How to succeed at football without really dying. The Los Angeles Express could've written that book—and, in fact, nearly had the time to write it—last Saturday, when a warm summer afternoon in the L.A. Coliseum evolved into the longest day in pro football history. One of eight teams in the USFL playoffs, L.A. was up against the Michigan Panthers, the defending league champs. Los Angelenos thought so much of the event that they turned out 7,964 strong in the 90,000-seat Coliseum. In time, though, tens of thousands of people will claim they were there at the end, which came 3:33 into the seventh quarter, in the 94th minute of what is usually a 60-minute game. Only heroes play that long. The Express won, not with the thud of a kick but with the crack of a bone. On L.A.'s 100th offensive play, rookie running back Mel Gray cut smartly and headed for the goal line, 24 yards away. He was tackled at the one but bulled his way into the end zone, landing on his left arm. Flat on his back and in obvious pain, but with the ball clutched in his left hand, he hazily saw an official signal touchdown—and then dropped the ball. He lay writhing in the end zone for 10 minutes; he had broken the humerus bone in his left arm. The good news was that his TD had given L.A. a 27-21 victory; the bad news was that he wouldn't be playing any more football until 1985.
The longest game will be remembered long after the Panthers have forgotten, or forgiven, Novo Bojovic, who missed two short field-goal tries in overtime. It also will be remembered as the game in which Little Stevie Wanderlust—L.A. quarterback Steve Young—inspired lofty comparisons with Fran Tarkenton.
The real contest began midway through the fourth quarter. Favored by six points, L.A. was losing 21-13 when Young's offense took over at its 20-yard line with 8:57 to play. On first down, Young dropped back as if to pass but then wheeled right, sped toward the sideline and broke upfield for seven yards, whereupon he was blasted by Kyle Borland, the Panthers' 238-pound linebacker. "He knocked me dizzy," Young said later. So, why hadn't Young done his slide-into-second-base bit? "If I had slid," he said, "I would've spent the next six months wondering why." Young spun woozily toward Express coach John Hadl. "Hadl told him to come out," said left tackle Gary Zimmerman. "Steve said, 'No way,' and came back to the huddle. After that, there was no doubt. There was just...an electricity."
At that point Express president and general manager Don Klosterman rose from his box seat, his confidence firm if not serene. It was Klosterman who had put together the '84 Express, and it was the same Klosterman who had called his players "the greatest assemblage of talent ever." Trouble is, most, of them are 21 years old—indeed, there are 30 rookies on L.A.'s 43-player roster—and judging by their 10-8 regular-season record, they hadn't yet put aside childish mistakes. Klosterman, 53, had most recently run the L.A. Rams before a fallout with Carroll Rosenbloom's widow, Georgia Frontiere, left him without a team last December. But Klosterman has always been a survivor—he had also held high-level jobs with Houston, Kansas City and San Diego of the old AFL, and with Baltimore of the NFL—and in no time at all a genie appeared to grant his fondest wish. The genie was J. William Oldenburg, owner of the San Francisco-based Investment Mortgage International and a self-proclaimed billionaire. Oldenburg bought the Express for $7 million, hired Klosterman and gave him carte blanche to build a championship team. Klosterman signed 15 college seniors who, according to NFL scouts, would have been selected in the first four rounds of that league's May draft. The plum was Young, the lefthanded passing whiz from Brigham Young, who spurned the Cincinnati Bengals' paltry offer and signed a 43-year, $44 million deal with the Express.
Now, the Express, it seems, is for sale. If you can handle a $7 million annual player payroll with less than $2 million in television revenue and playoff crowds of only 7,964, call Oldenburg collect.
Oldenburg is being investigated by the State of Utah and the Federal Home Loan Bank because of one of his real estate rollovers. On March 30 he reportedly sold property he had purchased for $800,000 in 1977 to a Salt Lake City bank, State Savings and Loan Association, which he owns, for $55 million. Worse, The Wall Street Journal has reported that Oldenburg's IMI, which he claims put together $1.5 billion worth of deals last year, has only $2.4 million in equity capital. "Bill hasn't told me the team is for sale," says Klosterman. "Well, what he actually said was, 'Everything's for sale, except my family.' " Young could hardly hide his glee when the investigation of Oldenburg's financial empire came to light. If Young seems disloyal, particularly for one so well compensated, maybe that's because of what took place in Oldenburg's San Francisco offices in the wee hours of March 3 when Young's contract negotiations with the Express outlasted Oldenburg's patience. Oldenburg blew up. He barged into a room where his representatives were negotiating with Young's and yelled, "What are you f—-g c———-s doing taking so long with this? If money is the problem, I'll show you money." Pulling a wad of $100 bills from his pocket, he flung them in the direction of one of Young's people. He blurted ethnic slurs and subsequently gave Young three hard shoves in the chest. Young had to threaten to "deck" him to make the financier lay off. Later, after more negotiations and a second blow-up, Oldenburg threw Young and his lawyers out of his office, having them escorted to the door by his security men. The next day Klosterman was able to negotiate a truce and put the deal together.
Oldenburg's outbursts are legendary. He promised friends that 100,000 fans would show up at the Express's Coliseum opener against Denver on Feb. 26. Informed by team officials at a private meeting in a Beverly Hills restaurant that 10,000 would be more like it, Oldenburg threw four chairs. On April 9 the Express fell behind the Gold in Denver, and Oldenburg collared Dick Daniels, L.A.'s top personnel man. "It isn't f—-g young players. This is s—- coaching!" Oldenburg roared. "Dick, go get Don! Some heads are going to roll!" Oldenburg then shoved Daniels, who took it all with a grain of salt.
"It'll be a tragedy if Bill has to sell," Klosterman says. "Without his cash, none of this could have happened." Yet when Oldenburg temporarily stopped the Young deal, Klosterman had cried. Klosterman was too close. He had hired Hadl and Sid Gillman to teach Young the finer points of quarterbacking. He had the horses. All he needed was Young, and time.
The biggest horses were center Mike Ruether (6'4", 270 pounds) from Texas, tackle Mark Adickes (6'5", 275) from Baylor and Zimmerman (6'6", 264) who played at Oregon. Adickes ran a 4.8 40 and bench-pressed 565 pounds but tore his left knee ligaments in the second game of the season. Zimmerman then moved from left guard to left tackle to fill Adickes's spot. Against Michigan, Young went directly to his strength on L.A.'s first possession, handing off on seven of 10 plays behind Zimmerman and Ruether before Kevin Nelson swept left for a five-yard opening touchdown and a 7-0 L.A. lead.
Though banged up—15 starters from last year's champions were out or playing hurt—the Panthers moved the ball easily on the Express. Guard Tyrone McGriff and tackle Ray Pinney trapped and posted, John Williams (23 carries for 113 yards) banged the middle, and the Panthers seemed en route to a TD on their opening drive until Walter Broughton dropped a first-down pass at the L.A. 30. Broughton was the replacement for all-world Anthony Carter, who broke a bone in his left arm while making a catch against San Antonio on April Fool's Day. Carter had been expected to play against the Express, but he rebroke the arm during a recent squabble involving his sister and her boyfriend.
L.A.'s second drive ended when Young, throwing from the pocket, was intercepted. At 6'½", Young's pocket sightlines aren't the best, but his mobility, according to Gillman, more than compensates for his lack of size. Hadl was John Elway's quarterback coach with the Denver Broncos last season, and offers this insight: "Elway will be the greatest drop-back passer in the game. He throws better than anybody except maybe Namath. Steve has a tendency to scramble—make a big play on his own. You can't go wrong with either one of them."
L.A. moved to a 10-0 lead on Tony Zendejas's 32-yard field goal midway through the second quarter, but the Panthers scored two touchdowns in the last two minutes of the half—the second coming after another interception of a Young pass—and walked off with a 14-10 lead.
Another Zendejas field goal, a 34 yarder, brought the Express to 14-13 early in the third quarter, but six minutes into the fourth, Panther quarterback Bobby Hebert, with his pick of three receivers after the Express bit on a goal-line play fake left before a bootleg right, flipped to tight end Mike Cobb for a 21-13 Michigan lead.
For Young, overtime was eight points away, and now he had a headache, too, compliments of Borland's hit. Young sent Gray zipping behind Zimmerman for six yards and a first down, then hit wide receiver JoJo Townsell, his favorite target, with a screen pass for nine more. Gray went up the middle for two and another first down; a 175-pound rookie from Purdue, Gray would finish the game with 124 yards on 31 carries, his sharp right-angle cuts being too tough for the Panthers to stop. L.A.'s drive stalled, however, and suddenly it was fourth-and-one at the Michigan 47 with less than four minutes on the clock.
Young came through, scrambling right for four yards before being crunched by free safety Ron Osborne. This time, Young's right arm momentarily went numb. But he set his teeth and completed a 22-yard pass over the middle to tight end Darren Long, giving L.A. a first down at the Michigan 17. Three plays later Young connected with Townsell in the end zone—but just out of bounds. An illegal procedure call, a nowhere draw play, and it was third-and-goal from the Michigan 12. By now Young's right hand was throbbing so much he thought it was broken. He faked a pass, then took off again, this time to the left, speeding to the corner, going out of bounds just inches short of the goal line. Nelson scored from there, cutting the Michigan lead to 21-19 with :52 to go. As in the old AFL, in the USFL teams have the option of a two-point conversion play. Young, seeing no one open, scrambled left behind a block from tight end Mike Sherrod, and scored the two points that made it 21-all.
The overtimes were hard-fought and anticlimactic. In the fifth quarter Hebert drove the Panthers downfield and set up Bojovic for a field-goal try from 37 yards, but his kick was just wide left. Later, Eddie Weaver sacked Hebert from the blind side, and Hebert reinjured his damaged right knee. He left the game, never to return. Backup quarterback Whit Taylor moved Michigan close in the sixth period, but this time Bojovic missed a 36-yarder by at least that many yards to the left. When asked if he felt for his kicker, Michigan coach Jim Stanley said, wonderfully, "I'm not overly sympathetic with anyone who doesn't execute."
The young Express seemed in a fog during the first 30 minutes of sudden death. "I was irritated. We weren't throwing the ball and we were listless," said Young. "I felt like a dead battery out there," said Zimmerman. Young and Gray decided to put matters in sure hands. "The short post was there, and I told that to Steve," said Townsell. Young listened and then completed two slant passes to Townsell that gained a total of 47 yards and set the stage for Gray's final, inspired burst. "Mel Gray ran like [Walter] Payton—Sweetness," said a beaming Klosterman.
All told, Young completed 23 of 44 for 295 yards and rushed seven times for 44 yards. His injury was diagnosed as a bruised hand, and he said he'd be ready for L.A.'s Western Conference title game against the Arizona Wranglers, "although right now I don't know how I'll get out of bed." For his part, Klosterman couldn't stop beaming. Youth will recuperate. He parried all questions. Yes, new ownership would be found. Yes, it felt good to have won the longest game. "I know," said Klosterman, "that we're a good investment."