Think for a moment of the places they didn't move to. Des Moines. Fairbanks. La Paz. Chad.
"Portland is only an hour from the ocean," says Dick Coury, the head coach of the Boston/New Orleans/Portland Breakers. "So the name Breakers still makes sense."
Marvelous, insane USFL sense. The Breakers, who started in 1983 as the new league's Boston entry ("We're already associated with a New England Football Tradition," said that year's media guide) and then drifted to Louisiana in '84 ("The Breakers are 'your team,' " said the New Orleans guide), have now set down in vague proximity to the mellow waves of the Left Coast. From sea (to Gulf) to shining sea faster than you can say "Allied Van Lines." The Breakers are just looking for a home. With a water view, if possible.
And what does this year's publicity guide say about the team? Er, the guide is on the presses, isn't it? "Ha," says p.r. director John Brunelle, who has been on the job less than two months. He's still trying to figure out just who these Yankee-Cajun-Oregonian strangers in the blue-wave helmets are.
February 25, 1985
The Breakers' uprootings have made their employees ponder the vagaries of fate. "I thought I was going to be the hometown boy who makes good," says head trainer Stan Wong, a native of Fall River, Mass. who went to Northeastern University and signed on with the original Breakers staff. "And now I couldn't be any farther from Boston and still be in the U.S.A." Obviously trail-weary, Wong has forgotten about Alaska and Hawaii.
"It's ironic, but I'm going home. I'm from Portland," says equipment manager Russ McElroy, another original Breaker. "I thought I'd never get there again."
"You aren't there yet," warns Herb Vincent, the former Breakers assistant p.r. man, who now works for the Los Angeles Express. On this day Vincent, McElroy, Wong and a few other drifters are watching the Breakers and the Express scrimmage at the Breakers' new preseason training site at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. The camp is about 1,000 miles from the Breakers' home in Portland, where they will play in old Civic Stadium, once the home of the Portland Storm/Thunder of the WFL, which died in 1975 without so much as a distant rumble.
"I've heard the area's a lot like New England, sort of," says Wong. Like most of the other Breakers, he has never set foot in the Pacific Northwest. Now he just hopes he does, and for more than one year. And, given the USFL's history, there's always a chance he never will. The Breakers aren't scheduled to arrive in Portland until the second week of the season, for a March 2 game against the Los Angeles Express. A westward-ho team like the Breakers could have relocated in Tokyo by that time.
"I remember last year in New Orleans, when it was raining so much and we had the trucks all packed up, ready to move our training camp to Daytona Beach, to a baseball stadium or something," says McElroy. "At the last minute somebody says, 'Hold it.' The next thing you know, we're headed 120 miles west to Lafayette, Louisiana."
NFL teams may switch towns to make more money, but in the USFL you switch towns to keep breathing. In the league's brief history, two other teams besides the Breakers have relocated and there have been three mergers and countless swappings of players, support personnel and road maps. One team, the Chicago Blitz (né Arizona Wranglers), has suspended play until 1986. Still, hope springs eternal down the road—up to a point.
"This is it. Absolutely the last move," says owner Joe Canizaro, the New Orleans builder, who still can't believe his team has gotten two time zones away from him.
There are a number of things one might like to see vanish from the face of the earth: break-dancing, answering machines, Gumby dolls—but not the Breakers. If the USFL goes belly-up, somebody should preserve this team as a symbol of human grit and good humor. We need groups of smiling men who don't even know what area code to put in front of their phone numbers. "Let's see, my kids are in Arkansas, and that's 501," says linebacker coach Bob Shaw, uncradling a telephone receiver at the Breakers' temporary office at the San Dimas Inn outside Pomona. "New Orleans is 504, I think. So Portland must be 503." Bingo. Please call home now, Coach.
"Football players don't think about tomorrow," says kicker Tim Mazzetti, the former Kicking Bartender of the Atlanta Falcons, who made a memorable five of five field goals on a Monday night NFL TV game in 1978. "In this league you really don't think about tomorrow. But if everything folds up, I've had a good time."
Where the Breakers first went wrong was in believing the spiel of the prenatal USFL. You remember the rap: spring football, few superstars, modest payrolls, leave the NFL alone, some fun in the sun. The Breakers, as well as several of the other USFL teams, swallowed that palatable theory whole.
They started with a team of nobodies, playing in 21,000-seat Nickerson Field on the Boston University campus. They sold 5,000 season tickets, the fewest in the league, and averaged fewer than 13,000 people per game. "We were supposed to be the worst goddam team in the history of the world," says Mazzetti, giving a partial explanation for the low turnout.
Most of all, though, Boston didn't want or need a USFL team, even if it won. And the Breakers won. Says Mazzetti, "We started a 50-year-old quarterback [John Walton was actually 35 then; he's now a Breakers coach], a has-been running back from Canada [Richard Crump], two lines filled with no-names, and a lot of guys like me who had been fired somewhere else." The Breakers finished with an 11-7 record and missed the playoffs by a hair.
Their success was attributable almost entirely to Coury, a quiet, friendly, reasonable man who occasionally puts a beer keg in the end zone and has his players race to it. A former NFL assistant at Denver, San Diego and Philadelphia, and the father of seven children, he gets the most from his players by making them think of themselves as decent human beings. "He's a great offensive coach," says tight end Dan Ross. "And as a person, he's a different breed, truly a nice guy." The USFL named Coury its 1983 Coach of the Year.
Perhaps his most notable coaching strength is knowing that everybody needs a break from routine. To that end he has instituted his Fan's Play of the Week contest: In each game the Breakers run one play sent in by a rooter, a play Coury has selected for its originality and spunk. "I prefer the crazy ones," he says, meaning the plays, not the team's fans. Last season one of those plays gained 53 yards, but was called back on a motion penalty.
In New Orleans, each play's designer got to appear on Coury's TV show and analyze his work, and Coury intends to do the same thing in Portland. "I just figure, what the hell, I've called enough dumb plays—I can let somebody else call one," he says. Plus, says Coury, the players love the idea. "They get excited when I pass out that mimeographed sheet each week. They like to see the things work."
One fan's formation that features the center, tight end, quarterback and flanker on one side of the field and everybody else on the other has even made it into the Breakers' playbook. It's called Crazy Spread Right, and its best option is a screen pass behind six blockers.
"The only problem we've had so far was when I selected a play sent in by a prisoner," says Coury. "The warden vetoed the visit to the TV studio."
When the Breakers were in Boston the fans vetoed trips to Nickerson Field, so the league said move. "It was a strange place to play," recalls offensive tackle Dan Hurley. "Behind one end zone there were dorms, and behind the other was the Mass Turnpike. Going one way you'd see students hanging out of windows and going the other way you'd see semis rolling by."
Enter Gulf Coast developer Canizaro, who bought the Breakers team from their Boston owners and moved them to New Orleans. There they would play in the 71,146-seat Louisiana Superdome. Everything was rosy.
Then the Trump-Oldenburg factor overwhelmed the league. Everybody was paying big bucks for big names. Canizaro dived in and signed running backs Marcus Dupree and Buford Jordan to huge contracts, almost doubling his payroll in the process. The Breakers responded by winning seven of their first nine games, but then they lost eight of their last nine. At 8-10, New Orleans finished out of the running and out of lots of money. "I always look at the bottom line," says Canizaro. It told him he'd blown more than $5 million.
To make things worse, the league abruptly voted to move to a fall schedule in 1986. The NFL Saints are the preferred tenants at the Superdome, so the Breakers would again be without a home. "I never wanted to move to the fall or compete against the NFL or change the way we'd planned things," says Coury. "But then, nobody asked me."
Like drifting spores, Coury, general manager John Ralston and marketing director Jack Galmiche wafted over the country searching for an acceptable new city. They may not have known it, but Canizaro was very close to throwing in the towel while they were gone. "It would have been easier and a lot less expensive just to merge with somebody," he says. "But I'd made a commitment to Dick and the players."
The seekers settled on Portland, the 25th-largest TV market in America. Coury had coached the WFL Storm there a decade earlier, and if the city didn't roll out a red carpet this time around, it did put on an agreeable, businesslike front. "On a scale of one to 10—10 being 'We'll build you a domed stadium," one being 'Go away'—I'd say the public sentiment about the Breakers is a seven," says sports reporter Carl Click of KGW-TV in Portland.
While admitting he initially was "sick" about moving his team, Canizaro now sees only bright skies—and increased TV revenues—in Portland. "There's no sales tax in Oregon and our stadium deal is a lot better than it was in New Orleans," he says. "At the Superdome, for one thing, you had to pay for air conditioning. But in Portland you're open to the elements."
Hello, rain. In March and April Portland averages 2.96 inches of precipitation per month. In truth, Civic Stadium will be too wet and, with 32,500 seats, too small for the big time, and some kind of new stadium will have to be built if the Breakers are to stay afloat.
Leaving New Orleans may have some good points. Even the players who have never visited Portland think it will be easier to work there than in the city that invented Hurricane Punch and the cock-tail-to-go in a souvenir cup. Indeed, intense Bourbon Street-style partying may have contributed to the Breakers' slide last year. "There's no doubt New Orleans is a bad place for a pro team," says erstwhile barkeep Mazzetti, who should know about night life. "I can see why the Saints don't win. Really, moving to Portland is the best thing that's happened to us. It's hardest for the guys with families."
Which brings up Dan Ross. He has a wife and two children and, while he was with the Cincinnati Bengals, from 1979 to '83, he never bought a house because he was waiting until he returned to Boston, his hometown, to do so. A gifted receiver out of Northeastern University—he caught a Super Bowl-record 11 passes in Super XVI—he signed with the Breakers in February '83 just to get back to Beantown. But by the time he joined the team, it was en route to New Orleans. "I get a no-trade, no-cut contract and they move the whole damn franchise," he says, a weary grin on his face.
But then he finds he likes New Orleans. He buys a condominium. The family moves in. And suddenly it's time to hit the road again. Like the other Breaker vets, Ross is a tough cookie, and he shrugs off these apparent discomforts. No regrets then? He thinks for a moment. "My only regret was playing the '83 and '84 seasons back to back—38 straight games," he says. "I didn't miss one. I think I may be the only person to have done that. [He wasn't; there were a few others.] After six games with the Breakers I couldn't run. My weight had dropped from 234 to 218. It was like hitting Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon."
Hurley hasn't dropped any weight—he's 6'3", 265, and can bench-press 550 pounds—but his domestic life hasn't been easy. He got married just before Christmas, and as he said one day in training camp, gesturing at the field and his buddies, "This is my honeymoon."
One of the hardest parts for him is calling back to New Orleans, where he also bought a condo. His wife Jill's 5-year-old daughter from another marriage, Erica, pines for him there. "She's in kindergarten, and we've gotten real close," he says.
Jill is a licensed practical nurse with a good job in New Orleans, but she and Erica are packing up, putting the family car on a train and heading for Portland to be with Dan. It would be fine with Jill if Dan quit this madness. "Football's always, been my favorite sport," she says. "But when you get down to it, it's not that much fun. It's hard. I'm not real impressed with it anymore."
Most of the Breakers will make between $30,000 and $70,000, which isn't bad pay but which won't make anyone rich, either. So why do they keep on playing, and traveling? "It's like they say: 'It's a tough world out there.' I'm not sure what else I can do," says Hurley, who left Nebraska without his diploma in business in 1982.
Even Dupree, 20, who dropped out of Oklahoma as a sophomore, is getting an understanding of life in pro football. "You've got to go where they send you," he says. Sometimes Dupree looks as though he'd most like to be back on his mama's front porch in Philadelphia, Miss. He bought a house in New Orleans, and right now he's not sure if he'll sell it, rent it or what. "It's tough, but I got all the time in the world," he says. He's taking it, too, or so it seems to Coury, who questioned Dupree's preoccupation with hamstring injuries last week. That's the serious side of Coury. There is, of course, the other side.
After a recent scrimmage, Coury gathers his players around him. "All you guys, offense and defense, shake hands with each other," he says.
As the players do that, it becomes clear how much they respect their coach and each other, and how ready they are to laugh at absurdities. The gag going around today goes like this: Too bad the Washington Federals didn't merge with the L.A. Express to become the L.A. Federal Express. Then they could put this motto on their jerseys: WE'LL MOVE ANYWHERE OVERNIGHT.
"I don't want to go back to the NFL," says Mazzetti. "I like breaking in at the beginning of this league, of being a piece of history. It's nice."
He pauses for a moment and then adds, "Of course, I'm on a high note right now. In two months, after we're playing for 10,000 people, and it's raining every day, and I just missed a field goal in a two-point game—then I might be wondering what I'm doing here."
Till then, cheers.