By Dr. Ken 


In an era when one wouldn’t fear a law suit because a woman wearing six-inch high heels slipped on the sidewalk while walking past one’s home, most National and American Football League teams often invited in excess of one-hundred-and-twenty prospects to their summer camp try-outs. Many teams, especially when the AFL was getting off the ground, would then bring in another fifty or more to evaluate throughout the duration of the camp that could last up to ten weeks in length. Obviously, the procedure was grueling and the camp experience, for those who made it through the entire ordeal, included six pre-season or “exhibition” games. Without OTAs, mini-camps, salary caps, stringent insurance regulations, and the threat of injury related lawsuits, it was a period of time where one of the coaches on staff could go to the local butcher, be told about the butcher’s “300 pound nephew who was a pretty good high school player,” and as a favor to the local shopkeeper, bring the young man into camp for a look-see. The period also featured high level minor league football play that included seasons where some of the teams received financial assistance, equipment, and coaching staff use from NFL affiliates. Recommended reading that will provide a very complete picture of what was an enjoyable and surprisingly high quality phenomenon is the book Outsiders II, Minor League And Independent Football 1951 – 1985 by well known author Bob Gill with Todd Maher and Steve Brainerd. All three gentlemen are experts on the numerous minor league teams that proliferated across the United States throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s and the statistical information related to the leagues. The book is a culmination of that knowledge and both a terrific reference and pleasurable reading experience.


Former Toledo standout and Honorable Mention All Mid America Conference guard Fred Zimmerman made his mark at linebacker for the 1967 Charlston Rockets. Here he drags down an Orlando Panthers running back. Zimmerman was a 1966 draftee of the Houston Oilers who played with Philadelphia and Charleston of the Continental Football League 


As difficult as training camp was and without the pay incentives typical of today’s era, aspiring players still viewed the opportunity to participate as a dream come true. The bonus for some, was a chance to move to the NFL or AFL’s minor league affiliate if they were cut during the parent team’s training camp. On a personal note, I had aspirations but lacked the talent to play football at the level of former high school and college teammates who did in fact go on to NFL or AFL careers of varying length. However, I benefited from the relatively lax requirements needed to get an invitation to camp though I did not last long. The summary of my experience was assignment to, and a short stint with the Westchester Bulls of the Atlantic Coast Football League, one of the more competitive minor leagues and one, during my stay in 1968, that coincided with affiliation and assistance from the New York Giants. Unfortunately, when one hears “minor league football” they think “sandlot” or something along the lines depicted in the disappointing movie of 2006, “Invincible.”  


Tough, scrappy Vince Papale, special teams standout and wide receiver for the Vermeil era Eagles


Actor Mark Wahlberg, suitably athletic and certainly likable in the role, did a credible job as Papale on screen, but the movie did not give enough credit to Papale’s years with the WFL in helping to develop his football skills


The movie of course was about the football career of Vincent Papale, a member of the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League and the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. If one blinked, one would have thought that Papale, who should be given tremendous credit for his dedication, toughness, and focus, went from pick-up games played in muddy parking fields with his bar buddies, directly to the Eagles through a series of fortuitous events. That he was an accomplished athlete who had the opportunity to hone his receiving and special teams skills with the World Football League after time in the Seaboard League was more or less glossed over. This of course made for a better story but the so-called minor leagues with many fans including the World Football League in that category, were far from “minor” in that there were talented players and coaches, a number of whom eventually had lengthy careers as players or coaches in “the big leagues.” Papale of course was one of those, an individual who actually “made it” and he served as an inspiration to other fringe players, a term used with a great deal of respect and referring to very talented football players who did not measure up to the exceptionally stringent professional standards of their era. During one of my daily meetings at the local Rockville Centre, N.Y. Starbucks store with my friend Phillip, he presented a hockey question, and example that very much summed up the situation as it related to pro football in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. “During the days of the ‘Original Six’ hockey teams up until 1967, what did you do if you were the tenth best goalie in the entire world?” The answer of course, was obvious: “You sat on the bench!” and with only six starting goalies in all of professional hockey throughout the entire world of professional sports, even the seventh best goalie in the world sat on the bench. With twelve National Football League teams until 1960, the numbers were obviously and quite limited. Even into the 1970 season when the expanded NFL and upstart American Football League merger allowed for a total of twenty-six teams that carried a roster of forty players each, “the math” yields a total of 1040 active, professional football players. You could still be extraordinarily talented yet not come close to making a pro squad.


Those that were “final cuts” or who “almost made it” often continued their quest for an NFL roster spot or indulged a true love for playing the game within the confines of the minor leagues that populated the country. Some of the leagues demonstrated a higher level of play than others. In most instances however, some individual players were absolutely terrific and had established NFL or AFL veterans wondering why they did not make it. In other cases, enough talent was flashed with a year or two of varying success in the pro leagues, but injury or “circumstance” relegated the specific performer to the minor leagues. During my time with the Bulls, wide receiver Tom Cassese from C.W. Post University would have been included on the list of those who "should have made it" after a season with the Denver Broncos. He later was my younger brother's freshmen team coach at Post and became one of the all time greatest high school coaches in the history of Long Island and New York State. Linebacker Bob Fiorini, a linebacker out of Indiana and friend Joe Tuths of Columbia University (see Helmet News/Reflections of August 2007 at ) were hard hitters that many believe fell to the numbers game.

From reluctant minor leaguer to unlikely hero of the 1967 NFL Championship Game, former Yale star Chuck Mercein sparked dreams among many on the fringes of the NFL and AFL


Some, like Chuck Mercein who became a hero in the famous Ice Bowl match up between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, were demoted to the minor leagues and once again worked their way back to an NFL or AFL active roster. Mercein, a third round draft choice of the N.Y. Giants in 1965, was productive as one of the team’s “Baby Bull” running backs and began the ’67 season with the Giants before being assigned to the Westchester Bulls. He hooked on with Green Bay in time to appear in six games with the Packers, and of course, sparkled on the game winning drive that propelled the Pack to their second Super Bowl appearance. Many of the Atlantic Coast Football League or Continental Football League teams were utilized to allow injured players to recover and “play themselves into shape” before returning to the NFL or AFL parent team while others “stashed” players for various periods of time, if they wanted to keep them within the organization but had no room on the active roster. The addition of true, “NFL talented” players tended to make some of the minor league teams extremely strong and the level of play very entertaining and nothing short of very good.