by Jim Riggs
February 18, 1989
WFL Helped Bergey Become An Eagle
Bill Bergey was in Jamestown Monday night to be inducted into the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame. Most of Bergey's accolades came from his. play in the NFL. The Pine Valley Central School graduate was a second-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1969 and he became The Sporting News NFL Defensive Player of the Year. However, Bergey was traded to Philadelphia in 1974 and that is where he had his greatest success. With the Eagles, Bergey was named an All-Pro and was named the Eagles' Most Valuable Player three times each. The highlight of his career came when he played in the 1980 Super Bowl, his last NFL game.
Bergey retired after that Super Bowl because of numerous injuries and now when people look back on his career, they always think of his accomplishments with the Eagles. However, if it wasn't for the World Football League, Bergey might never have played for Philadelphia.
Don't you remember the World Football League? It was the first new pro football league since the American Football League sprung up in 1960. The WFL began in July 1974 and had 1½ struggling seasons. It finally died on Oct. 22, 1975. The new league had drafted all NFL players, including Bergey, and it first made headlines when it signed Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield from the Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins.
Bergey had completed his fourth year of a five-year contract with the Bengals when he was drafted by the WFL's Washington Ambassadors. Bergey decided to visit Washington and see what the Ambassadors' owner had to offer.
"He said, "What would you like,'" Bergey recalled. "I threw out a crazy number and he countered with a crazy number. It was probably seven or eight times what I was making with the Cincinnati Bengals. I took a good, long look at it and it was something I had to pursue and jump at."
Bergey asked Cincinnati owner Paul Brown if he could match the offer and Brown wouldn't because it would not only upset the salary level of the Bengals, but also of the entire NFL. So Bergey returned to Washington.
I signed the future contract and I received an $80,000 bonus, which was more than twice what I was earning with the Bengals ($37,500)," Bergey said. "I was strictly in it for the money, there's no doubt about it."
Bergey planned to play his fifth year with the Bengals and then move on to the Ambassadors. But wasn't he worried about leaving the NFL for a team in a league that had never played a game?
"It didn't matter," he said. "Believe me, I'm not a mercenary. Back then I was trying to make my mark, trying to develop myself in my lifetime and I was trying to secure the future financially for my wife and my kids and that's all there was to it.
"First of all, I had $80,000 in my pocket, so that's a big plus there. Number two, I didn't sign their standard contract. I signed a personal services contract and at any time if they didn't pay me the sums of money they were to pay me, the entire contract was due to me. I had them, I really had them."
The fact that Bergey planned to play a lame-duck season with the Bengals while also being compensated by a WFL team didn't sit well with many in Southwestern Ohio.
"It was a real nasty, ugly affair," Bergey said. "There were times I felt I was public enemy number one. I was making the headlines over Watergate, for crying out loud. It was really incredible."
He was served legal papers from the Bengals at midnight and often had the press camped out on is front lawn.
"I can't believe the Bengals really put me through the mill because they didn't have to do it," Bergey said. "They knew they weren't going to win this thing. If they would have sat and talked with me, it might have worked out a little bit smoother."
Things were no smoother with the WFL. The Washington team moved its operations to Norfolk, Va., and then to Orlando, Fla., where the nickname was changed to the Blazers. The new owner couldn't believe Bergey had been offered such a huge contract and tried to back down. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles, who needed a linebacker as a final piece in a possible championship team, became interested in Bergey. And Bergey became interest in the Eagles.
He requested a guaranteed five-year contract and Eagles owner Leonard Tose agreed . Eventually, Bergey became the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.
"It was just because of all that World Football League mess that I went through that got me there (to Philadelphia). Plus, I like to think I was a pretty good football player."
So with the offer from the Eagles, Bergey was no longer interested in the WFL, and particularly not interested in a team that had moved twice before playing a game.
"Trying to be graceful, I said, 'This is what I'll do. I'll send your money ($80,000) back to you if you let me out of this contract. I want to go back to the NFL.'" And he pointed out, "I didn't have to give it back to them."
However, persons who had been involved with the Ambassadors-Blazers at all three sites wanted the $80,000. When Bergey threatened to sue them, they agreed to forget about the $80,000. But Orlando wanted $20,000 it claim it spent on expenses when Bergey visited there. He had stayed only two nights in the Holiday Inn. The Eagles wanted Bergey with no delays and he recalled, "Tose said, 'I'll give them their garbage money.' I'll never forget that. That was the only thing that was holding the entire deal up."
Philadelphia gave Cincinnati two first-round and one sccond-round draft picks for Bergey and he became an Eagle.
While Bergey played his first seasons in Philadelphia, the Orlando Blazers won a division title in the WFL and then lost in the championship game to the Birmingham Americans. But when Bergey had his most successful season in 1980, that was capped with a trip to the Super Bowl, the Blazers and the WFL were long forgotten. But not by Bergey. Without the World Football League, he might have played his entire career in Cincinnati.