The Dodgers were in Vero Beach, the Lakers were in New York, the Kings were in Buffalo and most of the citizens of Los Angeles were somewhere else, but quarterback Steve Young of the Los Angeles Express watched intently as the Houston Gamblers' Jim Kelly completed a clutch pass. Kelly's throw was perfect—it carried 39 yards to Ricky Sanders for a TD—and it led to a 34-33 edge with 1:18 left in the teams' USFL opener. Young's lips pulled back in what appeared to be a smile. Only this wasn't anything amusing—this was serious competition.
Nice, pal. Now it's my turn.
Both Young and Kelly had been breathtaking all afternoon. Kelly was 17 for 24 for 277 yards and a 13-6 lead at halftime. Then Young & Co. delivered 27 unanswered points by Express mail. Steve struck deep to Jojo Townsell for 64 yards and a touchdown and went 46 yards to LeRoy Campbell to set up another score. And so it went until Young had 249 passing yards and a 23-13 lead as the fourth quarter began. Houston had gotten zilch in the second and third periods, the only consecutive shutout quarters Kelly has ever suffered as a pro.
Then, with some special deliveries of his own, Kelly led the Gamblers to three touchdowns—on "drives" of 74, 43 and 84 yards—in the incredibly short span of 2:40. Now it was 34-33, Houston.
March 4, 1985
By the time the Gamblers' rally was over, no one in U.S. pro football history, not Dan Marino on his best day, not Norm Van Brocklin of the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 28, 1951, when he threw for 554 yards against the New York Yanks, had done better. Five hundred and seventy-four yards. Five touchdowns on 35 hits in 54 shots. No one could outthrow Kelly Sunday, so Young, who can run 4.5 40-yard dashes at will, had other ideas. A few days earlier he'd said, "You know, I would've sprinted backward naked to play in the NFL." Now he would've sprinted backward naked to win a USFL opener. It was competition that challenged him now—not letters of the alphabet or insolvent owners, but competition from Kelly.
After the kickoff following Houston's last TD, L.A. had the ball on its 26, and Young trotted to Express coach John Hadl, eager to receive the play that would set off a game-winning drive. Young blinked when he heard it: a pocket pass. No sprinting backward naked—it only seemed that way as Young was sacked on first down. Another conference with Hadl. Another pocket pass, a tough one, a medium-deep fade to running back Mel Gray. Linebacker Mike Hawkins picked it off to seal the Gamblers' win. They had thought Young would surely scramble. "So did I," Young said softly.
But disappointment is old stuff to Young and the Express. Few of the 18,828 spectators had a clue as to what Young might do. Many were only vaguely familiar with him. At least half were former Olympic Games volunteers who had entered the Coliseum on discounted tickets purchased by the 23 Olympic Games venue commissioners and the Miller Brewing Company. They'd forked over the funds as a favor to the new board chairman of the Express, Richard S. Stevens. Stevens is a friend and former law client of erstwhile Olympic general manager and new USFL commissioner Harry Usher, and served as the commissioner of the modern pentathlon at the Games. Usher chose Stevens to take over the Express, the league's ward, to see if he could get anyone in the L.A. area to notice the team—it has only 5,800 season-ticket holders—and then to find a buyer for it.
Stevens, 54, is known as a man who can put black ink on the bottom line. As president of Wrather Port Properties, he took the mothballed Queen Mary and Howard Hughes's seaplane, the Spruce Goose, and turned them into profitable attractions in Long Beach.
Sunday's game was not on radio or TV in L.A. or on TV in Houston. "Originally, this was set as the national game on ABC," said Jerry Argovitz, one of three Houston owners. Argovitz had words with the USFL's director of marketing, Dom Camera, because the Gamblers vs. Express, the league's best opening-week attraction before the New Jersey Generals signed Doug Flutie, had been superseded on ABC by Flutie's debut in Birmingham (see box, opposite).
"Kelly's a big Flutie," said Tom Fears, once a Van Brocklin receiver with the Rams and now an Express scout. "I'm plain Jim Kelly—a great quarterback," said the unabashed Kelly. L.A. safety Dwight Drane agreed. A Kelly bullet dislocated Drane's left pinkie as he deflected a pass. "The man is great," said Drane. "The best I've seen." Though the game might as well have been played in a closet, "it doesn't matter," Kelly said. "I bet Dan Marino, if we call him tomorrow, will know what I did." But as far as greater America is concerned, has anybody there seen Kelly?
You could pose the same question about the Express, which had signed Young to a ballyhooed 43-year, $36 million contract in March 1984 and fallen on dismal economic times. The league took over the club, which was having severe cash-flow difficulties, in mid-January. But L.A. has never missed making its payroll—unless you count the annuity premiums on Young's contract and also those of offensive linemen Gary Zimmerman and Mike Ruether. "They owed us $350,000 for about a week," says John Marchiano, the agent for Ruether and Zimmerman. "We had grounds to leave. But the guys have camaraderie. It would be ridiculous, though, to say the [lack of stable ownership] hasn't affected them." Says Leigh Steinberg, Young's agent, "The premiums weren't tendered on time, but they were tendered. There's no chance the league will ever allow Steve Young's contract to be defaulted on."
The league now finds itself responsible for Young's annual salary, roughly a $300,000 base. The other 13 franchises pay all Express salaries and expenses from their $20 million (and dwindling) contingency pool. In a sense, Houston's owners couldn't lose Sunday. They had employees on both sides of the Coliseum field.
In the wacky world of the USFL, where all things are possible, Jay Roulier succeeded J. William Oldenburg as owner of the Express; during that time the league controlled Roulier's share in the Houston franchise.
In January the Express started doing without necessities. Soon Roulier was back in Houston. "I was there to make sure Young stayed," Roulier said. "He never even said goodby," said Young. "My middle name is naive."
The Express couldn't even get a local radio station to broadcast their opener. "And who would buy a season ticket when people were saying we were going to Hawaii next?" asks L.A. president Don Klosterman. Express players bemoaned a lack of coverage by the Los Angeles Times. Be careful what you ask for, though. On Friday, Times columnist Jim Murray commented. "They finally offered the club around," wrote Murray, "to anybody who had an unexpired American Express card."
Express math works out to $10 million in expenses, including a $7 million payroll, against $2 million income from TV. Oh, and there are nine home dates that promise mostly empty seats. "I know people with the money," says Klosterman, "but they say, 'Yes, Don, your team is good, but show me when I'll get my 10 million back.' "
After Sunday's game a laughing Kelly said, "[The USFL] can succeed if we stay in the spring. We can have fun and watch the NFL in the off-season." Not far away, in the home team's locker room, Young stood with his jaw set as a shirtless Hadl held his shoulders and tried to explain losing to him. The Express has no owner and few fans, yet losing still hurt. Young looked as if he felt one step from nowhere. He said, "Tell Jim Kelly I love him and that we'll see him later on." Spirited competition was about the only sure thing Young had left, give or take a few million bucks.