Remembering The WFL Hawaiians

The Hawaiians made the playoffs in their one full season, 1974, despite a losing record

I was talking with local football photographer Barry Markowitz the other day and the discussion got around to the old World Football League.

Remember the WFL? It turns out Markowitz had an offer to play linebacker with the Southern California Sun back in 1975, and we recently had fun trying to remember some of the old team nicknames.

There was the Sun (which played in Anaheim in 1974 and 1975), the Philadelphia Bell, the Chicago Fire and the Portland Storm – four names without an “s” on the end was a real rarity in professional sports back then. There were also the Toronto Northmen, which became the Memphis Southmen (a minority owner was none other than Elvis Presley). There were teams in Charlotte and Birmingham and other non-traditional pro football cities, 13 cities in all. (Unlucky 13? Yes!)

And then there were “The Hawaiians.” No, not the Honolulu Hawaiians or the Hawaii Hawaiians – just The Hawaiians.

The Hawaiians (ostensibly named for a Charlton Heston movie from a few years prior because the team could-n’t secure the rights to the nickname “Warriors”) played one season at the old Honolulu Stadium and the next season at Aloha Stadium. In their first – and only full season – of existence, they made the playoffs with a record of 9-11. (You thought the Seattle Seahawks were the first losing team to make the pro football playoffs? Guess again!)

With rotating quarterbacks Randy Johnson (who was named all-WFL) and Jim Fassel (the future head coach of the New York Giants) leading the way, The Hawaiians (don’t forget the capital T) hustled through their inaugural season in impressive fashion. They eventually became the most western-based team to ever win a major U.S. professional league playoff game when they beat the Sun in the first round of the 1974 WFL playoffs at Anaheim Stadium. Their (sometimes) glorious season finally came to an inglorious end when they lost to the Birmingham Americans in Alabama, 22-19 in the WFL (don’t call it Wiffle ball) semi-finals.

But the team – and the league – never made it back to the playoffs. Beset by financial problems that led to at least one team using McDonald’s vouchers for meal money, and losing their national television contract (they were on TVS for the first season), they turned to a Hawaii-based developer to try to save the day.

Chris Hemmeter, known for building the huge resorts Westin Kaua’i, Westin Maui and Hyatt Waikoloa among many other (sometimes ostentatious) projects, was a part-owner of The Hawaiians. Hemmeter was asked to be the new commissioner of the WFL and he stepped up to take the job. He tried vainly to re-organize the league, even going so far as setting salary caps of $500 a game for players, but nothing worked.

The Hawaiians, which had signed the legendary Calvin Hill for the 1975 season, fizzled to a 4-7-1 record before the league finally called it quits. But some of the legacy of the league remained – including moving professional goal posts from the goal line to the back of the end-zone, and reducing holding penalties from 15 yards to 10 yards (two rule changes soon adopted by the NFL). They also had no pre-season games, something that the NFL is finally getting around to investigating now.

One WFL rule never made it to the NFL, however. The Action Point – a one-point play after a seven-point (not six-point) touchdown – made scores interesting. After a TD, the ball was placed at the 5-yard line and teams had to either run or pass to score their Action Point. That one point turned out to be the difference in the only WFL World Bowl ever played, as the Birmingham Americans (who had defeated The Hawaiians a week earlier) edged the Florida Blazers, 22-21.

The next day, the local sheriff’s department confiscated their uniforms.

Such is the legend of the WFL – the only so-called major professional league ever based in Hawaii.

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