Somewhere out there, quite possibly in the great beyond — looking up, of course, not downward with the angels — is one of, if not THE, greatest con artists ever to come this way.
The name (as far as we know, and that’s subject to debate) was Hal Shapiro, who arrived in the summer of 1967 and was gone little more than six months later, sneaking away in the wee small hours of the morning. It would be reasonable to say nobody created more memories — few good but, over time, some borderline funny — in such a short period here.
“You don’t have enough space in the paper to put in all the crap about him,” said Don “Red” Christman, who, more than most, knew Shapiro up close and personal — too close as far as he was concerned. “He was the biggest [bleep] I’ve ever known in my life.”
All right, kiddies, it’s time to gather round for our final installment on Richmond’s taste of semi-pro football back in the day. This is Volume XXXIII, Part Deux: “I Can Still See His Footprints in the Concrete.”
When last we met, the 1966 Rebels were out of business after three seasons of some highs and many lows. Fan interest was in direct proportion to the team’s record, which was 4-11-1. Financial losses were devastating, too — like more than $400,000 floating down the drain.
The wheels were off and rolling away. Two general managers had come and gone. Attempts to sell the franchise understandably came up short. By late December, 1966, the casket was in place. On April 28, 1967, the body officially was ready for burial.
There’s no crying in football. If there were tears, they quickly dried. H. Shapiro to the rescue. A come-here from up north, he said he was about to start up a Rebels’ replacement team called the Mustangs (true). They would play in a new league, the United American Professional Football League (false). Former Redskins running back Dick James would be the coach (true). He had been here since the previous season, brought in to play for the Rebels but got a sportscasting job with Channel 12 to go with an insurance-selling gig that precluded football.
As it turned out, the Mustangs were loaded — with such holdovers as Christman, a center/linebacker; defensive backs Jim Rossi, a much-decorated quarterback at N.C. State, and Lloyd Swelnis; wideout Dave Robbins; and Merv Holland, a QB who should have been — at worst — a backup in the NFL. The so-called league was the first of many con jobs by the con man Shapiro. There was no such animal as the UAPFL.
He scheduled games, for the most part, with embarrassingly low-caliber opponents like the Springford (Pa.) Marauders, who won 68-0 over the Woodbury Bulldogs the week after losing 72-love to the Mustangs. Or the Georgia Raiders, who attracted a crowd estimated at 100 to a home game in Marietta en route to an overall record of 1-4, including two losses to the Mustangs by a total of 118-0.
According to profootballarchives.com, the New Hampshire (Manchester) Colts of the NATFL (don’t ask) were 0-5 through Sept. 9 then got together for one more game (Oct. 21), dropping an 87-0 blowout here. At least Shapiro didn’t schedule the mighty Woodbury Bulldogs — which isn’t to say he didn’t try.
“It seemed like sandlot ball. Some of the [opposing] players played like high school kids,” Swelnis said recently. “It was sad.”
From Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., by way of the semi-pro Grand Rapids (Mich.) Blazers, he came to Richmond to play for the Rebels in 1966 — and never left. Armed with a teaching degree, Swelnis taught mechanical drawing and later, with a Masters from VCU, reading while becoming a coaching icon at Thomas Jefferson and Manchester high schools. The football stadium at Manchester is named for Swelnis, 81, who had a startling 14 interceptions with the Mustangs. “Almost embarrassing,” he said.
The ‘67 campaign opened with the Mustangs pitching shutouts against the Raiders (40-0), Chattanooga Redskins (73-0), Savannah Indians (105-0) and Raiders again (78-0) in Asheville, N.C. That was followed by 91-7 over Knoxville here and 81-14 against the Bears there.
Only once did the Mustangs really try to pour it on. Against Savannah, “one of their players spit in the face of one of our players,” Robbins recalled. “Dick James said, ‘Beat them to death.’” Five of Robbins’ 11 touchdown receptions — before a knee injury ended his season after five games — came against the Indians. “We had an awfully good team,” Robbins, 78, said.
Six games down, and Richmond was well on its way to setting a semi-pro points-per-game record of 64.5 that still stands 53 years later. That is according to the American Football Association, which is dedicated to semi-pro/minor league football, has a hall of fame, and keeps records, too. Overall, the Mustangs scored 839 points (12 games) which is third behind No. 1 (903, 16 games in 2012) and No. 2 (844, 16 games in 2002).
Despite the absurdity of it all, CBS television dispatched essayist Heywood Hale Broun to do a feature on the team. An author, sportscaster, commentator and actor, “Woody” spent more than two decades in the network’s toy department, working stories big and small including the Olympics, Kentucky Derby, Super Bowl … and your Mustangs. He died at age 83 in 2001.
On the field it was great, off the field not so great. Early on, it was apparent to Christman that Shapiro wasn’t on the up and up. The veteran All-Southern Conference Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner at the University of Richmomd was working for Allied Van Lines, and Shapiro asked him to move his stuff from Bryn Mawr, Pa. “I went up there with a big truck, and this guy drives up and asks; ‘What are you doing?’ … ‘What does it look like I’m doing?’” Christman, 84, recalled last week.
“He says, ‘[Shapiro] owes me three months back rent, and you’re not moving anything until I get a check [wired] from Western Union.’ I call Shapiro. He calls the guy an SOB … and sends the money, around $4,000 I think it was. While we’re waiting, I go through his dresser drawers and find all these warrants and bills and court dates. By then I was sure something was wrong.”
Christman returned to Richmond, “and the next day I go to get my money. And Shapiro says, ‘Red, we have a problem: there’s some jewelry missing.’ I said. ‘You’re full of it … I went through your drawers. I want to be paid NOW! CASH!’ And he did.”
The Mustangs lost one game, a 10-9 decision Oct. 2 in San Antonio, Texas, against the unbeaten Toros, who dominated the Texas Professional Football League. By then Shapiro was bouncing checks to his players. Trying to erase some of his mounting losses, unbeknownst to the players, he bet the game’s guarantee — said to be around $10,000 — on a Mustangs’ victory.
“In all fairness, we got screwed by the officials. They could have been in on [the bet], for all I know,” Christman said. “After the game, he comes into the locker room and collapses in front of me and [lineman] Doug McNeil into a pile of dirty uniforms. I said, ‘Let the SOB die.”
Shapiro was pulling the old fake-heart-attack trick for sympathy but got none. On arrival back in Richmond, he put himself in the hospital for a few days.
Shapiro came to mind when Sandy Reiss, who ran hockey’s Richmond Rifles (1979-80), did likewise after the players threatened him with bodily harm.
Actually, the stories are more entertaining than the games became. See half-a-dozen routs, and you’ve seen them all. Christman continues: “We had our office in a trailer next to City Stadium, and the week after the San Antonio game, this kid comes into the locker room. ‘Where’s Hal Shapiro?’ … I ask: ‘What did he do?’ … ‘He bought a pair of Florsheims from me and the check bounced.’… ‘What are you going to do?’ … ‘I’m here to take the shoes back.’ And I said, ‘he’s over there in that trailer.’”
The kid leaves, and shortly thereafter here comes Shapiro, “I’ll remember this until the day I die,” Christman said, “He walked in, barefoot, on the old stadium floor, and I can still see his footprints in the concrete. And he called me a troublemaker.”
And the checks kept bouncing. Most of the players made $200 a week. Robbins said he “always cashed his checks right away.” Others kept at least one ($163.29 after taxes) as a souvenir. One player, according to Robbins, “saved every check, saying he was going to buy a new car and, at the end of the year, he had nothing.”
Finally, the players threatened a walkout. They hadn’t been paid in five weeks. Shapiro first got them to relinquish all claims to back pay then, saying he was “busted,” closed the Mustangs on Nov. 1 after nine games. Waiting in the wings was 39-year-old Bill Templeton, general manager of Richmond Chrysler/Plymouth, recruited by Holland and Rossi, who were selling cars when they weren’t throwing footballs or intercepting them.
The new Roadrunners, formerly called Mustangs, played three more games in 1967, destroying the Springford Mauraders before proving how good they really were. First, they blanked the Alexandria-based Virginia Sailors (23-0) who would win the Atlantic Coast Football League title. Then, in a rematch with the Toros, who were making quite a name for themselves as “an unstoppable machine,” according to their local paper, the Roadrunners (nee Mustangs) returned to San Antonio and got sweet revenge 30-7.
The teams were scheduled tentatively a third time to meet here in December. That was scrubbed after the Toros failed to come up with the entire $10,000 guarantee for the second matchup and were sued by Roadrunners’ management.
Meanwhile, Shapiro, who said he was upwards of $25,000 in debt including about $14,000 owed the players, pledged to stay here and pay it off. It wasn’t long, however, before he called another moving company (not Allied) to get him out of town under cover of night.
“I never heard from him again. I don’t know anyone who has,” Christman said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s dead.”
In 1968, the Roadrunners joined the ACFL, and it was pretty much downhill from there. The team was getting long of tooth, with James, 34, who started the season as player/coach but gave up the playing part after four games; the oft-injured Christman, 32, now an assistant coach; Barber, 32, a versatile wideout, and Swelnis, 29. And Holland got a promotion from Ford Motor Co., and retired.
Another veteran, kicker Bill Joyner, was the leading scorer (61 points/13 field goals) as the Roadrunners finished 4-7-1. Al Woodall took over at QB after being dismissed from Duke in a cheating scandal and played well enough — 2,144 yards passing, with an 80.1 rating — to be drafted in the second round by the New York Jets. The Roadrunners, so explosive the previous season, scored a total of 29 touchdowns. Woodall accounted for 14 passing, Robbins six receiving (on 46 catches in all).
At least there was one good story. Swelnis tells it on Woodall: “He drove my car to the airport to meet [Jets’ coach] Weeb Ewbank. He returned the car, and there, in the back seat, I find an envelope with a check made out to him for $25,000. He was kind of a dingbat.” And, despite his … ahh, eccentricities, Woodall replaced Joe Namath as Jets’ QB and managed to spend all or parts of six seasons (1969-74) in the NFL.
The next two years on the local semi-pro front were a blur that, among other things, saw a coaching change — out with James, in with former Oklahoma All-American J.D. Roberts — a name change and a change in ownership. One thing that did not change was financial distress which, as always, was a given.
With Roberts in charge, and a number of new faces sent here by the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, the 1969 Roadrunners finished 7-5-0 in the league, 8-8 overall including four games with the Roanoke Buckskins. Ronnie South, a Saints draftee (5th round) from Arkansas, was the quarterback and passed for 1,542 yards and 17 touchdowns, with 16 interceptions, The go-to running back was 18-year-old Ike Brown (821 yards) who scored 10 touchdowns and was No. 2 on the team in scoring to kicker Ted Graham (76 points/16 field goals) from Western New Mexico.
In January of 1970 Templeton’s partners exercised an option to purchase his stock in the dealership. The deal included ownership of the football team. Max Pearson became new president of the franchise. The name was changed to Saints. Pearson said he rejected an excellent offer from Portsmouth to keep the team here. Big mistake.
The Saints opened 0-6, and Roberts, who had a “no player over the age of 26” rule, blamed “lack of talent.” They were 1-7 when, on Nov. 3, New Orleans fired coach Tom Fears (1-5-1) and called up Roberts on an interim basis. Pearson wanted R-Saints’ assistant Tom Royer to replace Roberts who took Royer with him. Pearson sued, saying he had Roberts and Royer under contract.
By then the season was down the toilet and out to sea. Tickets were slashed to $2.50. Didn’t help. From average attendance of 4,770 in 1969, the Saints drew a total of 11,536 for six regular-season games here (1,924 avg.) in 1970. They had a low of 676 Oct. 31 until 350 appeared Nov. 17 for the home finale. Talk about red ink! (Also keep in mind crowd figures are ALWAYS inflated, any sport, pro or college, anywhere.).
McNeil was named coach for the last four games. The Saints wound up 4-11 overall, 2-10 in the ACFL, closing with a three-game losing streak after the players threatened a mutiny with four games to go. They finished last — and the champion Pottstown (Pa,) Firebirds dropped out of the league. Richmond followed, making it official May 7, 1971. The ACFL died two years later.
Said Pearson, who would build a multi-brand car dealership empire — that still bears his name — here before his death in 2015 at age 95, “I don’t know of any team in this league that doesn’t have financial difficulties.” He could have omitted in this league and been right on the money.
Much later, like 30-plus years after the Mustangs/Roadrunners/Saints were mercifully gone, we ran into Pearson at Colonial Downs where he was known to wager a quid or two on the ponies. “Hey, Max, you wanna buy a football team?” He smiled … through clenched teeth. At least he didn’t take a swing at us.
Until next time ...
Jerry Lindquist can be reached
by email at email@example.com.