When Tampa Bay of the USFL began the season last month, its pluses were that it had the best nickname in football (Bandits); the best marketing (advertising catchline: "All the fun the law allows"); the most glamorous ownership (Burt Reynolds is in for 5%; his pal Loni Anderson appears on a Bandit poster that says, SPECIAL THRILLS PROMISED THIS SPRING); some of the best weather in the league; and a town that is bonkers over football.
The major minus was that the Bandits didn't appear to have much football ability. Central to that shortcoming was their quarterback, John Reaves. He had played with four different teams during his nine NFL seasons, and over that span he'd been arrested more often (three times) than he'd led his clubs to victory (twice). The word on Reaves was that drugs and alcohol had made him damaged goods.
But after their first four games the Bandits were the only undefeated team in the USFL. That was mostly because Reaves was playing not as he had in the NFL but as he had one glorious autumn afternoon 14 years before at the University of Florida.
For openers, Reaves bombed the Boston Breakers, completing 28 of 39 passes for 358 yards and three TDs. Next time out, against the Michigan Panthers, he threw for 154 yards and one touchdown. In Week 3, against the New Jersey Generals, he aired out his arm again: 19 of 29, 255 yards, three TDs. In a league desperate for a star, Reaves shot across the sky. After a subsequent Bandit victory over the Philadelphia Stars he was tied for the USFL lead in touchdown passes with eight and was second in passing yardage with 1,036.
April 18, 1983
And then, a fortnight ago with the Chicago Blitz in town, Burt and Loni in attendance and a splendid advance ticket sale of 53,344, Reaves was awful. He threw four interceptions, and Coach Steve Spurrier yanked him in the third quarter as booing reached a crescendo. Tampa Bay was hammered, 42-3.
Asked about the boos, Reaves said, "I deserved 'em. If I'd been in the stands, I'd have booed me." Then he walked outside the stadium to where his wife, Patti, and some friends were waiting for him—all wearing masks. "I almost didn't recognize you," said Reaves. Said Patti, "That's the point, John." Reaves laughed and put on a mask himself.
Then, presto, it was off with the mask last Saturday night, as Reaves threw for 357 yards in leading the Bandits to a 22-16 overtime victory over the Denver Gold, setting up the winning touchdown with a 28-yard bull's-eye to Wide Receiver Eric Truvillion.
Who is the man behind the mask? The three-week roller-coaster ride—way up against Philly, way, way down against Chicago and then up again against Denver—could be taken as a master plan for Reaves's career. When he was a sophomore at Florida in 1969, his very first pass in his college football debut went 70 yards for a touchdown. That day he threw five TD passes as the Gators thrashed highly regarded Houston 59-34; six weeks later, against Auburn, he had an NCAA-record nine interceptions in a 38-12 defeat. In 1972 he was the No. 1 draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles; within a couple of years he was, in his own words, "strung out on dope. Eventually I was separated from my wife, estranged from my children, an alcoholic, $100,000 in debt, wrecking cars, causing scenes in restaurants and hiding from the police." He sighs and says, "And to think I figured if I made it to the NFL, I'd live happily ever after."
In Tampa in 1973, a policeman happened upon Reaves and some friends in a parking lot and said he was going to arrest them for taking puffs on a joint. Reaves screamed, "My name is John Reaves. I play football for the Philadelphia Eagles. You can't arrest me." At which time he was arrested—and subsequently acquitted.
Along with Spurrier, Reaves is one of the two biggest heroes in University of Florida history; he holds 13 Gator passing records. Yet after a brilliant sophomore year—the Gators finished 9-1-1—he fell, gradually at first, into big league drinking and pot smoking. And that, Reaves was saying sadly the other evening at his Tampa home, ruined the chances the Gators had for superior records in the next two years. Florida slumped to 7-4 his junior year and collapsed to 4-7 his senior year.
Reaves remembers when he smoked his first joint. It was in February 1970, and the source was a former Florida player. They drove around Gainesville puffing away. "I didn't like it when I did it," Reaves says. "I knew it was wrong and I felt extremely guilty. But I did it anyway. It was just plain dumb. My whole life started going downhill—my grades, my ability as an athlete, my relationships with my fellow students and teammates. I could see that was the cause. But I wouldn't quit."
Reaves believes his problem really started with those five TD throws against Houston. In retrospect that was at least four too many for him to handle. "I played it to the hilt," he recalls. "It all went to my head. I was a sight to see. I had leather pants, pink suede boots and a handkerchief around my neck with a little ring. I was puffed up and playing the big shot. I was trying to act like a combination of Joe Namath and James Bond."
These days, Reaves is miraculously back from the dark side of the moon, and it is all the work of the Lord, he says. He's another of the born-agains, whose praise-the-Lord-and-snap-the-football philosophies sometimes wear thin on skeptical ears. Still, as far down as Reaves was, it's hard to find any other explanation for his comeback.
Reaves's father, who was divorced from his mother, died when John was nine. His mother had moved the family (which included John's brother Bob and sister Caroline) from Anniston, Ala. to Tampa, where she and her mother, the late Gussie Johnson, largely raised the kids. Gussie was devout. "I've prayed for you every day since you started playing football," she once told John.
"It hasn't done much good," said John.
"You've never gotten hurt, have you?" said Gussie.
As a quarterback at Robinson High he led his team to the state semifinals in 1967. In basketball he scored 52 points in one game, a school record that still stands. He was a letterman in both baseball and track. And he made the National Honor Society. "The Lord blessed me with a good mind," he says.
But Reaves concedes that "self-control was always a problem, and every time I did anything, I got caught." Once, en route to Daytona for the auto races in his 1961 Chevy, he and his underage buddies bought two cases of beer, covered them with a blanket, put them in the car and were promptly stopped by police.
Another time, an older student asked Reaves to ride to school in the older kid's Jaguar. "Would I? That was the finest-looking automobile I'd ever seen," says Reaves. "It was beige with real mahogany paneling and leather seats. This kid was cool. He wore Gant shirts. I got in and he said, 'Want a beer, John?' I said, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, I'm cool. Let me have one of those things.' I get to school and I'm looped." He was suspended.
Then the colleges came a-courting, but only Florida had a chance. "I loved the Gators," he says. "I had fallen in love with Steve Spurrier when he was a Heisman winner there. It was like Camelot."
Before his sophomore year, Reaves met Patti. She was blonde and gorgeous. She had been homecoming queen at Orlando Evans High and Miss Orlando Junior College, and while at Florida she would be SAE Sweetheart, Camellia Queen, Engineering Queen, Tangerine Bowl Queen, Florida Citrus Queen and Homecoming Queen. She was a model in college and, after that, a stewardess, based in New York. The Golden Couple.
Reaves's golden arm had erased Spurrier's Florida single-game passing-yardage record in its first try. In his final college game he surpassed the NCAA three-year career record of 7,544 yards that had been held by Stanford's Jim Plunkett. Never mind that Reaves broke the mark as a result of the celebrated "great laydown." With a big lead late in the fourth quarter against Miami, Reaves needed only 13 yards to set the record. At that point Florida went into the Gator Flop and deliberately let Miami score so Florida could get the ball back and Reaves could throw some more. He did so, beating out Plunkett by five yards.
Despite the Gators' mediocre record in his junior and senior years and his increasing use of liquor and pot. Reaves was the campus hero—with an ego to match. The Eagles picked him first despite concern that Reaves lacked the ability to scramble. Doubters remembered the 1970 Auburn game, in which he was sacked six times and threw four interceptions as the Gators lost 63-14. He started for the Eagles as a rookie and Philadelphia wound up 2-11-1. "I just wasn't very good," Reaves says. Indeed, he was sacked a horrendous 38 times, but somebody liked him; he was named to the NFL's All-Rookie team.
Meanwhile, his smoking and drinking were also all-league. He recalls one night having a shot of tequila, a rum and Coke, a vodka and orange juice—then starting over. Many times. In 1973, before his second season with the Eagles, he and Patti were married, and from then on she was there "slugging it out with me"—sharing pills and pot.
Before the '73 season the Eagles acquired Roman Gabriel and sat Reaves down. One Sunday that year Gabriel was hurt during a game against Dallas and Reaves came in. He was terrible and Coach Mike McCormack was livid. But the partying went on. "I liked to get high," says Patti. "We partied with players and with society types. There was marijuana, then uppers. I can't imagine being such an idiot."
Reaves went back to the bench. And his marriage soon soured. Patti left John at least 10 times, she says. So fragile was their relationship that even when she returned, she kept a packed suitcase under the bed. Soon Reaves was traded to Cincinnati, where he mostly sat and watched Kenny Anderson play quarterback.
It was in Cincinnati in 1976 that Patti, who by then had started thinking about divorcing "this man I hate," says she was born again during a Bible study meeting. She quit pills and pot and became compassionate toward John. He was suspicious. "What are you trying to pull?" he said. Back in Tampa during the off-season, Patti remembers inviting her new friends to dinner to try to influence John, but "he would actually pass out at the table. I'd say, 'I'm so sorry. John is real tired.' "
In 1979, Reaves was cut by the Bengals and picked up by the Vikings; thus he got to sit and watch Tommy Kramer play. He didn't play a single down in return for his $100,000 paycheck. Hello, cocaine. "I started because I sensed it was all over for me," says Reaves. "I couldn't face it. I didn't know what I could do without football." He started off spending an occasional $100 for a gram of coke. That soon escalated to $500 for a quarter-ounce, which lasted him two or three days.
"It got to a point where I was literally saturated with drugs and alcohol. I was becoming violent. My nose was runny, my liver was swollen, my skin and complexion looked waxy. My friends were abandoning me, my wife couldn't stand me anymore. My habit was more important to me than my wife and family, so after the '79 season I moved out. That gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do, and I got worse, if you can imagine. I was out of control. On May 14, 1980, I saw an old high school friend. He gave me four or five pills and I took them all at once. Then I went to my car [a Mercedes he had bought two weeks earlier] and went driving through the streets of Tampa at 60 miles an hour. I slammed into a wrecker, totaled it, totaled my car and knocked myself out. When I came to, I was arrested for driving while intoxicated and taken to jail. Nine days later, I was out driving again, blasted, and was taken to jail again, proving that a near fatal accident hadn't taught me anything."
Now there were newspaper headlines: REAVES JAILED AGAIN; MINNESOTA'S REAVES FOUND GUILTY OF DWI. Reaves was fined $286, his license was revoked and he was ordered to attend driving school.
In early July, Reaves got into a shouting match at Selena's, a Tampa restaurant. Shortly thereafter, he was before a judge. Reaves recalls that an affidavit from one employee of the restaurant said that "I was strung out on cocaine, Quaaludes and alcohol, that I was a danger, threatening to kill them and myself, and I needed to be committed." Also according to Reaves, another employee said, "I have known him [Reaves] for quite some time, and I believe him to be totally out of his mind at this time." The judge had earlier ordered Reaves picked up and taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. That order was dissolved, but before it was, Reaves fled in terror, hiding out at his brother's home.
"While I was there," he says, "I took a long look at the rotten mess I'd made out of my life and how I'd destroyed everything through the lust of my flesh. I was at the end of myself. I had nothing, zero. I dropped to my knees in anguish right there in Bob's living room and cried out in desperation, and He met me at my point of need." Patti, meanwhile, discovered that they were $100,000 in debt, and began selling furniture and her jewelry and having a tag sale to raise money.
With the Vikings' support, Reaves went to the Hazelden Foundation in Center City, Minn., a place sometimes called The Last Resort, before the start of the 1980 season. Reaves insists that God had cleansed him of all drugs and alcohol that day at his brother's house and that he never suffered withdrawal, but he went to Hazelden anyway. Midway through his treatment he was cut by the Vikings, which he considered fair. "The old me would have walked out right then," he says. "The new me stayed." Out of football, he scratched out a living selling real estate in Tampa. "I had $500 left in my checking account and things were ripe for a miracle," he says. He promptly wrote out a check for the full $500 to Bay Shore Methodist Church. Within a week he sold some property for $90,000 cash; he says he netted $20,000. Later, he brought off an office building sale and made another $20,000.
Meanwhile, life on the home front had done a 180-degree turn. While at Hazelden, he wrote to Patti, telling her that an all-new John would soon appear in Tampa, ready to be a proper husband to her and a proper father to their two children, Layla, then five, and David, 1½. She was excited but skeptical; when he walked in the door, she was convinced. "He had this big smile on his face," she says, "and his eyes were clear for the first time in 10 years. I waited all that time because the Lord told me to be patient."
A year later, Houston gave Reaves his final NFL shot, a partial season as Ken Stabler's backup. He had one shining hour, leading the Oilers to a 17-16 win over Oakland. A week and a half later, he was cut. The Oilers won't say so publicly, but a growing discomfort with Reaves's religious involvement—contributed to his exit. Said Reaves of the experience, "They gave me the game ball, a wrist-watch, an Oiler belt buckle and my walking papers, in that order." Reaves stayed in Houston, evangelizing and working in real estate, while continuing to hope for another chance in the NFL. No soap. He got his shot with the Bandits when Tampa Tribune Sports Editor Tom McEwen, an acquaintance of Reaves's, informed the team of Reaves's availability.
The Bandits' principal owner, John Bassett, says of Reaves, "We [Bassett and his director of football operations, Bugsy Engelberg] felt if it was there once, and it was, then maybe we could get it out again." Tampa Bay signed Reaves to a salary of $60,000, highest on the team; it rises to $75,000 next year, plus incentives. "What I hope," says Bassett, "is that he has two brilliant years and we have to pay him $500,000 to keep him from the Dolphins."
That would be nice, but it won't take big bucks to make the Reaves family happy. They are content in a Georgian-style home that was once filled with only bad memories. Remembering the disastrous years, Reaves smiles—he smiles a lot these days—and says, "The great thing about the Lord is that He will restore the years that were wasted." Reaves, a most patient autograph-signer, usually writes "Jesus loves you" above his signature. The Reaveses still have a 22-foot cabin cruiser he bought—and mischievously named Patti's Pleasure—in 1979, but it is a happy boat now. He has a Mercedes again, but he's quick to point out that it's a 1977 model with 126,000 miles on it and that he bought it used for only $10,500. In the car is a notebook in which Reaves jots down Bible verses. He writes one, then looks up and says, "These are exciting times. It's great to be alive. Praise God."