The Spring/Summer version of American football has historically had a difficult time surviving even without the competition from high school, college or pro football. The Jacksonville Firebirds had some brief success during the summers of 1979-1981 in Jacksonville, Florida with the American Football Association (AFA). The AFA was established shortly after the demise of the World Football League (WFL) which disbanded in 1976 and created a league with teams mostly in the Southeastern United States.
The Firebirds tapped into some of the top high school coaches in the Jacksonville area, such as Bob Williams, Corky Rogers, Jimmie Johnson and Jerry Disch. Among the players were former University of Florida quarterbacks Don Gaffney and Jimmy Fisher.
The team played their first game on May 26,1979 against the Kentucky Trackers. The Firebirds won 48-14 in front of a crowd of 15,102 in the Gator Bowl. That kind of attendance was the exception for most AFA teams in the league. At the time, Jacksonville football fans were hungry for a team after both the Jacksonville Sharks and Express failed along with the World Football League (WFL).
The Firebirds played their home games at the Gator Bowl and drew over 153,000 fans for 13 games with respectable competition on the field during their first season and averaged 12,930 fans per game.
Gaffney had an outstanding season for the Firebirds in 1979 going 292 of 416 pass attempts for 4,290 yards and 50 touchdowns. Gaffney led the Firebirds to the AFA title. They defeated the Carolina Chargers in front of over 22,000 fans which is currently the fifth largest single game crowd for a semi-pro football game. (https://www.americanfootballassn.com/attendance-records.html)
Kicker Allan Leavitt kicked the Firebirds’ longest field goal in a game against the Carolina Chargers on August 9, 1980 when he booted a 55-yard field goal in an 19-18 win. Leavitt had played college football at the University of Georgia (1973-1976) and one season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the National Football League (NFL) in 1977.
The Firebirds went 26-13 during their three seasons of existence. The team’s biggest rivalries were the Orlando Americans, Alabama Vulcans and Carolina Chargers.
They played their final game on August 23, 1981 where they lost in a first round playoff game against the Chicago Fire, 24-17. The Firebirds were threatening to score late in the game and were prepared to go for two according to game reports from that final contest.
The success of the team finally ran out before the 1982 season as the franchise was rumored to move to Lake City, Florida. The team was eventually sold and renamed the Sunbirds. The AFA played one more season and folded.
Defeated Alabama Vulcans, 28-21
Defeated Carolina Chargers, 27-7
Lost to Chicago Fire, 24-17
If you want some really good information on the AFA, check out http://www.birminghamprosports.com/ website. (Thanks to Gene Crowley for permission to use photos from his website. His site has a lot of photos and information you won’t find anywhere else.)
If you would like more information about the American Football Association and other minor league football teams, check out this book on Amazon: