Monte Lee had a tough decision to make. The former University of Texas all-conference linebacker had always dreamed of starring in the NFL, but after being cut by the Detroit Lions, Lee was at a crossroads. Don Shinnick, starting linebacker for the Baltimore Colts, had broken his arm in a game, and the Colts wanted Lee to replace him. But Lee was under contract with the Mobile Tarpons of the North American Football League (NAFL), and their final game of the season was Saturday night against the Florida Brahmans, led by former University of Florida star Larry Libertore. The winner went to the NAFL Championship game, the loser’s season was over. For Lee, it was, “Do I stay, or do I go?”
Fortunately, Lee did both. Tarpon General Manager Bill Menton negotiated a deal with the Colts whereby Lee would play in the Tarps’ key game, then get on a plane in time for the Colts’ kickoff on Sunday. The story made national newspapers, and on Saturday night, in front of 6,700 fans, Lee watched Tarps’ quarterback John Torok find league leading receiver Hugh McInnis open in the end zone for the game clinching score. Lee had the distinction of playing for two different winners in less than 24 hours. The Tarps had qualified for the NAFL Championship game, to be played at Ladd Stadium the following week.
The Golden Age
The 1960s has been called the “Golden Age of Minor League Football.” Pro football’s popularity was exploding. The NFL and AFL were at war, not only for the best players, but national TV ratings. Today, most people think of minor league football as semipro sandlots and ragtag teams, but it was different in the 1960s. To borrow the SEC’s marketing phrase, it “meant more,” mainly more opportunity to play in the big leagues.
In those days, there were only 14 NFL teams and eight AFL teams, each with 43-man roster limits and no practice squads. By contrast, today there are 32 NFL teams, each with 53-man roster limits, and five-player practice squads. A lot of good football talent, such as Lee and others, were simply caught up in a numbers game. In order to stockpile reserves, NFL and AFL teams entered into “affiliations” or farm team arrangements with minor leagues like the Continental Football League and the Atlantic Coast Football League, but there were not enough teams to go around.
Enter the NAFL. In 1964, 10 owners met in Knoxville, Tennessee, for the purpose of forming a new minor league to provide experience and assistance to parent NFL and AFL teams. Initially, the teams included the Annapolis Sailors, Pennsylvania Mustangs, and Wilmington Comets in the Northern Division, and the Baltimore Broncos, Florida (Lakeland) Brahmans, and the Miami Stars in the Southern Division. Miami ran into financial difficulties and sold their franchise to a group of Mobile investors, who included Dr. Adrian Bodet, City Attorney Fred Collins and Richard Cunningham. Mobile’s home games would be played at the league’s largest venue — Ladd Memorial Stadium. It was determined that the winner of the Southern Division, in which Mobile was placed, would host the championship game. Said AFL commissioner Joe Foss of the new NAFL, “There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a definite need for this level of football in our country.”
The 1965 Season
The exhibition preseason began with a doubleheader in Annapolis. To save money, the Tarps and the Florida Brahmans shared a charter plane to Maryland. Brahmans’ player/coach Larry Libertore, a former Florida Gator great, had invited a prospective player from Louisiana to meet them at the airport to sign his contract and receive his uniform. During the game, Libertore was surprised to see the player he recruited playing against him — in a Tarpons’ uniform! One Florida newspaper referred to the incident as “grid napping.” Karma is a beast; the Tarps would be a victim of a similar incident two months later.
After the exhibition season, Mobile opened at Ladd Stadium with a team many considered to be the best in the league, Philadelphia Eagles’ affiliate Wilmington Comets. The Comets were coached by former Auburn star Tex Warrington and led by former New York Jet and NC State All-American Dick Christy. Mobile Press Register sports editor Dennis Smitherman implored Mobilians to turn out and support their Tarpons. Mobile gained respect by drawing to a 14-14 tie.
The next week, Mobile hosted the Baltimore Broncos and earned their first win. The loss must have been devastating to the Chesapeake Bay city; they folded immediately after the game and were replaced by the league office with the Huntsville Rockets, an independent team.
Crowds grew. There were 4,800 in attendance for a home “close” loss to the Annapolis Sailors, which was the Washington Redskins’ farm club. Approximately 8,400 attended a two-point win against Wilmington. Five thousand showed up for a hard-fought win against former Ole Miss quarterback Glynn Griffing and the Pennsylvania Mustangs, who were affiliated with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Standing at 4-4-1, that win set up the all-important final regular season game against the Brahmans for the Southern Division title.
What is a Tarpon?
A tarpon, nicknamed “silver king,” is a fighting game fish that must be played to boat. The football Tarpons fought and played, as well. Former Ladd Stadium manager and Tarpon game referee Paul Christopher said he nearly passed out from the smell of alcohol coming from the Tarpons’ bench. Yet, it did not seem to affect their play.
The Tarps were coached by University Military School (UMS) legend Ed Baker, a nominee to the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame. General Manager Bill Menton was a sports broadcaster who later became a Mobile County commissioner and Alabama state senator. For signal caller, Menton brought in John Torok, a New York Giant castoff who once owned all-time total offense records for college football at Arizona State. The top receiving threat was Mobile native Hugh McInnis, former St. Louis Cardinal and Detroit Lions tight end, listed for many years in the AFA Minor League Record Book as having the most catches in a season. (Yes, there is a minor league record book and also a hall of fame!) In the home win against Pennsylvania, McInnis was a one-man show, hauling in 14 passes for 176 yards, kicking a 24-yard field goal, and booting four extra points. Art Strahan, uncle of former New York Giant and current morning television host Michael Strahan, anchored the defensive line, before moving on to a successful career with the Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons. It should not be overlooked that the Tarpons were an integrated football team in 1965, a rarity in the Deep South. It would be five years before an integrated team took the field for Bear Bryant and the University of Alabama.
Minor leagues in the ‘60s were not only useful for training and stockpiling NFL talent but also instrumental in providing experience for area high school coaches. The Tarps were no exception. Starting for the Tarps were guard Joe Dean, who went on to fame coaching UMS, McGill Institute, and Fairhope High School, winning the Chuck Maxime Memorial Award for lifetime achievement posthumously in 2014, and end Don Jennings, a veteran of more than 50 years of high school coaching in the Mobile area. Jennings finished his career as defensive coordinator for UMS-Wright, winning five state championships along the way.
Most of the Tarps’ rushing yards were provided by B.W. Cheeks from HBCU Texas Southern. Cheeks almost did not make the championship game. On November 27, Cheeks, Strahan and tackle Bobby Evans were called up by the Tarps’ “Parent Club,” the Houston Oilers, due to injuries, which had depleted the Oilers’ roster. Cheeks returned only to be met by karma and another grid-napping incident. This story made national news and involved the grid-napping of Cheeks by the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League. Menton described the incident as a “cloak and dagger operation,” having told the Lions that Cheeks was not available. Menton demanded Cheeks’ return from Canada, and he made it back to Mobile in time for the championship game against the Annapolis Sailors.
The Championship Game and Aftermath
Cheeks’ return was the good news. That, and the almost 10,000 fans on hand at Ladd Stadium to cheer on the team. The bad news was that the Annapolis Sailors, a 10-point favorite, were the class of the league. Following Baltimore’s demise, the Sailors, already loaded with Washington Redskins’ prospects, took in the best of the former Broncos, most notably running back Hezekiah Braxton. Braxton was once called the “best running back east of the Mississippi regardless of league.” The Sailors were ably quarterbacked by former Sewanee Little College All-American M.L. Agnew, who threw a touchdown pass in route to the 40-13 win. There certainly was no shame in losing to this juggernaut; following their championship victory, the Sailors seceded from the NAFL, moved to Virginia, and joined the more established Atlantic Coast Football League, winning the next two championships in that league.
Mobile’s Rich Koeper, McInnis, Cheeks, Evans, Lee and safety Dick Compton were named to the All-League team.
All good things must come to an end. After Annapolis sailed out of the NAFL, they were followed by all the other teams in the Northern Division. The league replaced them with Chattanooga, Knoxville and Savannah. Unless your idea of North America is somewhere south of the Mason Dixon line, from all appearances, the NAFL had lost its national scope. The big name players moved on, Mobile dropped out midway through 1966, and the NAFL folded. Minor league football lost its relevance after the NFL-AFL merger and expansion. Good players no longer had a place to showcase their talent. Left behind were some great memories, future high school coaching legends, and the legacy of an integrated and successful football team, representative of its city and its time.