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Based on interviews with players, coaches, and past business partners in Florida and Texas, it appears Chambers has been involved in organizing at least four leagues since 1976. "He has this burning, burning desire to have these football leagues," says a long-time family friend. "And they've always failed."
William Blan met Chambers in Houston in 1976, when Chambers approached him and another man, Curtis Barnes, with the idea of reorganizing a failing semipro league and expanding it throughout Texas. When the league went bust within two years, Blan, who works as an engineer, says he realized he wasn't cut out for semipro football. "You don't have to hit me over the head too hard before I know I've been clobbered," he says. "Semipro ball is a losing proposition. There is no way to do it unless you have the money to make it your hobby."
Blan suspects Chambers keeps trying because he loves football, and desperately wants to stay involved in the game. "It's got to be depressing that here's this dream you have and you just get on the threshold and you fall backward," he says. "And you get up and try again and the same thing happens."
Al Stone, a Tampa private investigator who volunteered to look into Chambers's past for jilted CFLA players, says Chambers's intentions were probably good when he started the league. "Sometimes people become so driven that maybe they tend to spend more than they can take in, and as a result, they have to keep up a front," Stone theorizes. "And they continue to spend more than they take in, and the first thing you know, they have forgotten what the purpose of the league was."
"I always felt he was looking to be more than what he was," adds Fort Lauderdale coach Rick Doemel. "And all he was, was an accountant."
Last year, when Chambers told his wife he planned to start another league, there was a sense of urgency in his voice. "This football league has to succeed," he told her. "It has to succeed. This is what I'm good at." His wife confides that privately, she wondered what would happen if it failed. Now she knows.
When Jim Chambers walked away from his league, he also left behind his wife of fourteen years. "He left me high and dry," she says, requesting anonymity because she fears she might lose her job as a receptionist. "I have no family and nowhere to go."
She's seen him fail with leagues before, once in Houston and now twice in Miami. Three years ago, after Chambers's first Miami league folded, she told him to give up on the idea of starting a football league. "I said, `Don't try it again, we don't have the money for it,'" she recalls, adding that his parents also warned him against entering into another venture. And for a time, she says, Chambers complied. He buckled down, got a job as a substitute teacher, and earned extra money preparing tax returns. But then a year ago, he began talking about football again.
"He felt that no matter how many times he failed, at some point he would succeed," she says. "But he couldn't make it go. I think he is embittered with himself. He thinks he's failed in life."
In the aftermath of the fight at the January 19 Miami-Fort Lauderdale scrimmage, all but ten Fort Lauderdale players quit, and by that time coaches from other teams were openly voicing their doubts about Chambers. His wife says that during the last week in January, he flew home to see his parents in Texarkana. His mother had recently undergone open-heart surgery, and his father was in the intensive-care unit of a local hospital, where he was being treated for prostate cancer. Upon returning to Miami, he announced matter-of-factly that the two of them would move to Houston. "He said, `I'm fed up with the football league, let's just get the hell out of here,'" she remembers.
According to his wife, Chambers wanted to abandon their apartment, leave all their possessions behind. She told him he was acting crazy. "`You just don't walk out and leave everything,'" she remembers telling him. The next day he packed a suitcase and left. She hasn't heard from him since.
Financially, the league cost them both. "He devoted his whole existence to football, and we lived on my salary and what I had in the bank, which wasn't much," she says. All her savings are gone; everything went into football. In fourteen years of marriage, she believes, she's lost nearly $80,000 on her husband's various football ventures.
After Chambers left, she says, she became so angry and distraught that she tore up every picture of him that she had.
Although it would have been easy for the CFLA to disappear along with Jim Chambers, that hasn't happened yet. After he vanished, calls began going out among the coaches from the various cities, to see if there was anything they could do in the league president's wake. A meeting was scheduled for early February in Tampa, at which representatives from all but two of the league's cities showed up.