Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL

Jeff Pearlman writes in this 2018 book:

* During camp the Invaders stayed at a Red Lion Inn, and one night one of the leaders of the team’s regular Bible-study group was caught having anal sex with a prostitute against the railing outside his room. “We were a beautiful mess,” said Plummer. “We’d be on that church bus, mooning people out the back windows. We had guys like Ray and Cedrick who were actually listed as player-coaches. What they’d do is, if they got too drunk the night before practice, they wouldn’t practice the next day and say, ‘Hell, I’m just a coach today.’ That was a saying for ‘I’m hung over, man.’”

* Throughout his storied coaching career, [George] Allen was infamous for seeking out every possible advantage—legality and morality nonfactors. In his days leading the Redskins, he became a PhD-level practitioner of football espionage. Among other things, Allen wiretapped visiting locker rooms. He installed tinted one-way glass in the facility so he could look in on opposing coaches unobserved. He ordered his defensive and offensive linemen to lather the front of their uniforms with Vaseline, thereby making them impossible to grip. He messed with the temperature controls of the visiting locker rooms—on a hot day, the furnaces blasted; on icy afternoons, the heat magically failed to operate. All USFL teams were required to submit player contracts to the league. The Blitz had two sets of contracts for most of their veteran standouts—the ones with lower figures that were presented to league offices to appease the USFL’s financial concerns, and the real contracts, with eye-popping bonuses. “George Allen did what he felt he had to do,” said George Heddleston, future general manager of the Pittsburgh Maulers. “And no one would dare stop him.”

* “It was strange, because I’ve run into softer walls than Herschel . . . the guy was all muscle,” said Danny Rich, an Express linebacker. “There was one play I remember most. The Generals handed the ball to Herschel, and I reached in and grabbed his crotch and twisted it as hard as I could. And he puts this kind of kung fu grip on my wrist. I’m grabbing his wiener, he’s grabbing my wrist. I’m now trying to yank my hand away, and he stands up and just points at me. Doesn’t say a word. He was a baaaad man. They needed to use him.”

* The USFL was exceeding its rival league’s expectations, and the increasingly concerned NFL knew it. The new rules—in particular the two-point conversion—were well received, and the bright uniforms and fresh nicknames felt invigorating and lively. If the 1980s was the era of blissful, colorful, dynamic excess, the USFL was the football league of blissful, colorful, dynamic excess. Unlike the NFL, the USFL refused to penalize for excessive celebrations. If a player wanted to moonwalk in the end zone, he would be allowed—no, encouraged—to do so. Balls were spiked over the goalposts. Pretend grenades were tossed into a circle of pantomiming linemen. Funkadelic handshakes, head bobs, butt shakes—all embraced by a league in love with televised highlights. “At the time the NFL was the no-fun league,” said Charley Steiner, the Generals’ broadcaster. “The USFL saw that and flipped it on its head. I’d get calls on occasion from the league office—‘Why don’t you come on over?’ And we would sit around in Chet’s office. And one day they’d say, ‘What do you think about two-point conversion?’ and ‘What do you think about a replay and a red flag?’ It was always the same—‘Sure, why the hell not?’ It was so cool. We were just shooting the shit. ‘What do you think about wide receivers not wearing numbers in the 80s, but single digits?’—and that’s the way these things evolved. Everything was on the table.”

* Early on during training camp, [John] Corker—nicknamed Sack Man—gathered the team in a circle and guided the Panthers in prayer. “He started praying like a Baptist black preacher,” said Dave Tipton, a defensive tackle, “and I thought, Wow, Corker must walk with the Lord.” Not quite. Blessed with the world’s largest penis, Corker never shied away from showing it off to fellow Panthers. “The biggest johnson in the USFL,” said Matt Braswell, the team’s center. “We had women reporters come into the locker room, and Corker would position himself so he was in full view of any females. He had this vat of Nivea skin cream, and he would just make sure to completely rub it and moisturize it.” Corker operated on a clock that required only two to three hours of sleep per night, and was powered by the dual fuels of alcohol and cocaine.

* “After games ended a couple of us would do a sweep of the room to make sure no one forgot anything,” said D. J. Mackovets, the team’s media relations director. “So there’s this one time I’m walking out of the locker room with Jack and I hear this player yell, ‘Oh, no! Here comes coach!’ Well, there were a group of players beneath the stands with a hooker, and she was giving all of them blow jobs before they got on the bus.”

* Trump knew little about football but everything about headlines and eyeballs. During the 1984 season, for example, he dressed the Brig-a-Dears, New Jersey’s cheerleading squad, in the USFL’s skimpiest outfits, making them look, in one member’s words, “like hookers. The outfits fitted poorly in the back and exposed too much.” By most accounts, the uniforms were tasteless and prone to vaginal/breast exposure—and Trump loved it. “He was an attention whore,” said Jerry Argovitz, owner of the Gamblers. “No spotlight was too bright.”

* In the end, the USFL was like a really fun, good-looking college girlfriend. You dig her at the time, don’t cry when it’s over, and forever look back fondly. —Tom Vasich, Los Angeles Express season-ticket holder

* All told, the NFL featured 158 ex-USFL players in 1986, and their arrivals brought forth unprecedented levels of both excitement and awkwardness… The USFL produced 60 Pro Bowlers and two Super Bowl MVPs, as well as four Hall of Famers (Young, White, Kelly, and Gary Zimmerman, the Express offensive lineman). Dozens of NFL head and assistant coaches got their starts in the USFL, and Steve Spurrier went from guiding the Tampa Bay Bandits to becoming one of the great coaches in college-football history. The Buffalo Bills reached four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s behind the personnel genius of general manager Bill Polian (Chicago Blitz), the coaching of Marv Levy (Chicago Blitz), the quarterbacking of Kelly (Houston Gamblers), the blocking of center Kent Hull (New Jersey Generals), and the tackling of linebacker Ray Bentley (Michigan Panthers and Oakland Invaders). Halfback Emmitt Smith of the three-time-champion Dallas Cowboys regularly found himself finding daylight behind left guard Nate Newton (Tampa Bay Bandits). Though Doug Flutie’s NFL career was somewhat spotty, he is a three-time Grey Cup champion and widely regarded as one of the finest players in Canadian Football League history.

* The NFL adopted both the two-point conversion and the coach’s challenge from the USFL, and when the league expanded into Jacksonville and Tennessee (first Memphis, then Nashville), USFL veterans took enormous pride.

* What often gets lost in the aftermath of success stories, however, is the $1 smothering of dreams. For every Jim Kelly and Herschel Walker, there are hundreds of professional football players and coaches (and administrators and cheerleaders and popcorn vendors) whose careers ended the moment the USFL ceased to exist. What ever became of Nat Hudson and Ronnie Estay? How about Todd Dillon and Johnnie Dirden? Ken Bungarda, anyone? Sylvester Moy? Sel Drain? “It was a sickening feeling,” said Marcus Bonner, a Gunslingers halfback. “Like someone was punching you in the stomach and stealing your joy.” “I have a team photo that I’ve looked at every day for thirty years,” said Bruce Miller, a Breakers defensive back who never reached the NFL. “It still hurts. There were so many of us who moved their families, who enrolled their kids in school—and then it died. I’ve never seen more grown men cry.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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