Friday Flashback: Jacksonville Firebirds

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).

Gaffney in a game against the Arkansas Champs
(Firebirds won 44-6)

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.

YearRecordPlayoffs
197912-3First Round
Defeated Alabama Vulcans, 28-21
Championship
Defeated Carolina Chargers, 27-7
19807-5None
19817-5First Round
Lost to Chicago Fire, 24-17
Jacksonville Firebirds Season-by-Season Results

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.)

Firebirds vs. Alabama Vulcans (1979)
Firebirds vs. Carolina Chargers in 1979 AFA Championship Game

If you would like more information about the American Football Association and other minor league football teams, check out this book on Amazon:

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Friday Flashback: American Football Association

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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.

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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).