Football at Memorial Day weekend? In the summer of 1981 I became a fan of the short-lived Jacksonville Firebirds of the American Football Association (AFA). The Firebirds were a part of a minor league which played in the summer – outdoors – before the United States Football League (USFL) or Arena Football were even in existence.
The AFA lasted from 1978 through 1983. As you can imagine, the league went through several franchises and, with the exception of a few teams, most were unstable. Most of the teams were located in the Southeastern United States and never intended to compete with the National Football League (NFL) which was one of the reasons they played a summer schedule. Players were paid one percent of gross gate revenue, which basically meant minimum wage. The season opened Memorial Day weekend and ended in late August.
Former Washington Redskins’ quarterback Billy Kilmer was the league’s commissioner in 1981 and only served as commissioner for one season.
Some of the leagues most successful teams were the Alabama Magic, Jacksonville Firebirds, Carolina Chargers, San Antonio Charros, Virginia Hunters, Shreveport Steamers, West Virginia Rockets and Chicago Fire.
The Firebirds initially drew big crowds to the Gator Bowl but the instability of the league eventually caused the crowds to dwindle as well as the lack of appeal of summer football. The Firebirds were sold and renamed to the Sunbirds in their last season as well as attempts to move their home games out of the Gator Bowl.
The most notable players that played in the league were former University of Florida star Don Gaffney who played for the Firebirds and Jerry Golsteyn was originally drafted by the New York Giants in 1977, played quarterback for the Orlando Americans and later as backup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The league stumbled along during most of its years of existence until finally surrendering the summer to the United States Football League (USFL).