SI Vault: So Long, USFL—Now What? Stars off to NFL, others in limbo
The USFL's final game took place on July 14, 1985, but the league's death knell came over a full year later, when a jury brought an end to its antitrust suit against the NFL by awarding the USFL a mere $1 in damages. The league suspended play for the 1986 season and disbanded the following year, but the ruling made clear that from then on, the NFL would be the only game in town for football's brightest talents. While several USFL stars went on to illustrious NFL careers, many were left pondering their football futures. This story originally appeared in the August 18, 1986 issue of Sports Illustrated. You can subscribe to the magazine here, and you can buy a framed copy of the cover here.
It was Feb. 26, 1983 and a press conference was about to begin in the cafeteria at Central Florida University in Orlando. Herschel Walker, the 20-year-old Heisman Trophy winner from Georgia, entered the room wearing a velour sweat suit and running shoes and confirmed that he had given up his final year of college football eligibility to sign with the New Jersey Generals of the new United States Football League. He had publicly denied reports of such a signing for almost a week.
“I had a deadened feeling that day,” Walker said last week. “I didn't know what I had done. I really didn't know what to do, what to say. The USFL hadn't even played its first game. It was tough, very tough. I felt as if I had let down the entire Georgia team.”
More than three years later, on Aug. 7, 1986 Walker was at another press conference, at a luxury town house that serves as his agent's office in New York City. Walker, now 24, wore a navy blue suit with a red silk tie and blue Italian leather shoes. In his three USFL seasons he had given the league much of whatever credibility it had earned, rushing for 5,562 yards and 54 touchdowns. Now, leaning into a battery of microphones, Walker announced that he wanted to play for the Dallas Cowboys, who have his NFL rights.
“This time around, I knew exactly what I was doing,” Walker said the next day at his home in Verona, N.J. “I was confident and relaxed. There really was no decision; I love football.”
Walker's words came 10 days after a jury in New York had awarded the USFL one measly buck, not the $1.69 billion in antitrust damages it had sought from the NFL. Those words also came four days after the owners of the USFL's eight remaining teams had voted to suspend play for the 1986 fall season while they & pursued legal actions in the hope of winning substantial damages. The USFL said it hoped to play in the fall of 1987. Walker and fellow marquee players Jim Kelly, Doug Flutie and Kelvin Bryant—as well as at least some of the 43 others whose rights were already owned by NFL teams—had new employers waiting for them, provided the players could unravel the legal tangles in their USFL contracts and sign NFL pacts soon enough to get into training camp and onto the field for the league's openers on Sept. 7.
For the 500 or so other USFL players, the future was cloudy indeed. Under an agreement reached last week by the USFL Players Association and management, all those players were free to pursue NFL (or Canadian Football League) careers or, for that matter, any other career. But with NFL teams in the final weeks of preseason and the CFL already seven games into its regular season, cracking those rosters won't be easy. Injuries in the other leagues will mean jobs for some USFL men, and for a few there will still be a USFL. The league, through re-signings, plans to maintain nucleus rosters of no fewer than 10 players in each of the eight franchise cities. Those players will receive salaries of at least $1,500 per month.
But the harsh reality was that a large majority of the USFL players were fresh out of football work and likely to remain so; the dream was all but dead. What impact, then, would the lucky few have on the NFL? Certainly the Cowboys, with Walker's battering-ram physique and world-class speed added to Tony Dorsett's superstar skills, figure to be much stronger. The rights to Bryant, who led the Baltimore Stars to the '85 USFL championship, belong to Washington, where he and George Rogers would be another formidable backfield duo.
Rights to the Generals' Kelly are held by Buffalo; he'd give the lackluster Bills a big lift if he agreed to play for them—but don't stake the mortgage that he will. Stars offensive tackle Irv Eatman could give the Kansas City Chiefs an impact player on either the left or right side. Free agent defensive tackle Kit Lathrop, late of the Arizona Outlaws, is being pursued by several NFL teams. The addition of Stars linebacker Mike Johnson could make Tom Cousineau trade bait in Cleveland, and former NFL quarterbacks such as Tampa Bay's Doug Williams (Arizona Outlaws), Pittsburgh's Cliff Stoudt (Birmingham Stallions) and San Diego's Ed Luther (Jacksonville Bulls) are likely to be offered in trade by their old teams.
By and large, however, NFL team officials weren't exactly turning handsprings. “We're not looking for much help from over there,” said Mike Brown, the Cincinnati Bengals' assistant general manager. “There are a half-dozen USFL players who will be stars. And a dozen or maybe a score who will be backup players. That's about what the impact will be. Not much.”
Bill Tobin, the Chicago Bears' personnel director, said loftily, “We might get somebody who could be our 44th or 45th player. There aren't many players who are going to help the world champions.”
There may be some coaches who can help, though. Tobin's brother Vince, until six months ago the defensive coordinator of the Stars, now holds that position with the Bears. And general manager Jerry Vainisi, after first asserting he had no opening for any USFL player, said Chicago was “very interested” in Stars linebacker Sam Mills, who has been called “the Mike Singletary of the USFL.” No NFL team has Mills's rights. Vainisi allowed as how he'd like to look over some USFL wide receivers, too.
Jim Schaaf, the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, suggested that a higher percentage of USFL players will catch on than might have been expected. “I see them as a source of talent that is readily available in the event of injuries,” Schaaf said. “I see a lot of teams working them out and keeping them on a ready list.” Indeed, NFL owners were to meet this week to discuss, among other things, the possibility of allowing roster exemptions for incoming USFL players.
Nevertheless, many USFL players were panicking. “I'm having a heart attack right now,” said Chuck Commiskey, a guard for the Stars and a free agent who was outstanding in the '85 USFL title game. “My anxiety is so high, I feel like I could explode.”
“How quickly I can get into training camp is the key to the rest of my career,” said Eatman. “I need to compete for a roster spot. The only thing I'm competing against now is insanity.”
Waiting to try to make a professional football team's roster next season isn't a viable option for many USFL players, because they have already sat out 13 months while the league's owners were pressing the antitrust suit.
“If I miss this year, I'll be done,” said Pete Kugler, the Stars' nose tackle. “You've got to have a certain mind-set for football. You get too soft if you don't play. It's hard to get aggressive again. If you're out in the real world too long, you start acting normal.”
Kugler, 27, played with the San Francisco 49ers, who won Super Bowl XVI in 1982. He left the 49ers after a contract dispute in '83, and though they still have his rights, Kugler knows he may not be welcomed back. “I'm not naive,” he said. “I hope they can forgive and forget, but who knows?”
Contracts were the immediate problem last week. The NFL refused to sign players unless they had written releases from USFL contracts. Walker, who is currently the highest paid player in football at $1.5 million a year, had three years remaining on a guaranteed contract with Generals owner Donald Trump. Last Wednesday, Walker and his agent, Peter Johnson of the International Management Group, met with Trump to arrange a settlement.
“We discussed the situation from Herschel's perspective,” Trump said. “It is very difficult for me, on a moral basis, to let Herschel sit back another year while we wind our way through the courts. That's 10, 20, maybe 30 percent of his career life span. I wanted to do what's best for him because, quite frankly, he took a chance signing with the USFL.”
Any NFL contract Walker signs must be approved by Trump, who could negotiate a reduction in his own payments. But Walker was quick to praise Trump's generosity. “So many people think Mr. Trump only thinks of Mr. Trump,” Walker said. “Maybe now they'll see he wants what's best for Herschel. This was not an employer-employee deal; this was friend to friend.”
Will Walker be the highest paid player in the NFL? “Obviously, he should command a top salary for what he has done,” said Tex Schramm, the Dallas Cowboys' president. “I would hope, however, that they (Walker and his agent) recognize Herschel is coming into an established league with an established team. It isn't the same situation he was in where he was the league.”
Sitting out this NFL season seemed a possibility for Flutie, who has the same sort of contract provisions with Trump that Walker has. Flutie has two years remaining on a personal services contract with Trump, calling for $1.3 million in '86 and $1.35 million in '87.
“We're talking about financial security for the rest of my life versus proving to people I can play in the NFL,” Flutie said. “It has always bothered me that people say I'm too short to play in the NFL. I may be a driven competitor, but I don't feel I have to prove anything to anybody. Deep down, I know I can play there. Now is the time for me to make a mature decision, not one based on emotion.”
Kelly is in the final year of a contract guaranteed by Trump. However, he has a clause that states he must be paid his $800,000 salary if the USFL or the Generals don't play in any contract year and that sum isn't affected, his agents claim, if he signs to play elsewhere. He wasn't, however, in a big hurry to sign with the Bills, who had made him their second pick in the first round in 1983. “Last week was the longest of my life,” Kelly said. “I'm a wreck. I'm filled with mixed emotions. I'm excited about playing, but I feel so-so about going to Buffalo. Ralph Wilson (the Bills' owner) has to be 100 percent serious about signing me. It will definitely take something extra.
“If I go to Buffalo as the team is now, I'll be cutting my career short. I want Mouse Davis (a former Houston Gamblers assistant) as my offensive coordinator, and the three receivers I threw to in Houston—Vince Courville, Richard Johnson, Scott McGhee—to come with me, too.”
Kelly said he is prepared to sit out a season if he can't come to terms with the Bills. If he does so, on draft day 1987 he would become a free agent and could negotiate with any NFL team. Buffalo, though, retains the right of first refusal. “If Buffalo can't make a deal, I'm not sitting out a year, only to have the Bills come back and try to top the next team I negotiate with,” he said. “I'll put some sort of clause in that contract that the Bills won't be able to match.”
Most players agreed that despite all the recent chaos, it will be hard to say goodbye to the USFL and what it stood for. “I'll miss what the USFL gave to me—what it gave everybody who played in it—so much confidence, excitement, freshness,” said Stoudt. “For seven years I was a backup in Pittsburgh [to Terry Bradshaw]. I wasn't sure I could be a starter. Now, I know I can.”
Lathrop is one of the league's biggest success stories. A free agent from Arizona State in 1978, he was cut by the Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers before retiring from football to coach at Ventura (Calif.) College and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Two years later, a friend dared him to try out for the USFL. Lathrop wound up a three-time all-league selection and was twice voted the USFL's Lineman of the Year. Now, 10 NFL teams—including Kansas City and Miami—were bidding for his services.
“Because of the USFL, I'm a credible, recognized player,” Lathrop said. “I'm in a great negotiating position. I'll go with the team that needs me the most. I'd like to be in camp within a week, but it's a business—on both sides.”
There are possibilities for other happy endings. Larry Csonka, the Jacksonville Bulls' president and general manager, insisted that the USFL was far from dead.
“I know this all looks rough in the newspapers,” said Csonka, head of the USFL's labor relations committee. “Through negotiations with the players union, we were able to maintain the integrity of the league in skeletal form. It is a league. It has a heart beat.
“Look at what we have. No one else has franchises in place, stadiums and true fan interest. The league has retained Harvey Myerson (the New York attorney representing the USFL in its antitrust suit) to proceed with court appeals.
“Out of the 12 owners involved in the lawsuit as plaintiffs, there are six or seven who have already spoken and decided that in case of a complete demise, they will start another league. They will lobby against any kind of antitrust exemption the NFL seeks.
“None of the owners is happy to let his players go. But all the owners know they've won. A federal jury ruled the NFL is a monopoly. The owners have millions invested. They won't let the league blow away like dust in the wind.”
Maybe so, but last week the wind was definitely blowing the USFL's best the NFL's way.