Bill Hess, John Garrett, Dwight Pickens, Darrell Colbert, Wayne Walker,
DL- Willie Fears, Robb White
LB- Greg Gilbert, Mark Ledbetter, Tim Walton,
DB- Ken Watson, Gary Richard, Bobby Humphery
P- Kent Sullivan

At this time I am still missing autographs on these cards from:

Pro Set WLAF 1991:
 Donnie Gardner, & John Layfield.

Wild Card WLAF 1992: Tony Boles, Titus Dixon, Terrence Cooks, Doug Williams, George Searcy, Teddy Garcia, Cisco Richard, & Wayne Walker.

Ultimate 1992: Jim Gallery,  Broderick Graves, Lee Morris,  Titus Dixon,  & Greg Lee.

If you have any information on how to reach these players, you can reach me through twitter or facebook. 






Smerlas, Fred

Cards: Score Supplemental 1990, Action Packed Rookies 1990
Acquired: TTM 1991, 1992 c/o The New England Patrioits

Fred Smerlas’ name alone feels like a lineman’s name. It so happens that Smerlas was a fire plug of a nose tackle, who is remembered for his playing time with the Bills, and then later for the 49ers and Patriots before he retired in 1992 after a 14 year career. Smerlas was a East Coast kind of guy, of Greek descent, playing for Boston College and then his time with the Bills and Patriots.  Smerlas career is interesting as when he was drafted in the second round by the Bills in 1979, the team had been a perennial doormat of the AFC East for years. His rise to prominence along the Bills defensive front helped solidify the Bills line and assisted in their climb to prominence.   During this period he’d be an integral part of Buffalo’s Bermuda Triangle Defense.

Fred notched 5 ProBowl appearances over his career (1980,1981, 1982, 1983,1988) and was a first team All Pro in 1982.  At the time of his retirement he was the all time leader in games played by an NT, and was third on the Bills list with a string of 155 consecutive games played, which is amazing considering he played in the trenches.

After football Smerlas has remained as popular as ever with his recognizable mustache and colorful persona. He has dabbled in a variety of business interests and considered even a run into the political arena along with his budding radio career.  A motorcyclist, Smerlas also gives a fair amount of his time and money away to charities. Smerlas was inducted into into the Bills 50th anniversary team in 2009.

Games 200       Sacks  29.5              Tac 383               FF  10
Int  2               Yds  28           Avg  14.0            TD 0

Shell, Art

amad90 ar shell pset91 shell

Cards: Pro Set AP 1991, Action Packed All Madden 1991
Acquired: In Person, Dallas Cowboys Training Camp 1992.

Art Shell was drafted out of Maryland Eastern Shore College in 1968 by then the AFL Oakland Raiders. An incredible offensive tackle, Shell would be named to 8 Pro Bowls, 3 All Pros and part of the NFLs 1970s all-decade team.  Equally adept against the pass and the run, he starred in two Super Bowls, played in 207 contests and 23 post season games. He currently holds the odd record of being the NFL player who has played the most games with diabetes.

After retirement, Shell went right into coaching working for the Silver and Black from 1983-1989 before being named head coach of the organization where he served from 1990-1994.  Art Shell was the first black head coach in the modern era of the NFL, and in 1990 was named coach of the year in when the Raiders went 12-4 and advanced to the AFC Championship Game. Controversially he was fired in 1994 after posting a 9-7 record. At that time Shell’s record was 54-38. He’d then serve as an assistant in different capacities for the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons, and the NFL offices before returning to the Raiders for one season in 2006. Since coaching retirement he has continued to work with the NFL and also hosts an annual golf tournament. He was also named into the South Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Celebrating the game, the players, the cards, and the autographs for over 25 years.