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Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead

The following article was posted on January 11th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 45 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 17, Issue 45

Semi-pro days: Former Santa Maria Redskins and Hawks football players to share teams' history at Jan. 14 Valley Speaks

By PETER JOHNSON

Did you know Santa Maria once had two professional football teams?

I know—neither did we! 

They were "semi-pro" teams, actually. So, in other words, no big paychecks, packed stadiums, or Super Bowl trophies. But the games were legit, the players were talented, and the teams were well respected in the community.

It started one day in 1947, when a ragtag group of local World War II vets and standout athletes met up at Tom Moore's Café. The men had one common mission: to start an amateur football team so they could play the game they loved and build a community. Right then and there, they formed the Santa Maria Redskins.

Jim Gamble led the group and spearheaded the organizational effort. Prior to the meetup, Gamble had discovered, by accident, that there were already several semipro football teams formed in Southern California. They were looking for teams to play against.

"Gamble had approached somebody in Los Angeles about joining a track team, because he was really into track also," said Eddie Navarro, a member of the Santa Maria Valley Sports History Club. "The guy down there told him, 'Well, the track season is over, but we have a bunch of football teams in LA that want to play outside teams.'"

For the war veterans, joining a football team helped ease the transition from the battlefield to civilian life.

"They wanted to do something," said Jim Draper, a member of the Redskins' team for four seasons and a Santa Maria native. "They also had their jobs, of course."

Draper will be one of the speakers at the Santa Maria Historical Society's next installment of its history series, Valley Speaks, at the Santa Maria Public Library on Jan. 14. He will speak on the formation of the team and his time with the Redskins.

With enough sponsorship from local businesses, the Redskins purchased jerseys and started moving forward. They practiced three days a week and played their home games at Santa Maria High School during the fall. Draper still remembers the size and talent of some of the Los Angeles teams, which were stocked with aspiring or formerly aspiring National Football League (NFL) players.

"There were some guys who were on the pro teams but didn't make it," Draper said with a laugh. "They were big. You'd run into one of them and they just stopped you. I would run to tackle him and, hell, I could barely put my arms around both his legs!"

The players put their bodies at risk since, at the time, football helmets didn't include any face protection at all. The team sometimes played in strange places, like the Lompoc Prison.

"That was an experience," Draper said.

While the men were having a blast, money was extremely tight for the group. They had many expenses including for the travel costs of visiting teams. The Redskins soldiered on until the economics wouldn't allow it anymore, which was in 1953.

Then for years, Santa Maria went without a football team, until 1967, when the Santa Maria Hawks formed. By then, semipro football had grown a great deal. The Hawks joined the Western Football League, an established league that included teams from Fresno to San Diego.

That group became famous for playing roles as football player extras in the 1970 movie, MASH. The Hawks' public relations director had some Hollywood connections and got them the gig.

"About 20 of us went down to Griffith Park," said Bill Roemling, a member of the Santa Maria Hawks. "All total it was 10 days filming that movie. It ended up as only five minutes in the movie!"

"He still gets residual checks," his wife Jeanne added. Bill Roemling will also talk during Valley Speaks, about the Hawks.

On the football field, the Hawks more than held their own, he said, achieving a 15-2 record in the team's final season.

"The only team we couldn't beat was the LA Mustangs, the farm team for the [NFL's] LA Rams," Roemling said.

In 1970, the Western Football League decided to expand to include teams from all over the Western U.S., such as Salt Lake City, Denver, and Phoenix. That change wasn't in the cards for the Santa Maria Hawks.

"There wasn't any way we could afford it. We didn't have any big sponsors," Roemling said. "If we could've stayed in the coast league, we'd probably stay for a while longer. But they went on to bigger things."

Since 1970, semi-pro football hasn't made a comeback to Santa Maria, but given all the athletic talent in the area, never say never! 

Learn more about the Santa Maria Redskins and Hawks—and a little history about Santa Maria along the way—from Draper and Roemling at 11 a.m. on Jan. 14 in Shepard Hall at the Santa Maria Public Library. They'll be guests at the monthly Valley Speaks event. 

Contributor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.




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