Only 3:11 remained in the first USFL Championship Game at Denver's Mile High Stadium last Sunday when Anthony Carter, the Michigan Panthers' wide receiver and No. 1 engine, loped out of the Michigan huddle and along the Philadelphia Stars' 48-yard line. When he reached a spot 10 yards from the sideline, he stopped, shifted all 162 of his pounds off his injured left foot and leisurely assumed a scissored stance. "I had hurt my ankle on a catch in the third quarter," he said later. "Bent the foot back."
At this point, the Panthers led the Stars by 17-14, which was not by as much as they should have, considering how Michigan had dominated most of the action. And Philadelphia was charging. The Stars had scored 11 fourth-quarter points, and Philly Free Safety Mike Lush had just stove in a Panther trap, planting a shot on Running Back Ken Lacy that put Lacy out of the game. Carter had already blown some opportunities to make Michigan's task easier, dropping three passes and bobbling two punts to ruin his chances for runbacks. He later admitted to having been unnerved by this "big" game, which wasn't so big that it couldn't be overshadowed in Denver by the arrival in training camp of a single NFL player, new Bronco Quarterback John Elway. "I was uptight," Carter said. "I wasn't like me." Yet, despite his glitches, he was having a good game. He had already caught eight Bobby Hebert passes for 131 yards. But he was still one very big play short of a great game. Ten seconds later, he was not.
"Bobby just told me to make sure I took the cornerback deep, so I made sure I did," said Carter of the 48-yard touchdown play that gave Michigan a 24-14 lead and, in effect, the USFL championship. The play was an audible, one anticipated so early that Hebert had mentioned it in the huddle. "We caught them in a blitz we expected," said Hebert. "I knew they'd try to disguise it. Lush came too late. And A.C. just...wow!" The play was split right A44 pass corner 2, a quick sideline throw to Carter. He gave Cornerback Antonio Gibson a darting inside feint and then broke out to receive Hebert's bullet.
Gibson closed on Carter's outside shoulder, protecting the sideline. Stars Strong Safety Scott Woerner read the play and came over to lend a hand. But Carter circled inside Gibson and sliced like a fish by Woerner, who was having a long day. As he reacted to Carter's cutback, Woerner felt his left knee hyperextend when his cleats held too firmly. He fell backward, rendered helpless by Carter's move. "I saw it then," said Carter. "I had gotten over the drops. I knew they were looking for me on the big play, and it had finally happened." While fellow Wide Receiver Derek Holloway, who had caught passes for Michigan's two earlier TDs, blocked Philadelphia Cornerback Jonathan Sutton, Carter's afterburner kicked in and he flew to the end zone, untouched. "You know, I think I should have kept that ball," said Carter, "but I threw it into the stands."
Some of the 50,906 people in the stands, in a sense, threw themselves back at Carter. As time was running out, the fans swarmed onto the field. They retreated while Philadelphia scored a meaningless touchdown and two-point conversion to make the final score 24-22, but then poured back. Mace was sprayed at the crowd that was trying to take down the goalposts, and nearly 100 of Denver's finest moved in to restore order. Seventeen people were arrested, a couple of them well-oiled Michigan backers. One woman suffered a two-inch gash on her forehead, and at least two people were handcuffed. Their names weren't Carter or Holloway, however. As far as Philly's secondary is concerned, those two are still at large.
Philadelphia had come into the game needing to control the ball and keep it away from the high-powered Michigan offense. Think of the Panthers as the vintage Pittsburgh Steelers—oh, all right, miniature Steelers, perhaps, but dominant in their world—led by Hebert, who would complete 20 of 39 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns and win the game's MVP award, Carter, Holloway, proficient tight ends and backs and the cleverest offensive linemen in the league. "We blitzed to take the trap away," said Lush. "We worried most about that. I played like a middle linebacker most of the time. Of course, you give away some things when you play that way."
What you give up is double coverage on the wide receivers, a luxury the Stars felt they could not afford. The Panther line was anchored by three former Steelers: Right Tackle Ray Pinney, and guards Thorn Dornbrook and Tyrone McGriff. "We do a lot of pulling because we do a good job at it," said Pinney, 29. "The coaches put some things in when Tyrone and Thorn and I came here around mid-season. I'd say this offense is very similar to what we used to run at Pittsburgh."
"Primarily, the trap is the basis of our running game," Michigan Coach Jim Stanley conceded, "but it also reduces pressure on our passer."
This suited Hebert. The only thing that Terry Bradshaw has on him is age, rep and size of target. Hebert burned Woerner with a 37-yard strike down the middle to Tight End Mike Cobb late in the first quarter, setting up a 33-yard Nino Bojovic field goal and a 3-0 lead. Woerner had faked a blitz and had his back to the play, racing to get into the coverage, when the ball was snapped.
Meanwhile, the Panthers' line was busying itself freeing Cleo Miller, the 30-year-old former Cleveland Brown, for unlikely gains. Miller, who was subbing for an injured John Williams (bruised toe), rushed for 80 yards in 12 carries, 6.7 per try.
Michigan took a 10-3 lead with 2:11 left before halftime. Carter had caught a third-and-20 sideline throw at the Michigan 37 with his toes snug against the left boundary stripe. "He was definitely out of bounds," Lush grumbled later. "The ref told me, 'I'm sorry. I didn't see it.' " Carter was definitely in bounds when he caught a third-and-10 pass for 13 yards to the Stars' 12. When he went in motion right on the next play, the Stars' secondary came with him. Holloway, moving left, slipped behind Woerner and could have posed for a portrait as he waited for Hebert's TD throw. "Pound for pound, Holloway might be the best football player in America," Stanley said afterward of the 5'7½", 166-pounder from Arkansas. Panther Strong Safety David Greenwood added, "A.C. is the fastest player on the team, unless Holloway has something to say about it."
Greenwood himself had plenty of say during the week of preparation. An All-Big Ten safety at Wisconsin and the conference's outdoor high jump champion, Greenwood had been the lone surefire defensive back signed early by the USFL. In addition to doing the punting duties—he had a 45.8 average on Sunday—Greenwood anchored the USFL's best secondary, which also included Safety John Arnaud and NFL veteran corner-backs Clarence Chapman (New Orleans) and Oliver Davis (Cleveland). Greenwood himself covered his assignments tightly and hit people like a falling tree. Oakland Coach John Ralston had given him credit for the key play in the Panthers' 37-21 semifinal victory over the Invaders the week before; Greenwood had poleaxed Receiver Wyatt Henderson over the middle, the ball popping free for an interception. He's good enough to star in the NFL right now, and it seems he would like to do so, posthaste. Or maybe he wouldn't.
Greenwood was quoted during the week leading up to the title game as saying he'd like to play soon for the Saints, the NFL team that drafted him in the eighth round. Panther owner A. Alfred Taubman then said the quote was taken out of context. "I talked to David and there was nothing to it," Taubman said. "He said he was only kidding around and that he's learned a lesson. He was well aware that he has a contract here for three years. There are loopholes in any contract, but I don't think, even if there were any, David would escape." Greenwood said, "I had mentioned that if it were possible and the money right, I'd play anywhere. My agent [Greg Campbell] brought it up, and I trust him. This is a business. If I go belly up, I can always go back north and live off the land."
Michigan drove boldly to start the second half. Carter caught two more third-down passes, the second on a 13-yard Hebert heater that zipped past the four Stars surrounding Carter and put the ball on the Philly 14. "We had to play a guessing game," said Lush. On third down, the Stars guessed Carter and blitzed with Lush. Stanley had sniffed it out, and Hebert's audible was prearranged. Holloway ran a quick post from left to right and cradled his second touchdown throw. Michigan led 17-3 with 7:49 left in the third quarter, and the clock was threatening to take Kelvin Bryant, the league's MVP and its most gifted running back, out of Philadelphia's game plan. Tough, because Bryant usually is the Stars' game plan.
Irv Eatman, Philly's 280-pound right tackle, had said, "The Panthers don't have that good a defensive team. Their linebackers play five yards off the line, 12 yards away from Kelvin. No way they can do that. He'll get over 100 yards and we'll win, no doubt."
Bryant had 42 yards on nine first-half carries. He took a pitch on the first play from scrimmage following Michigan's second touchdown, swept right, saw nothing and reversed field, churning around left end to turn a disaster into a 22-yard gain. Two Fitzkee catches and a Greenwood personal foul set up David Trout for a 34-yard field goal, which he missed. Undaunted, Bryant keyed the assault again, gaining 14 yards over Eatman on the first play of Philly's next possession. Wide Receiver Rodney Parker split Arnaud and Chapman and gathered in Harvin's fluttering prayer of a halfback pass for 42 yards to Michigan's 22. Eatman pounded on the ear holes of Bryant's helmet after the back ripped off 12 more—he would finish with 89 yards on 13 carries—to the eight. Bryant was rested during the next two plays, a costly respite as the Stars netted a scant three yards. The teams changed ends to begin the fourth quarter, and Bryant reentered the game for third and goal from the five.
Quarterback Chuck Fusina stuck the ball in Bryant's stomach as he headed right. Everyone followed except Fusina, who had kept the ball on a naked bootleg, and Linebacker John Corker, the league's Defensive Player of the Year. Corker pulled Fusina down, the Stars settled for a field goal, and Michigan still had breathing room at 17-6. Corker didn't make many tackles, but he made big ones. He had two sacks of Fusina.
After a Lush interception, the Stars inched to the Michigan 31, where they faced fourth-and-three. Wide Receiver Willie Collier made a courageous catch over the middle at the Michigan 24 and had to be carried off the field. Two plays later Collier was back, airborne and horizontal as he gathered in Fusina's 21-yard touchdown throw. It was 17-14 after Collier caught a two-point conversion pass off a Fusina roll-out. The Stars had come back from 21 down in the fourth period to beat Chicago in the semis and had come from behind to beat Michigan 29-20 in the regular season. Was this Rocky III? "This isn't the same Michigan team they played then," Lacy said.
Behind Dornbrook's blocks and Miller's carries, Michigan used up some time, making a first down before Greenwood punted a knuckleball. Woerner, who had blocked a 58-yard Bojovic field-goal try with :26 left in the first half, raced up to field it but let it bounce and then watched as the ball rolled 20 yards to the Philadelphia five. Woerner dropped his helmet in disgust.
On third-and-four from his own 11, Fusina sent Collier short and over the middle. Fusina, harried, threw the ball into the ground at Collier's feet. Later Fusina said, "Maybe I thought he'd take it shallower. Maybe it was a bad throw. I wish I had it back, that one play."
Michigan wasn't in a philanthropic mood any longer. Dornbrook, pulling left, led Miller for six yards and Lacy for nine. Lush began to creep up. He dinged Lacy. Hebert now knew the audible option was available.
"The idea was to keep Carter from going deep," said Sutton. "Our philosophy in the game was to let them catch the short ones." The Stars executed the philosophy but not the tackle, and Carter flew into a bit of history.
"When I saw Anthony break," said Holloway later in the crowded dressing room, "I knew I just had to wave at Sutton. He wasn't going to catch him. That Anthony, he's my man."
Carter was by now dressed in his Michigan—as in Wolverines—T shirt, jeans and visor, and was standing impatiently with his wife, Ortancis, while waiting for the police to clear a way through the milling crowd. He had places to go: back to Detroit for two days, and then on to his home in Riviera Beach, Fla. for the summer. He'll return to Ann Arbor in the fall—he's 18 hours short of an education degree. "Can I get a cop?" Carter said, scissoring his pelican legs. "I'm scared." His was definitely not a fear of flying.