There are certainly more profitable places than Boston to foster a new idea like pro football in the spring. So the sage ownership of the USFL Boston Breakers expects to lose money for a while, and so far everything's going according to plan. "No way we could make a profit, even if we filled the place every time we played," said primary owner George Matthews, nodding toward the near sellout crowd of 18,430 paying customers who whooped it up during the Breakers' inaugural home game last Sunday at Boston University's cozy Nickerson Field. "But we're willing to accept the loss."
Matthews spoke not with a whimper but a smile, despite the contrast in attendance with Sunday's New Jersey Generals' home opener at the Meadowlands, where 53,370 showed up—and probably left wondering why. The Tampa Bay Bandits routed the winless Generals 32-9. Boston, meanwhile, played like a feature attraction, beating the Washington Federals 19-16 and losing money while doing it.
Watching the till drain and smiling at the same time takes character, a quality the Breakers seem to have in abundance. "The first two or three times you hear that character stuff, you think bull-feathers," says Boston Placekicker Tim Mazzetti, whose fourth field goal with :27 left won the game, "but then you see the difference. There's none of that NFL negativism. In the NFL, the coach looked away when I missed a kick. Here, the coach [Dick Coury] says, 'Great kick! You'll get it next time!' Here, they believe, so you have to believe, too."
The birth of the Breakers was bankrolled by individual investors, including Matthews and Randy Vataha, the former Stanford and New England Patriot wide receiver. Matthews consulted Bob Caporale, a sports attorney who had advised the Hartford Whalers and the WHA and was legal counsel to the firm that constructed Schaefer Stadium, the 60,358-seat home of the Patriots, 26 miles southwest of Boston. Caporale looked at the situation, realized it was hopeless and decided it was irresistible.
"We New Englanders don't spend our money on just anything that comes along," says Caporale, now the Breakers' president. "We knew we'd have problems. We had no doubt."
No doubt at all. The Red Sox are heading north soon. Both the NBA Celtics and the NHL Bruins will make the playoffs. And, of course, there's no arena suitable for spring pro football in Boston proper other than Nickerson Field and Harvard Stadium. Caporale propositioned Harvard, which turned him down flat in November. He was in negotiation with the Patriots on renting Schaefer Stadium but to the Breakers, Nickerson made more sense. As in cents.
The rent was higher at Schaefer, the fan inconvenience greater. The Breakers decided whoever did show up at Nickerson would look less lonely against the smaller backdrop. Plus, a penny saved is one spent somewhere else. So the Breakers doled out some $300,000 on improvements on Nickerson, adding more than 4,000 seats to bring the capacity to slightly less than 21,000. "It was important to all of us to be in Boston," says Caporale. "What we would like to see eventually is a modern sports facility built, a domed stadium."
The prospect of small crowds in Boston caused a minor uproar around the league, where the visiting teams share in the gate. And some of the league's other owners may have bitten their tongues after Caporale signed Cincinnati Bengal Tight End Dan Ross on March 3. It's a league tenet not to sign NFL players under contract, which is logical since a franchise like Boston's couldn't last long enough to play the national anthem if a bidding war began.
"But all we said was that we would honor existing NFL contracts," says Caporale. "We signed Dan for next season, after his Bengal contract has expired. It was because of his great character. We knew he would give the Bengals 110 percent even though he would be coming to us next February."
Not shy about spending, the Breakers also signed Linebacker Marcus Marek, a rookie from Ohio State who had two interceptions Sunday, and Andy Johnson, an eight-year roster fixture with the Patriots at running back.
Ross is an alumnus of Northeastern University, as is Matthews. A month ago the league talk was that the Breakers were the most likely to secede and that such mom-and-pop ethics could not survive, much less win, in pro football, a real business. Surprise. The Breakers beat Denver 21-7 after losing 21-17 to Tampa Bay on the road the first week.
Boston's success is more the result of hard work than skill. "Often, character will outlast talent," says John Walton, the 35-year-old starting quarterback with an educated arm and a resume that reads like a Greyhound bus schedule. Walton is 58 of 97 (.597) for 636 yards and three touchdowns this season.
A bad center snap had given Boston the ball on the Washington 35-yard line with :43 left Sunday. Walton had failed to throw a touchdown pass even though he and Running Back Richard Crump—130 yards, 15 carries and one TD on the day—had marched the Breakers between the 10s at will. Now, Walton completed two passes under pressure to set up Mazzetti's game-winning 29-yarder. Then, the Breakers stood and gave the crowd a standing ovation.
On an off day Walton was 21 of 41 for 247 yards, with two interceptions. "He's like a coach out there," said Coury afterward. Indeed. For the past three seasons Walton had coached the football team at his alma mater, Elizabeth City (N.C.) State, amassing a 20-10-1 record. He started his pro playing career with the Los Angeles Rams in 1969, moving on to the Chicago Fire (1974) and San Antonio Wings ('75) of the World Football League before joining the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976. He left the Eagles and the NFL in 1979, at 32.
Coury contacted Walton. "He told me if I was happy coaching, he didn't want me to lose my job," says the dour Walton. "Those three years I lost might have been my peak years. I regret losing my job, but I wanted this."
"He's the leader," said Coury after the win over the Federals. "Talk about character. John's the catalyst of that on the field." Then, grabbing a reporter's microphone, he added, "This guy Walton will be traded in 24 hours." After that he and the quarterback had a fine laugh together. Some characters.