Tag Archives: World League of American Football

Orlando Thunder

COACH: Don Matthews (1991), Galen Hall (1992)
STADIUM: Citrus Stadium
RECORD: (1991) 5-5, (1992) 8-2

The Orlando Thunder had the most unique color scheme ever seen up to any point in professional football. It is rumored the fluorescent green was at the insistence of owner Raj Bhathal- who wanted something representative of popular colors used in swimsuits at the time.

BACKGROUND:

Orlando was 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. Originally unable to purchase the rights to the Surge or the Riders, Bhathal bought the majority stake in the Orlando franchise after visiting the city for just a single day. He preferred to let Dick Beam, a former Rams executive run the front office, while Lee Corso- of College Football Gameday fame, was the General Manager.

Corso lured away legendary coach Don Matthews from the CFL in 1991, to coach the team. The Orlando Thunder initially employed a no-huddle offense that primarily showed up in a Run ‘N Shoot variant that Don’s offensive coordinator, Galen Hall cooked up. Hall was also instrumental in bringing in QB Kerwin Bell- who he used to coach at Florida. Another notable coach was former Charger wide receiver Wes Chandler, who would get his pro break coaching with the team.

The Thunder name was selected out very quickly during the origination process- and there were 6 different designs that the team felt comfortable moving forward with. Wilson- the manufacturer of most football equipment jerseys at the time- did not have a fluorescent lime green in their fabric selection and had to make a concession in order to get it done.

1991:

Their first game would be against the San Antonio Riders in a stunning offensive contest on a Monday Night USA Network telecast. The Thunder won 35-34, led by quarterback Kerwin Bell wearing the state-of-the-art helmet camera. He’d throw 3 bombs to future league leading receiver Byron Williams. (Williams finished with 11 touchdowns receiving that season, leading the league.)

At runningback the team would rely on Myron Jones, -but Eric Mitchel (a Barry Sanders backup at Oklahoma) sparked the Thunder 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, was 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) paced the team lead. In the secondary underrated Mike Nettles made 3 picks and 4 sacks. Safety Billy Owens also contributed 3 sacks and turned in an interception from the defensive backfield. Errol Tucker chipped in 2 interceptions, and led the WLAF in with an improbable 20.7 punt return average,  taking one of them back for a touchdown.

In week 2, the Thunder tacked 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 was an uneven ending for the Thunder that season with extreme highs- and lows.

After the season, Beam cleaned 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 were unable to land any of them. In the end, the Thunder promoted offensive coordinator Galen Hall to head coach for the 1992 season. 

1992:

Hall continued to employ the spread offense but also incorporated a fullback and tight end more into the offense. Although Kerwin Bell was serviceable in 1991, the team seized at the opportunity to snag Scott Mitchell (allocated from the Dolphins) and started him over Bell at quarterback.

At runningback the team brought 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 was 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 Chiefs receiver Willie Davis.

In the team’s 4-3 defense, the Thunder added 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 saw 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, but made his mark later in the CFL.

The Thunder improved their defense, and cured their consistency woes of 1991. They came into San Antonio and beat the Riders handily in 1992, 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 finished as the second leading passer in the league, while Clack at runningback would finish 3rd in rushing with Vick at 5th. At wide receiver Johnson finished 3rd in receptions with 56 catches and received All- World League honors, along with tackle Rick Cunningham, Darryl Clack, cornerback Glenn Rogers, and kicker Tracy Bennett. 

Galen Hall was named Coach of the Year after the season as well, but all would be for not, as the WLAF reorganized- and the Thunder- would not be heard of again.

Scott Mitchell throws a deep pass against the Riders defense.

NOTES:

The Thunder are probably most fondly remembered for those fluorescent green uniforms, and were recently voted #2 on the worst uniform list of all-time on ESPN.

Training camps and the league’s inaugural draft were held in Orlando.

The Thunder played in cavernous Citrus Stadium but were unable average over 20,000 fans in either season. 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.

Walkup tickets were affordable to boot running between the 30 yard line at $19.50, 25 yard line to goal line at $15.50, and general admission- endzones at just $8.50.

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.

LEGACY:

Orlando has had four professional franchises since the departure of the Thunder. The Arena Football Predators were the most successful of the teams to take on the Orlando market. Traded publicly at one point, the franchise played in the city from 1991 to 2016- before folding due to disagreements with the league.

The Orlando Rage, coached by Galen Hall (XFL) lasted just one season in 2001. The team was heavy favorites to win the championship but was upset in the playoffs by the San Fransisco Demons. – The XFL folded after the season.

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.

Again it appeared that Orlando was on the upswing in 2018. They’d be named as the founding franchise of the Alliance of American Football with Steve Spurrier as their head coach (Apollos). The team zoomed out to a 7-1 record before that league- was shuddered as well.

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, Dan Sileo
LB- Dean Witkowski, Wayne Davis, Wayne Dickson
DB- Erroll Tucker, Rob Sterling, Todd Krumm, Glenn Rogers


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, Joe Howard-Johnson, Rocen Keeton,  Roger Vick, Malcolm Frank

Ultimate WLAF 1992:  Billy Owens, Chris Roscoe, Tommy Stowers.

Sacramento Surge

Coach: Kay Stephenson
Stadium: Hornet Stadium
Records: (1991) 3-7 (1992) 8-2*

* World Bowl II Champs

Sacramento had a very 90s color set that predated the Jacksonville Jaguars with Aqua, Light Gold, Black, and White.

BACKGROUND:

The Sacramento Surge were one of the founding franchises of the World League of American Football. Owned by Fred Anderson, the team also had Jack Youngblood working in the front office with Doug Cosbie. The Surge played its home games at Hornet Stadium in Sacramento.

The Surge was the winner overall when selecting team names- thanks in part to its connection to the computer industry in Northern California. The Surge name has a secondary meaning as Sacramento sits upon a river delta on the ‘surging’ Sacramento river- which gives the origin to the teal triangle behind the ‘S’ on the logo.

Coached by former Buffalo Bills and WFL player/coach Kay Stephenson, the Surge ran a variant of the West Coast offense. Future head coach Jim Haslett would take charge of the defensive line, linebackers, and special teams.

1991:

The Surge played their opener on USA Network against the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks and beat them 9-3.  An initial crowd of over 15,000  showed up to watch the team notch its first victory in Sacramento. Throughout the season the team steadily improved its attendance figures and in their finale of 1991 against the Monarchs, over 21,000 fans showed up.

They’d also prove to be the Frankfurt Galaxy‘s Achilles heel, with the Surge sweeping two wins out from under Frankfurt, and preventing them from making the playoffs. That would be it for the Surge their initial season out of the gate, as they suffered some pretty bad breaks, losing two games in a row in overtime, and 4 other contests by 8 points or less. Sacramento in the end finished a disappointing 3-7.

At quarterback Mike Elkins virtually took all the snaps for the team after unseating Ben Bennett in training camp. At runningback the Surge were lead by the three headed monster of Victor Floyd, Paul Frazier, and Mel Farr, (who finished second on the team in receptions with 23 catches). Carl Parker was a machine, leading the team from scrimmage at wide receiver with 801 yards receiving and 127 more on punt returns.  Along the offensive line Richard Stephens constantly was mentioned as one of the WLAF’s ‘most intriguing’ products at tackle, and John Buddenberg helped lead the way at guard.

The defense boasted former first round choice Shawn Knight at defensive end, while Pete Najarian championed the linebacker corps.  Greg Coauette earned first team All-World honors at safety for his headhunting in the secondary, lining up next to equally intimidating Tom Gerhart.

1992:

In 1992, the team gutted a good portion of their roster starting at quarterback. The team made their best move up top bringing in savvy NFL veteran David Archer. Gone was the whole runningback stable, which was replaced most notably by Mike Pringle (who would go on later to become one of the CFL’s greatest players).  Carl Parker remained at wide receiver, but much of the pressure was removed from him with the signing of another future CFL great Eddie Brown. Stefon Adams and Mark Stock also were brought in to improve the wide receiver corps.

Defensively, the team went in a new direction, now coached by Jim Haslett after the departure of Charlie Sumners.  Among his players, the team was loaded up front after Curtis Wilson to Ohio to secure #1 overall pick  George Bethune, and later in the draft future Seattle Seahawk, Mike Sinclair.  Pete Najarian returned again to play linebacker, along with Mike Jones (who is the hero who made the tackle to stop the Titans from winning SuperBowl XXXIV). Tom Gerhart also was integral to the secondary, white Greg Coauette was traded, replaced by Louis Riddick and Herb Welch at safety.

Louis Riddick was a force to be reckoned with in the ’92 playoffs, notching an interception for a TD against Barcelona, and then forcing 2 fumbles (almost a 3rd) against the Thunder to help pace the Surge victory in World Bowl II.

The Surge turned it completely around in 1992, with 3 wins to start the season, they’d charge into week 4 and lose an exciting match to the Riders 23-20 in one of the leagues’ most best games in history broadcast on USA network. David Archer would be intercepted to end the game in overtime.  They’d lose a second in a row to Birmingham, but again pick back up where they left off, winning the next 5 and beating the Riders in San Antonio to make the playoffs in a do or die contest. The Sacramento Surge then beat the Barcelona Dragons in the playoffs 17-15 and notched World Bowl honors with a 21-17 victory over Scott Mitchell and the Orlando Thunder.

The win or go home game that the Surge ultimately won over the Riders.

David Archer was named MVP of World Bowl II and captured the offensive MVP trophy. Wide receiver Downtown Eddie Brown, amazingly had over 1000 yards receiving en route to earning 1st team World Honors. John Buddenberg at guard also received World League Honors blocking up front for Mike Pringle. On defense, Mike Sinclair finished 2nd in sacks (10) and Bethune 3rd (7). Sinclair would be the only defender to earn WLAF honors.

NOTES:

Most notable about the Sacramento Surge is that they’d be the only North American Team to post a 3-0 record against the Frankfurt Galaxy.  

The Surge also had hoped to draft Stan Gelbaugh in 1991 (after defensive assistant Jim Haslett encouraged Gelbaugh to return to play football), however they passed on him in their supplemental draft, and the Monarchs were able to take him instead.

Bill Goldberg was a notable name, as he’d later become a wrestler by the same name for primarily WCW.

American Airlines partnered with the WLAF to produce trading cards for the Surge in 1991- but as since they are not really ‘canon’ in the trading card market, I haven’t picked any of them up.

AFTERMATH:

After the 1992 season, the WLAF reorganized, but Sacramento would not be without football for long as Fred Anderson took his franchise to the CFL and became the Gold Miners. Unable to re-establish a fan base in Sacramento the team moved to San Antonio and became the Texans in 1995, but folded after the season when the CFL reorganized.

The Surge in the end though are still fondly remembered by many of the citizens of the city of Sacramento to this day. Although sometimes rumored to be  a possible destination for the NFL’s Raiders, Sacramento would have to wait until 2009 for the return of a football franchise, in the form of the Mountain Lions of the UFL.  -The franchise later folded in 2012.

The Surge name has lived on in lore however, and was adopted by a local soccer team in 2012. The name has also been thrown around as one of the finalists for the Seattle XFL 2020 team

HC- Kay Stephenson
QB- Mike Elkins, David Archer, Ben Bennett
RB- Victor Floyd, Mike Pringle
OL- Richard Stephens, Curtis Wilson, John Buddenberg
WR- Carl Parker
DL- Shawn Knight, George Bethune, Saute Sapolu
LB- Pete Najarian
DB- Greg Coauette, Tom Gerhart, Herb Welch

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

Wild Card WLAF 1992: Tony Burse, Michael Jones, Stefon Adams, Corian Freeman, Eddie Brown, Paul Green, Basil Proctor, & Mike Sinclair

Ultimate WLAF 1992: Mike Adams, Mel Farr, Paul Frazier, Pete Najarian, & John Nies

Vick, Roger

Cards: Proset 1989, Score 1990
Acquired: In Person 1992, San Antonio Riders v. Orlando Thunder
Failure: TTM 2010, C/o home

I knew that Roger (who had played collegiately locally at Texas A&M) had a really nice ProSet card in 1989, so when he signed with the Orlando Thunder of the WLAF, I dug the card out of my collection and stumbled upon the Score 1990 card as well.After the Thunder throttled the Riders in San Marcos I would get Vick’s autographs on these cards as he left the dressing room.

The offensive MVP of the Aggies for the 1987 Cotton Bowl, Roger Vick was a strong fullback with a nose for the endzone, who was drafted in the first round of the 1987 draft by the New York Jets. The blocking back primarily for underrated Freeman McNeil, he’d play for them through 1989 scoring 12 touchdowns, and then briefly with the Eagles in 1990 before sitting out a year in 1991. In 1992, he was drafted by the Orlando Thunder which ran a spread offense- so to me he was a head scratcher on their team, but Vick would come out firing on all cylinders, finishing second on the team in rushing behind teammate Darryl Clack on the league’s #2 rushing offense. Unfortunately the league would fold North American operations after 1992.  Since retirement, the consensus is that Roger Vick is Texas A&M’s best fullback in the college’s storied history. I sent off for his autograph in early April to where he lived in Houston, but the 2 cards came back RTS in early May. Below are his WLAF statistics.

Games 10    Att 116     Yds 458     Avg 3.9     Td 4   Lg 30  |   Rec 8    Yds 48   Avg 6.0    Td 0   Lg 16