(Authentic Reproduction)

There was a day and age when minor league football served a place on the American sports scene. Some were provided limited financial support or had a working arrangement with existing National Football or American Football League teams while others remained very much on their own. All of the teams in a number of different leagues provided one more opportunity for aspiring pro players, over-the-hill-pro players, and former college or high school players to earn another opportunity for their vision of gridiron glory. Some of the leagues and teams were well funded, others less so as evidenced by a short, tumultuous existence. In all cases, the players were earnest in their attempts to play because the overwhelming majority would not and never did earn a real living at the endeavor.


HELMET HUT has featured a number of articles noting the minor leagues of the 1960s [ see Helmet News/Reflections: Aug 2007, Aug 2010, June 2013, Sept 2013 ] but those who lived during the era understood that the Continental Football League and Atlantic Coast Football League among others served a valuable purpose. Some AFL and NFL teams utilized their minor league affiliates to allow injured personnel to “play their way back into condition” before returning them to their active rosters. Every minor league player recalls one or two teammates or opponents who were better than a highly drafted star but released from the parent pro club in favor of the bigger name athlete. In some cases the discarded player returned to earn an NFL or AFL living for a number of years. In all cases, minor league players participated for their love of the game, the camaraderie of teammates, and not the paltry money paid to them.


The two prominent Minor Leagues during the 1960s were the Continental and the Atlantic Coast Football Leagues. All of the minor leagues had changing and shifting franchises but the two noted presented a very high level of football and numerous players with true professional talent. Despite franchise re-births and moves augmented by interleague competition for players, a few squads were able to stand out and remain consistent contenders. One of the outstanding teams in the ACFL was the Hartford Knights. Hartford fielded an ACFL team, the Charter Oaks, as early as 1964 but they jumped to the newly formed Continental League for the ’65 season and were out of business after 1967. The Hartford Knights were established by brothers Herb and Marvin “Pete” Savin, local construction industry business owners, where they found immediate success in ’68 and established a working relationship with the NFL Green Bay Packers. Under the leadership of head coach Fred Wallner who piloted the squad through 1971, they were among the most successful teams in the history of minor league football, finishing their inaugural season at 11-1 and capturing the ACFL championship. Wallner was a former All American at Notre Dame who had played as an All Pro for the NFL Cardinals and then the Houston Oilers in their first season, serving the AFL entry as a player-coach after it was determined he was better than the offensive linemen the team had brought to camp. He was an assistant at Marquette and Tulane before taking the Charter Oaks head job and moved to the N.Y. Jets minor league affiliate in Waterbury, CT before returning to Hartford for the 1968 season. With the financial backing of the Savins and decent crowds at Hartford’s Dillon Stadium, the squad proved their mettle, winning the ACFL title in 1968, entering the ’69 season and running their win streak to twenty consecutive games until dropping the season’s final two contests and the championship game to the Pottstown, PA. Firebirds, the Philadelphia Eagles affiliate.


1970 again matched Pottstown and their well-known quarterback Jim “King” Corcoran against the Knights in what became known as the “Snow Bowl” championship game played on December 17. The Knights once more were on the short end of the 31-0 final score. The league barely survived the 1971 season which would be Head Coach Wallner’s last. The four team contingent played a round-robin schedule that left Hartford and the Norfolk Neptunes, a reincarnation of the Pottstown team that had merged with the Virginia squad playing in yet another championship match-up that found the Knights once more on the wrong side of the game ledger. The league was forced to suspend operations for the 1972 season but the Knights remained viable under the leadership of Head Coach Nick Cutro, a veteran of minor league coaching positions. They dominated the lower level Seaboard League, returning to a final, last gasp ACFL season in 1973. The passing of both the Continental and Atlantic Coast Football Leagues left a void in opportunity for those who wished to watch football, play football, and enjoy football. The minor leagues and teams like the Hartford Knights served a very positive and enjoyable purpose.


Giving credit to the Savins for willingly losing money while attempting to operate a well-run and “first class” operation, the Knights were financially limited after 1969 when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle banned NFL affiliation with minor league teams, believing that those without it were at a competitive disadvantage. The Hartford entry had shifted their professional affiliation from the Packers to the Buffalo Bills and losing financial support truly crippled minor league football. Still, the Knights were always well attired in the most modern of equipment and presented well in their black and gold uniforms topped by a Green Bay gold helmet with a white center stripe and black flanking stripes. What became Hartford’s signature Black Knight decal as its official logo was not introduced as their helmet decal until the ’69 season. The original decal on the their game helmets featured a gold Knight on horseback with black highlights but it was understandable that it took some time to reorganize a minor league team in Hartford. Interestingly, Marv Hubbard who had first failed to make the Oakland Raiders active squad in ’68 and instead spent the season with Hartford as the circuit’s leading rusher with 899 yards and a 5.6 yards per carry average, stated that he recalled early references and printed advertising material noting the ’68 Hartford entry as “the Charter Oaks.” Everyone who recalls minor league football and the Hartford Knights also recalls the easy to visualize black shield image that served as the team’s official logo, one that represented true royalty in minor league football history.           
[Author’s Note: for a complete and entertaining history of the Knights and Minor League Football in Connecticut, read Connecticut Gridiron by author William Ryczek]