To follow the third and final United States Football League championship game, spectators needed the rosters, a vast knowledge of professional football and a map.
USFL Geography 101: The title contest pitted the Baltimore Stars against the Oakland Invaders. The Stars lived in Philadelphia and practiced at the University of Pennsylvania and played their games in College Park, Md. They didn’t do anything in Baltimore except drive through it. The Oakland franchise had combined with the Michigan franchise before the 1985 season, absorbing half of its players and some of its executives. The teams met at Giants Stadium, which was the home of both of New York’s NFL franchises but was actually located in the swamps of New Jersey. Somehow, because this was the USFL and the unusual was ordinary, all this made perfect sense.
Rain pelted the field on July 14, 1985, as one of the strangest seasons in the history of professional football barreled toward its conclusion. Fans in the stands wondered whether the league would survive beyond that evening, whether it would move to the fall, as planned, or merge with the NFL, as Donald Trump hoped.
Before the 1985 season, Pittsburgh and Chicago had folded, Arizona and Oklahoma had merged, New Orleans had relocated to Portland and Washington was sold and moved to Orlando. “There was that air of uncertainty,” says Ken Dunek, a Baltimore tight end. “Everything that was going on legally with the league was hanging over our head. We were hopeful that the league was going to continue, but we weren’t really sure.”
The title contest marked a rematch (sort of) of the first USFL title game, when Michigan triumphed over Philadelphia, 24-22, in 1983. In the years since, the league had continued to build its brand. Rosters were pocked with stars: Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Jim Kelly and Reggie White among them. Coaches included George Allen, Jim E. Mora, Marv Levy, Steve Spurrier and Lee Corso.
Baltimore stitched together a plan for the rematch. Behind a formidable defense, the Stars wanted to limit the big-play potential of Oakland quarterback Bobby Hebert and his star receiver, Anthony Carter. On offense, with Kelvin Bryant at running back and heavy rain falling, the Stars decided on a conservative approach.
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As the game kicked off, Mora, the Stars coach, wondered how his team would respond to a tumultuous season, with the move and the logistical nightmare that accompanied it. “I didn’t feel as confident,” he says.
When the Stars ownership group contacted Carl Peterson in 1982 to run their Philadelphia franchise, he had already been working in the front office for Dick Vermeil and the NFL’s Eagles. Vermeil told Peterson he didn’t think much of that move—who in the NFL did back then?—but the Stars continued to improve the deal until even Vermeil suggested Peterson consider it. The Stars offered $125,000 plus incentives based on wins and season tickets sold, full authority, a slew of titles (president, general manager, CEO) and a 10 percent stake in the franchise. The package convinced Peterson to say yes, after much deliberation.
At first, the Stars hired George Perles, then the associate head coach of the Steelers. But his alma mater, Michigan State, made an offer he wanted more. He told Peterson he needed to follow his heart. The Stars ownership group, as Peterson remembers, sued the university and won $100,000.
They approached Sid Gillman next, but he was retired and in his 70s. Then they made a run at Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State coach, even throwing in a house to sweeten the deal. “Frankly,” Peterson says, “Joe showed a lot of interest for about three weeks, but they were on their way to winning a national championship. We waited until Jan. 1 for him to make his decision.” And he did. Paterno told the Stars he could not leave Penn State.
Peterson then suggested Mora, the defensive coordinator of the Patriots. “Who’s Jim Mora?” ownership responded. But Peterson had coached with Mora under Vermeil at UCLA, and thought highly of him, and he snuck up to Foxborough, Mass., where the Patriots were in the playoffs. Mora seemed mildly interested, if that. “I wasn’t really fired up about it,” he confirms. “I had just gone to New England, and I hadn’t heard much about that league.”
But New England lost, which freed Mora to visit Philadelphia, and he traveled down to Veterans Stadium to take a look around. That he didn’t bring his wife along struck Peterson as an ominous sign. It wasn’t. Mora liked Peterson, the ownership group and the facilities, but mostly he saw an opportunity that others missed. The Stars had found a coach.
Mora traveled with Peterson to the Senior Bowl in 1983. They booked adjoining suites in the same hotel. In one, they interviewed potential coaches; in the other, potential players; and they would switch back and forth, comparing notes.
They had no assistants, some players and two weeks before training camp started in February. They hired some coaches over the phone, sight unseen, and one who walked into their offices, on the spot. Then they traveled to DeLand, Fla., and met to install their offensive and defensive schemes the night before their first official practice. They later added one more coach two weeks into camp.
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The Stars jerry-rigged a roster on the fly. Per USFL rules, they had first crack at players from their region, guys who went to Penn State, or Temple, anywhere nearby. They found Dunek teaching tennis in New Jersey. They drafted rookies like Bryant out of North Carolina, punter Sean Landeta from Towson State and offensive lineman Bart Oates of Brigham Young. They sought NFL rejects, the overlooked, the undersized and the undiscovered. Somehow, they built a team.
Their coaches shared offices at Veterans Stadium with the Phillies in the spring. They traveled to Denver for their first game, against the Gold at the old Mile High Stadium, and they almost didn’t make it there after a freak snowstorm forced an extra stop for fuel for their chartered jet. That night, before their first game as a USFL franchise, they dined on ham and cheese sandwiches and chips and stayed at a Holiday Inn out near the airport.
Still, the Stars managed a 15-3 record that season and made the inaugural USFL title game, where, as noted, they lost to Michigan. That game, also held in Denver, drew a reported 11.9 television rating on ABC.
The USFL was off to as good a start as anyone could have reasonably expected.
Contrary to their game plan, when the 1985 USFL title game started, the Stars threw the ball instead of running it. Their opening drive featured Chuck Fusina, the Penn State quarterback who had been a backup in the NFL with Tampa Bay, as he slung passes in the rain. One throw found Scott Fitzkee, another Penn State product, in the end zone on a 16-yard corner route for a 7-0 lead.
Television cameras captured Oakland’s coach, Charlie Sumner, smoking a cigarette on the sideline during a timeout. His Invaders tied the game when safety David Greenwood returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, but Baltimore otherwise dominated early.
The Stars defense chased Hebert all over the field, especially Sam Mills. He was exactly the kind of player who thrived in the USFL, an undersized linebacker who defied convention.
Mills had been cut, by Peterson’s recollection, four or five times, including once in the Canadian Football League, before the Stars signed him. A friend had told Peterson not to cut Mills until he saw Mills hit. Perles wanted to cut him. Not until we see him hit, Peterson said. Mora didn’t want to take Mills to training camp, according to Peterson. Not until we see him hit, Peterson said. So it went, until they saw Mills hit, and hit hard, and they realized he was their best defensive player every single practice. In one game against the New Jersey Generals, he stopped Walker, a future NFL star, three times in a row at the goal line.
When Mora went to the Saints in 1986, he took Mills with him, and Mills made five Pro Bowls and played 12 seasons in the NFL. He died from intestinal cancer in 2005 at 45, but left an impression on everyone he played for or with. “People always ask me, all the years I coached, who was the best guy,” Mora says. “The guy I always talk about was Sam Mills. He was something special.”
The Michigan Panthers built their franchise around an NFL-caliber offense, snagging Carter straight out of college at Michigan and inking a lanky product of the swamps of Louisiana in Hebert. Hebert says they guaranteed his $150,000 salary and offered a signing bonus of $80,000.
The Cajun Cannon did not view the USFL as a second-class existence. He had a wife and a young child to support, and he saw opportunity in the upstart league, especially as a member of the famed 1983 quarterback draft class that sent John Elway and Dan Marino to the NFL. “I don’t know if there are any Cajuns in Michigan,” he told his wife at the time, now an ex. “But we’re going.”
Hebert was and remains a character. In Detroit, known as the Motor City, he splurged on a French car, a Peugeot, with his signing bonus because he liked the one an assistant coach drove. He liked to tell teammates they called shrimp boots Cajun Reeboks, and he went to press conferences clad in Mickey Mouse T-shirts.
Detroit embraced the Panthers, according to Hebert and his teammates. They played at an NFL level, he says, the talent drop-off not as noticeable with the starters, but more noticeable in the lack of depth. Fans, Hebert says, clamored for the Panthers to play the NFL’s Lions, a matchup he thinks would have been close. He finished his career as the USFL’s all-time leader in passing yardage with 13,137 passing yards, but, as he notes, Kelly only played two seasons to his three.
The Michigan franchise faced its share of struggles, too. Chris Godfrey, a guard on the 1983 team, remembers the team’s first training camp, held in Daytona Beach, Fla. A yellow school bus picked the players up at the team hotel. And the food at camp was so bad (imagine, he says, burnt spaghetti) that players spent their daily five-dollar per diem at the nearest Burger King.
There were benefits. Godfrey worked a handshake deal into his contract where he could attend his wedding reception and meet the team for a game the next day. “It was always that unorthodox, catch-as-catch-can existence,” he says.
The Panthers practiced at the Silverdome in Detroit. Godfrey says they shared locker room space with the rodeos that came through. One year, they finished an attic in the Silverdome, but while the attic had no windows, it did have mice. They used to set traps for them, and one time, Godfrey placed a dead mouse into the Skoal can of his position coach who predictably screamed and jumped out of his chair as he reached for some tobacco during a film session.
Ken Hoffman, the Panthers public relations director, says the team drew 60,000 fans on average in that first season, or more than the Lions drew in their NFL campaign. That it culminated in a championship only boosted interest, but the purse strings were already starting to tighten.
In Sept. 1983, the USFL held an expansion draft and Trump declared war on the NFL. Into that climate stepped Vince Lombardi Jr., the Panthers new general manager. His directive: lower salaries. The predictable result: several of the best players, Hebert included, held out for more money. “I still think if done the right way, there’s a niche for football in the spring,” Lombardi says. “The USFL just spent its way out of an ability to exist. There’s a finite amount of money. If you can figure out a way to live with it, you’re good to go.”
To that end, the Panthers owner, A. Alfred Taubman, the billionaire real estate developer who revived Sotheby’s auction house, once told Lombardi a joke.
“Do you want to know how to make a small fortune?” he asked.
“Have a large fortune and buy a pro football team,” Taubman said. “You’ll have a small fortune sooner than you hoped.”
As the 1984 season unfolded, tension built between the Panthers and the Lions. It had started with an incident the year before, recalled by Godfrey, when the Panthers linemen were filming a commercial at the Silverdome and the Lions general manager, Russ Thomas, kicked them off the field. Taubman was a Detroit guy, a Lions fan. He also believed that if the USFL merged with the NFL, or if the NFL took some USFL teams, it would be more likely to do so from new markets, not existing ones. “Al was cooling really fast to the whole idea,” Lombardi says. “He was one of the principal owners, but in my mind, he could see the handwriting on the wall.”
The Panthers fell in the playoffs in 1984 to Young and the Los Angeles Express. The game required three overtimes to finish, making it, at the time, pro football’s single longest contest. Michigan kicker Novo Bojovic missed a field goal at the end of regulation, and at the end of the first and second overtimes. “I feared for his life,” Hoffman says.
The Stars took a 21-14 advantage into halftime of the 1985 USFL title game. Their early barrage of passes had given way to a steady dose of Bryant runs. He scored twice in the second quarter alone. “He was a great player,” says Allen Harvin, Bryant’s backup for two seasons. “I’ve seen him come out of piles, man, and there were four or five guys on him when he came out the other end.”
At this point, the Stars were thinking about their dynasty and how the 1985 game would cement it. They had lost in the title game their first season and won the championship in their second. “We had a team that everybody wanted to beat,” Harvin says.
After the 1984 triumph, Philadelphia had held a parade for the Stars, and to Dunek, it rivaled any parade for the Phillies or the 76ers. “The city really embraced the team,” he says. “They were so starved for a football winner. We would have owned that town.”
But before the Stars could become, as Peterson says, “the greatest football team that no one’s ever heard of,” the Invaders assumed a 24-21 lead in the third quarter behind a touchdown pass from—who else?—Hebert to Carter. It went for seven yards.
In the summer of 1984, USFL owners voted to play one last spring season and shift to the fall in 1986. ESPN bid $70 million for the television rights. But the financial cracks were starting to widen. The Chicago Blitz lost a reported $6 million and disbanded. Los Angeles claimed a $15-million loss. A league that swelled to 18 teams before the 1984 season had dwindled to 14 by the 1985 one.
The Stars were kicked out of Veterans Stadium after a legal dispute with the city of Philadelphia. City officials even took the furniture, and for a short time, coaches watched film while sitting on the floor.
When they did move, they held their practices at Penn’s Franklin Field and meetings in the old ROTC building on campus. Several position groups met in different corners of the same room, as linemen wiggled into desks built for teenagers. They hung their shoulder pads on nails affixed to walls and spoke in whispers so as not to disturb the other position meetings.
It was easier for the Stars to play road games than home games. All they had to do was drop their cars off at the airport and fly. Home games required a three-and-one-half hour drive down to Maryland. “It was like playing 18 road games,” says Vince Tobin, the defensive coordinator. They even called themselves the I-95 Stars.
“It crossed your mind some, Is this going to last?” Mora says. “Are we going to merge?”
The move smothered interest. The Philadelphia papers that once regularly covered the Stars had stopped writing about them, Mora says. About halfway through the season, he had someone compile the stories from the Baltimore scribes and place them around the locker room, so the players could read about themselves.
By the time the 1985 season had started, the Generals had signed Doug Flutie out of Boston College for $7.5 million over five years. But the USFL had also disbanded its scouting combine, and opening day attendance had fallen by about 3,000 per game across the league.
The move to Baltimore translated into a shaky 0-2-1 start for the Stars, the defending champions. At one point, Mora held a meeting and told his players to stop feeling sorry for themselves. He challenged the players to respond, and they did, sneaking into the playoffs by winning their last six games.
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Meanwhile, all the tension with the Lions had led to unexpected consequences out in Michigan. Hebert found out about the move to Oakland and the combining of two franchises on CNN. That news reached Lombardi on vacation in the Carolinas. He rented an apartment in the Bay Area for about 10 months but did not move his family. “Quite frankly, it was tenuous enough that I wanted to see if this thing really made it or not,” he says.
And yet, Oakland managed to merge two teams and compile the USFL’s best record in 1985 when it finished 13-4-1 as the Invaders. In one early-season game, they tied the Panthers. Later, they toppled Spurrier and Tampa Bay in the playoffs, and dispatched Memphis to reach the title game.
Walker broke the single-season rushing record for pro football that season with 2,411 yards but the best teams advanced to meet each other for the title. Sports fans forget about the quality of play in the USFL, Mora says. “When I say I coached in that league, a lot of people will look at me like, USFL, what is that?” Mora says. “I always thought we never got credit for what it was—a pretty darn good league.”
As the 1985 USFL championship game neared its conclusion, Bryant scored for a third time and the Stars regained the lead, 28-24. The Invaders fumbled the ensuing kickoff and recovered. Their drive started at the 5-yard-line.
But Hebert marched the Invaders down the field, into enemy territory. He found Carter on a broken play for 28 yards. The fourth quarter clock ticked under four minutes. The Invaders advanced to the 5-yard-line, with four shots to win the game.
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On second-and-goal, Mills made a crucial tackle. But Tom Newton, the Invaders fullback, was whistled for unnecessary roughness. Depending on the vantage point, that call was either a phantom penalty or correct. Either way, it stood, the ball went back 15 yards, and after two incompletions, the Stars had secured their second title in three USFL seasons. “I can remember such an empty feeling,” Hebert says. “I took about a 20-minute shower, just trying to gather my thoughts.”
For the team named for, but not from, Baltimore, victory produced relief more than elation. “I was worn out,” Mora says. “I was glad it was over. Like, whew, we got it.”
In hindsight, Dunek says, “We rallied and won, which I think is one of the greatest accomplishments in sports because of all the hardships that team had to go through. We would have been competitive in the NFL.”
And yet, another cloud hung over the championship celebration. “I think we all knew it was a possibility this was the last game ever,” Tobin says.
Fusina, the winning quarterback, says he thinks few players considered the fate of the USFL during its final season. But that’s all they thought about once it ended.
Lombardi had won an all-expenses-paid vacation to Europe for six, his reward for work on the league’s labor agreement. He went to Italy for week, only to receive a call from Taubman. “Get back here ASAP,” the owner told him.
“It went downhill from there pretty quick,” Lombardi says.
Two weeks after the championship game, Oakland released most of its front-office staff. San Antonio let go of all 46 of its players. Portland failed to make its payroll.
Mora went to work every day at the Stars administrative offices in Philadelphia. Like everyone else, he waited.
Hebert had to get over the championship loss in a hurry. He figured he was going to Seattle, to play for the Seahawks. Instead, he went to the Saints. He started six games at quarterback in 1985 and figured afterward he had been involved in something like 44 football games in one season. “I remember I wanted to get as far as I could away from football,” he says. “I went scuba diving.”
The USFL allowed each team to retain a nucleus of around 30 players, as its litigation with the NFL unfolded. That charge was led, of course, by a familiar name and current fringe presidential candidate—Trump.
Lombardi had met Trump in 1984, when he had flown with Taubman to the USFL league meetings in Dallas and there was another young couple on the plane. The man, his hair perfectly coiffed, spent most of the flight telling Lombardi what he didn’t know about the league, or football in general. He later asked Taubman who the man was—Trump, along with, Ivana.
The USFL sued the NFL over its antitrust exemption. The trial started on May 12, 1986, in U.S. District Court in New York. It ended on July 29, when a jury ruled that the NFL did indeed monopolize pro football, and that it damaged the USFL, but with a caveat. The jury awarded all of $1 in damages, trebled eventually to $3.
That was the USFL in four words: three years and $3.
Owners suspended play until 1987 to reassess, and their reassessment reached an obvious conclusion: to disband. Lombardi says that was the best thing that ever happened to him. He went into public speaking. “The finding was probably appropriate,” he says. “The NFL was predatory. But when all was said and done, the USFL was its own worst enemy. It brought most of that on itself.”
Adds Peterson: “We won the lawsuit but lost the battle.”
The USFL’s demise resulted from several factors. Its revenue could not keep pace with its expansion. Hebert recalls friends and teammates who are still, in 2015, owed game checks. The planned move to the fall also had great consequences. The Stars, in fact, were one of three teams to vote against it.
Many of the participants blame Trump, the owner who declared war on the NFL and pushed for the fall schedule and hoped, they all believe, to run an NFL franchise after a merger rather than solidify an upstart league as real competition. His backdoor strategy is the one that failed.
“I don’t think there’s any great love for Donald Trump among the people involved in the NFL,” Dunek says.
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“I just disagreed with his decision,” Fusina says, “and it was obviously the wrong one.”
“I consider Donald a very good friend,” Peterson says. “Donald is Donald. He makes no bones about that. It’s about Donald. He was the Jerry Jones of the USFL.”
The NFL later adopted some USFL practices, such as the two-point conversion and the coaches’ challenge flag. It welcomed all the USFL’s stars, including several players and coaches and executives from the 1985 title game: Oates and Landeta went to the Giants, Bryant to the Redskins, Peterson to the Chiefs, Hebert, Mora and Mills to the Saints, Carter to the Vikings.
The USFL produced Hall of Famers such as White, Young, Kelly and Gary Zimmerman, along with Walker, Doug Williams and Ricky Sanders. Spurrier coached in the NFL, as did Dom Capers and Tobin. Peterson and Bill Polian became NFL executives.
The survivors of a spring football league remain split on whether it could be replicated. Mora thinks it “could work right now.” Hebert says “the NFL is so powerful it would squash it.”
After the Stars won the 1984 USFL championship, they threw a big party in Philadelphia. Not so in Baltimore in 1985. “We rallied, and we did this incredible thing, and we just packed our bags and went home,” Dunek says.
The Stars still hold the best three-year record in the history of pro football, a full 48-13-1. Bryant still scored the last touchdown in USFL history. Peterson still has one USFL trophy in his home, while Lombardi once bumped into a pizza parlor owner in Florence, Italy, wearing a Michigan Panthers sweatshirt.
Dunek is compiling a documentary about those stars. Working title: The Team that Time Forgot.
There were, to be fair, a couple celebrations. First, the team held a small party at The Sheraton near the Meadowlands. Then, a few weeks later, Peterson finagled a trip to Washington through a contact, George H.W. Bush, then the vice president of the United States. Maybe 25 players attended a small ceremony in a government office in July of 1985. Peterson had hoped they would get to meet the president. They never did.
Dunek later had the rings appraised.
Turns out, they were cubic zirconia.