The "Premature Fatality" of the Atlanta Wallbangers
Atlanta first heard of what became the Super Soccer League in February 1978 as Bill Putnam announced that his International Indoor Soccer League would have an Atlanta team in their league launching in May. By the end of March, the IISL had become the SSL when Putnam combined forces with Jerry Saperstein, the son of the founder of the Harlem Globetrotters. Their press conference in early April included an Atlanta team led by Larry Fricks. That group wanted to launch in 1979 and balked at the rental costs presented by The Omni. When they pulled out, Putnam put together funding of his own to take the team forward and prepare for the upcoming season.
The inaugural Super Soccer League draft was set for May 31, 1978. Atlanta’s unnamed team was set to take part and build the first professional soccer team, indoors or outdoors, to play in the city since the Atlanta Apollos disbanded in late 1973. Things did not go exactly as planned in New York city on the final day of May.
Atlanta walked away with fourteen additions to its roster, but the SSL ended the day with four subtractions from theirs (Rebecca Linn, “Atlanta Drafts Players”, 1-D). While the league had a three-year national TV contract reportedly, it did not have a schedule for its inaugural season that was supposed to start in a month. Atlanta’s opener was set for July 7 at The Omni, but the opponent was still unknown. Four teams disappearing on draft day probably complicated format. New York, Washington, Miami, Atlanta, Birmingham, Shreveport, Los Angeles, and San Francisco were the teams that remained, and “have put their money ($50,000) on the table,” according to a league spokesman.
Bill Putnam and Robert Williams drafted from the SSL player pool and picked up ten players already signed by the league. Putnam said that the coach would be picked by the end of the week and the league said the schedule would be “formalized” next week.
The ten players drafted that were already under contract with the SSL, in the order they were picked:
1- Kurt Kuykendall: 25-year old goalkeeper originally from Chicago. 3rd-team All-American at American University in 1973, and a first round draft pick of the Washington Diplomats in 1974. After two seasons as the back-up with the New York Cosmos, Kuykendall moved out west to play for the American Soccer League’s California Sunshine. Kuykendall had returned to the DC area and become a real estate broker, and was called into duty for one indoor match in January 1978 with the Diplomats before joining the SSL draft pool. 2- Howard Farley: 26-year old attacker who was “currently playing in the Scottish soccer league.” 3- Denny Wuerner: 26-year old defender who won three NCAA championships with St. Louis University. He was drafted by the Boston Minutemen in 1974 and later played in the American Soccer League with the New Jersey Americans. 4- Matthew McCall: 19-year old defender with experience in the Scottish league. 5- Michael Wilson: 21-year old midfielder with experience in Scotland and South Africa who was also said to have indoor soccer experience. 6- Jim Bokern: 26-year old attacker who won three NCAA titles at St. Louis University. He was drafted by the St. Louis Stars of the NASL and played in nearly fifty matches with them over three years. He played for amateur powerhouse St. Louis Kutis SC while winning the 1977 Missouri High School Coach of the Year award as he led Oakville High School to the state championship. 7- William Hladky: Goalkeeper from New York who spent time with the Cosmos along with gaining some indoor experience. 8- Andrew Aitken: 21-year old defender with experience in Scotland and indoors. 9- Alexander Telfer: 21-year old defender with experience in Scotland and indoors. 10- Derek Hargreaves: 19-year old midfielder with experience in Asia with the Hong Kong Rangers along with time in the Scottish league.
Four players were drafted who had not signed contracts yet with the league:
1- Rick DiCarlo: Forward from Baltimore who worked for Hallmark Cards in Atlanta. 2- Hector Galize: Peruvian midfielder who played with the Miami Toros in the NASL in 1975. 3- Jimmy Tonrey: Defender from Boston. 4- Henry Hill: British midfielder with experience in the Scottish league.
A league spokesperson reported that players would be paid between $10,000 and $18,000 for the season at the draft on May 31 (George Cunningham, “Atlanta’s DiCarlo Confused”, 1-D). Rick DiCarlo’s contract, on SSL letterhead but without a signature, was at a rate of $250 per week for sixteen weeks, totalling $4,000. The contract did include medical insurance, return air fare home, an apartment to be shared with one or two players, and the league said it would obtain visas for players from overseas. Putnam later confirmed the details of the contract that DiCarlo gave to The Atlanta Constitution.
“My problem is that I have a very good position with Hallmark Cards. I hope to get their permission to play soccer as a sideline. Introducing myself to a client as a member of the Atlanta soccer team would be a good calling card, wouldn’t it?” DiCarlo said. He was hoping to rekindle his soccer career that had taken him from Campbell College in North Carolina to the second division in Hungary.
DiCarlo was hopeful for the SSL’s success so American players would have more opportunities. “A lot of very good American players got out of the NASL because U.S. players don’t make much. Kyle Rote Jr. is probably the highest paid American, and I would guess he doesn’t make more than $20,000. Your foreign players make much more. This has hurt our ego, as if we were token Americans. Some of this nation’s best players aren’t playing because they don’t think they are being treated fairly,” DiCarlo said.
While DiCarlo hoped that things would work out, the team who drafted him named Alan Hamlyn as their coach (Rebecca Linn, “Hamlyn’s Named Coach, Seeks 3rd Atlanta ‘Kick’”, 1-D). Hamlyn played for both the Chiefs and the Apollos from 1970-1973 before spending time with the Miami Toros and Ft. Lauderdale Strikers before returning to Atlanta. Regarding his draft picks, Hamlyn said, “I’ve only seen a couple of the players, the ones who were in the NASL. Mostly we were going on recommendations of some people who know soccer players for picking the rest of the team.”
Hamlyn also hoped to find a few players in a tryout camp ahead of preseason training, to be held June 15-17 at Lakewood Stadium (“Tryouts for Soccer”, 2-D). “Atlanta has a good amateur league that I have an affection for since that’s where I got my start. I would hope we would be able to get something from that,” Hamlyn said. He also did not rule out the possibility of playing himself, since he was listed as a player-coach.
According to a team official, 1,300 entries were submitted to the team in a Name The Team contest organized by a local television station (Al Thomy, “Intoxicating Name… Even Without Harvey”, 10-D). Marietta’s Rick Ronveaux was “one of several” who entered the winning name of Wallbangers (“Soccer Picks Wallbangers As Nickname”, 2-D). The team official said that the name “ties in to the Atlanta franchise since the team will be playing on artificial turf in the Omni’s walled hockey rink.”
Putnam said, “It’s an active name. The name has unlimited possibilities in promotions and advertising. Few people are neutral about it. They either like or dislike it, there’s no in-between.” He went on to say, “You must admit it’s a different kind of name, and, as I said, either you like it or you don’t.”
It was an interesting strategy to say the least. Putnam said, “Starting a new concept is not easy. There’s so many details connected with putting a team in an arena.” Tentatively, the team was preparing for an opener on July 13, but the schedule was not completed as Hamlyn was observing free agents at a local tryout. “We’ll probably meet this week and work out the schedule. Right now we’re undecided whether to have 16, 14 or 13 home games. We’re still working on that.”
The league was also working to keep travel costs down with two teams based on the West Coast. “My proposal is that we’d play two games on each trip to hold down expenses. No schedule can be made or announced until a decision is made on road trips.”
One of those trips out West became less likely at league meetings in Atlanta on June 15 where it was disclosed that the Los Angeles entry “has problems” and the SSL set a deadline of the evening of June 19 to solve them (“Super Soccer Losing L.A.”, 2-D). The thought at the time was that San Francisco would wait to launch if they did not have a travel partner on the West Coast. Putnam said, “With eight or six teams, the league will operate.”
Meanwhile, tryouts began for the Atlanta Wallbangers at Lakewood Stadium (Al Thomy, “Potential Wallbangers Boys Next Door”, 3-C.). 25 players were put through the paces by Alan Hamlyn, all with the goal of earning a weekly paycheck of $250. Former Atlanta Chiefs defender Henry Largie was one of them, he was currently working for the Atlanta Housing Authority. When asked if soccer would make it, Largie said, “High hopes - who knows? What can I say? But, one day, one day, soccer is really going to take off in this country and the rest of the world will wonder what hit them.”
Partially deaf, three-year all-state goalkeeper in Ohio, Todd Stalder was part of the group trying to make the squad. Mike Shue, a teacher at Trickum Middle School and former college standout was another. Sonny Papacsi, a native of Hungary, brought two of his players from the Atlanta District Amateur Soccer League to the tryouts. All were chasing their dreams, all were hoping that there would be an Atlanta team to call home.
In the midst of this, the World Cup in Argentina was getting lots of attention in the local media. The Atlanta Constitution ran daily updates on the competition. The newspaper also ran consistent updates on the North American Soccer League, who was in the midst of a season that saw six new expansion teams join the circuit. Atlanta nearly had one of those, but the investors who were considering it chose Memphis instead of exploring the option of playing at Grant Field. The Rogues were joined by teams in Philadelphia, New England, Houston, Detroit, and Colorado. Four teams moved prior to the start of the 1978 season as well, with commissioner Phil Woosnam opening the door to other moves ahead of 1979.
The deadline for the Super Soccer League’s franchise in Los Angeles arrived and they pulled out of the league (Al Thomy, “Super Soccer Not So Super”, p. 3-D). They took San Francisco with them. Unexpectedly, New York and Washington also made noises about withdrawing from the league and the SSL was in major trouble. Atlanta, Miami, Shreveport, and Birmingham preferred to start playing in 1978, but league president Jerry Saperstein said he “would not speculate” on the league’s status until after a poll of the teams was completed.
Dennis Murphy, the owner of the San Francisco team, didn’t want to fold completely. “Instead of rushing and trying to do everything in a hurry, I think it wise to wait until we’re really ready,” Murphy said. “We want to stay in, pay our dues and be ready to play in ‘79.” He hoped for teams to travel to the West Coast to play exhibitions in 1978. He also hoped to have at least four teams on the West Coast. “Travel-wise and otherwise, it would have been a lot easier with four teams on the Coast”
Atlanta’s Putnam said that the SSL originally had four teams out West, but two pulled out leaving San Francisco and Los Angeles on their own. He also said it was possible that the league wouldn’t operate in 1978, “but personally, I think it’s slim. If the West Coast teams withdraw - and I’m not surprised that they would - I think we could make it with six clubs.”
The Wallbangers were preparing for their first season, with twenty players from the tryout camp being invited to continue training with the drafted players. Shreveport and Birmingham were also preparing for training camps. The Omni waited for an update on the schedule. The building’s president, Bob Kent, said, “I understand they’re having some problems, but as far as the physical plant is concerned, we’re ready to go. We’re just waiting to hear from Mr. Putnam.”
The league, and the Atlanta franchise at least, were being run out of people’s homes (Al Thomy, “SSL Means Super Shaky League”, p. 3-D). Jerry Saperstein was working out of his residence in Miami instead of New York City as had been advertised. Putnam and Hamlyn were waiting to move into an office complex while they waited to see if the league could stabilize.
Unfortunately for the Wallbangers, Putnam’s next move was to announce that the Super Soccer League had pushed its start back to the spring of 1979 (Al Thomy, “Super Soccer League Is A Premature Fatality”, 1-D). “What it boiled down to was only three teams -- Atlanta, Birmingham and Shreveport -- were really ready to go. Miami was a little behind the rest of us. As anxious as I was to get rolling, I couldn’t act against my better judgement.” The next steps for the SSL were to find a new owner in Los Angeles, “resurrect the West Coast and add three more cities to the league.” Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia also had owners who had expressed interest in a 1979 start.
Putnam said Alan Hamlyn would be retained by the team to “work with youth groups and build up interest for next year.” The players who had been signed to league contracts were contingent upon making a team, Putnam said. League officials also said that five teams (Atlanta, Birmingham, Miami, San Francisco, and Shreveport) paid their $50,000 entry fees into the league.
With the Wallbangers on ice, what was to come for professional soccer in Atlanta? Things seemed to be in a holding pattern, but things were happening behind the scenes that would result in professional soccer returning to Atlanta for the 1979 season.
Linn, Rebecca. “Atlanta Drafts Players.” The Atlanta Constitution, 1 June 1978, p. 1-D. Newspapers.com.
Cunningham, George. “Atlanta’s DiCarlo Confused.” The Atlanta Constitution, 2 June 1978, p. 1-D. Newspapers.com.
Linn, Rebecca. “Hamlyn’s Named Coach, Seeks 3rd Atlanta ‘Kick’.” The Atlanta Constitution, 2 June 1978, p. 1-D. Newspapers.com.
“Tryouts For Soccer.” The Atlanta Constitution, 9 June 1978, p. 2-D. Newspapers.com.
Al Thomy, “Intoxicating Name… Even Without Harvey.” The Atlanta Constitution, 15 June 1978, p. 10-D. Newspapers.com.
“Soccer Picks Wallbangers As Nickname.” The Atlanta Constitution, 12 June 1978, p. 2-D. Newspapers.com.
“Super Soccer Losing L.A.” The Atlanta Constitution, 16 June 1978, p. 2-D. Newspapers.com.
Thomy, Al. “Potential Wallbangers Boys Next Door.” The Atlanta Constitution, 17 June 1978, p. 3-C. Newspapers.com.
Thomy, Al. “Super Soccer Not So Super.” The Atlanta Constitution, 20 June 1978, p. 3-D. Newspapers.com.
Thomy, Al. “SSL Means Super Shaky League.” The Atlanta Constitution, 20 June 1978, p. 3-D. Newspapers.com.
Thomy, Al. “Super Soccer League Is A Premature Fatality.” The Atlanta Constitution, 22 June 1978, p. 1-D. Newspapers.com.