The Sports Niche
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The Sports Niche

If You Like Football, You Need to Read Football for a Buck

Photo by USFL via Wikimedia Commons.

I love football. Despite its many flaws (not the least of which is its complete incompatibility with the human body), football at its best brings together speed, size, strength, athleticism, and strategy in a way that no other sport can. It’s this mix of violence and grace that has helped the NFL become the most popular and most profitable sport in the country. It’s become an everyday part of American life, with things like the draft, scouting combine, and training camp keeping it in the public eye even when the games aren’t on. So, it’s hard to remember a time when an upstart spring football league could actually challenge the NFL, especially when you consider the spectacular failure of this year’s Alliance of American Football. But even though you probably had to have been born in the early ’70s (or earlier) to really remember the USFL, it wasn’t that long ago that it stole headlines from the league that dominates them today — only to be undone by a man who has become all too familiar.

If you like football, Jeff Pearlman’s Football for a Buck provides an illuminating history lesson on a league that, while it’s become a footnote in the wake of the NFL’s dominance, is an integral part of the NFL’s past. And even as you know that the USFL will ultimately be undone in three short years, it’s hard not to root for this experiment that went so wrong in so many good ways.

It’s not for the faint of heart (or sound of mind)

Think about how crazy some football players are. Think about how utterly soulless NFL owners are. Now, imagine a league made up of the guys the NFL rejected. Some of them were good football players who slipped through the cracks or couldn’t pass up a good payday, but many of them were crazier than they were talented.

Take David Greenwood, a white guy brazen enough to call another player the N-word, or his teammate, John Corker, who was black but backed him up anyway. There was Greg Fields, who punched a coach and threatened an owner — or, as a teammate described him, “crazier than batshit crazy.” And Billy Don Jackson, who had only just finished serving a jail sentence for manslaughter and carried a two-by-four around the locker room.

Now give them all steroids, which were not only accepted but encouraged, throw in some recreational drugs, which were also everywhere, and you have yourself a USFL team.

And then you have the football. Where a man who played for something called the California Football League threw the second most touchdowns in the USFL in 1983. Where the 1982 Heisman winner would set a pro football rushing yards record in 1985 and the 1983 Heisman winner would be in second by almost 1,100 yards. Where a future Hall of Famer would throw for 5,219 yards in a season, a number touched by no pro QB until 2011. Where an undersized linebacker, who would go on to have his number retired by one NFL team and be in the Hall of Fame of another, got his start by winning two USFL titles and making three All-USFL teams.

Steve Young, the future 49ers star and Hall of Famer, was wooed to the USFL via the largest contract in sports history at the time, accomplished through some creative accounting. Photo by Ben P L via Wikimedia Commons.

Because amidst all of the drugs and the violence and the general insanity, there was a new kind of football being played. Not everywhere, and not even necessarily well, but the NFL is notorious for its resistance to change, and the USFL, by virtue of needing to be something fun and new, had to do something different. It’s this novelty that allows it to become something to root for, at least in Pearlman’s retelling.

It’s a story so crazy that Lee Corso’s (that Lee Corso) USFL coaching career is relegated to three sentences.

Paving the future

One of the benefits of being the new kid on the block is that you’re not restrained by tradition. One of the downsides of being the new kid on the block is that you need to find new ways to stand out. Both of these factors combined in the USFL, setting the stage for many elements crucial to modern football.

It started before there were even teams. Filling out rosters when the world’s best football players already had jobs meant holding tryouts. Lots and lots of tryouts. Thousands of people from all walks of life, including a man in prison eligible for work release, got a shot to make a USFL team. Most of them couldn’t make the cut, but the process of trying to quantify the talent pool involved splitting players up into position groups and having them run speed, strength, and agility drills — a process the NFL now calls the “scouting combine.” Still, the result at the time was about what you would expect: a whole lot of chaff, not a ton of wheat.

And then Herschel Walker decided he had nothing left to prove in college, and he’d like to be paid for his efforts. Well, the NFL wouldn’t take him, as he was only a college junior, but the USFL had no such limits. It cost them a lot of money, but they scooped the NFL on a college national champion and Heisman winner who was one of the most recognizable names in the sport. Less than a decade later, the NFL would allow underclassmen to enter the draft.

Herschel Walker and Mike Rozier, both Heisman winners, gave the USFL credibility it desperately craved. Photo by Echo73 via Wikimedia Commons.

Along with not having the first pick of players, the USFL also didn’t have the first pick of coaches. While some teams landed old or failed pro coaches, others turned to the college ranks — and those who wanted to succeed needed to get creative. Mouse Davis brought his revolutionary run-n-shoot to the Houston Gamblers. Dick Coury of the Tampa Bay Bandits focused on an up-tempo, vertical passing game that was decidedly the opposite of Tampa Bay’s moribund NFL team. Undersized running backs were used as wide receivers.

There were shades of the modern NFL game throughout the league, and these new styles set statistical records, like the Houston Gamblers scoring a pro football record 618 points, Richard Johnson and Ricky Sanders becoming the first professional teammates to record 100+ receptions and 1,000+ yards in the same year, and Steve Young becoming the first pro player to record 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards in the same game. While these stat lines are becoming more common today, the USFL was putting them up no one else was. Seeing elements of today’s familiar game creep up all those years ago just adds another layer of likability to the upstart league.

Finally, coach’s challenges and two-point conversions saw their first exposure in the USFL. They’re such an ingrained part of the NFL game now that it’s hard to remember a time without them.

Donald Trump and his ilk

Pearlman will be the first to admit that his book was aided by Donald Trump becoming president. But would there still be a USFL if there had been no Donald Trump?

There’s a case to be made for that. From his misguided belief in his own business sense to his willingness to undercut everyone and everything, Trump was happy to sacrifice the USFL in order to achieve his real goal: owning an NFL team. Part of this plan involved suing the NFL, and it was his choice of a lawyer to represent the USFL in their antitrust lawsuit that set him apart from the other owners.

For all of his faults, Trump wasn’t the only questionable businessman to own a USFL team. Hell, NFL owners today are shady. So, for a league that couldn’t really afford to vet people who said they had money, a lot of bad characters fell through the cracks. The LA Express’s first owner had a debilitating drug and alcohol problem, and their last owner was staggeringly bombastic and irrational, at least until an FBI investigation and lawsuits led to the end of his ownership. Clinton Manges, owner of the San Antonio Gunslingers, sat players every third game to avoid triggering contract guarantees, painted his hard-as-cement field using regular paint to save money, and eventually stopped paying his players when the money ran out, leading Greg Fields to go to his house and threaten him with a baseball bat. Ted Dietrich owned the Chicago Blitz, but he lived in Arizona, so he traded the entire Chicago roster for the entire Arizona roster to cut down on travel to home games. There were also good owners who had a vision and a passion and a plan, John Bassett comes to mind, but Trump was far from the only questionable character in a league that couldn’t afford to ask too many questions of the people offering money.

It’s precisely this mismanagement that slowly unravels everything that’s been built up throughout the book. Reality catches up to this crazy upstart league, which turned football on its head in some ways and fell flat on its ass in so many others, and the rooting interest in the book turns to acceptance of the course of history: We know that the USFL must die. But after everything Pearlman’s told us, can we really be surprised that the league’s death knell was actually a victory?

The USFL’s ill-fated move from a spring football league to a fall football league (bringing it in direct competition with the NFL, all part of Trump’s grand scheme) hinged on an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL claiming that it had monopolized football. The USFL had a really good case. Such a good case, in fact, that they won it. They just fell slightly short of the $440 million (to be tripled under antitrust laws) settlement they were seeking.

Trump picked Harvey Myerson to present the USFL’s case, and he was the perfect man for the job — if that job was keeping the NFL’s hold on football. Myerson was egotistical, brash, overconfident, and willing to do what Trump wanted. These were the only two people who could frame the NFL as the little guy. And after what can only be described as botched legal strategy, one that involved calling virtually no USFL witnesses to testify, the jury came back with a verdict:

The NFL was guilty of violating antitrust laws. The USFL would be awarded $1.

An important history lesson

Part of what makes Football for a Buck so great is that it’s the story of something that could only happen in the past, but its effects are felt in the present. It’s easy to root for, in part because any plausible challenge to the NFL monolith is fun to root for. The characters are seemingly from fiction, some likable, some detestable, all interesting. The USFL was the biggest challenge to the NFL since the NFL-AFL merger, and it may have been the last viable outside challenge the league will face. It shaped the league we know today, and Football for a Buck will leave you wondering what might have been had the men with a vision not been overpowered by the men with none.

I’m a freelance writer who uses the basics of fiction writing to help people and companies tell their stories. Find me at www.anthonyjondreau.com or on Instagram @anthonyjondreau.

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Anthony Jondreau

Anthony Jondreau

I use the basics of fiction writing to tell help people and companies tell their stories. Find me at www.anthonyjondreau.com or anthonyrjondreau@gmail.com.