Anthony Carter's final catch for Oakland Saturday came on a 27-yard corner pattern at the Memphis one-yard line. Running full tilt, he crashed into the concrete wall that encircles the field—and bounced off like a rubber ball, unscathed. He waved at some of the 37,796 unhappy Memphis fans who had come to the Liberty Bowl on a mercilessly hot day. They responded by throwing things at him—mostly beer cans. "Damn you, Carter!" one cried.
"We tried to keep our headgear on at all times out there," Carter said later. He was laughing—and with good reason. When the last of the debris had landed, Carter had gained 154 yards and tied his own USFL record with nine catches, and his Invaders had a 28-19 victory over the Showboats. This put them in the USFL title game Sunday against the defending champion Baltimore Stars, 28-14 winners over Birmingham.
For three seasons now Carter has been turning games around or helping to seal them with key passes from quarterback Bobby Hebert. On Saturday the scenario wasn't any different.
For example: With 12 minutes to play, Oakland had third-and-10 back at its own eight-yard line. The Invaders led 21-13, but if they were forced to punt, Memphis had plenty of time to score and score again. Carter caught that crucial third-down pass—twice. After the first completion the Invaders were called for delay of game. A.C. gave a little shrug, lined up again, and again ran a pattern in front of cornerback Leonard Coleman, who just happens to be his second cousin. The catch was good for 15 yards. Coleman didn't do much for family unity. He landed a particularly hard shot. "I paid for that catch in pain," Carter said. Eight plays later he burned Coleman again with that wall-crashing catch at the one, which set up a touchdown plunge by Hebert and put the game out of reach at 28-13.
Carter had already scored two TDs himself. The first, a 24-yarder, put Oakland in front 14-13 with 8:56 left in the third quarter. To get it, Carter broke two tackles after taking an Hebert pass over the middle, where Carter, at 5'11", 162 pounds, should be too small to flourish. His second TD, this one covering 19 yards, came after he beat two profoundly frustrated defenders to the left-corner flag. One of them was safety Don Bessillieu, the former NFL defender whom Memphis coach Pepper Rodgers had complimented earlier in the week for his even temperament. After Carter hit the end zone, Bessillieu took off his helmet and pounded it into the turf again and again.
He was by no means the only frustrated player in a Memphis uniform. Reggie White, at 6'6", 290 pounds, is as strong as the truth and can move like a dancer. While playing nose tackle, right end and left tackle, White was illegally held—cleverly and often—by the Invaders' veteran offensive line. It drove him crazy but it didn't really stop him. "Reggie White is the best nose tackle in any league," said Showboats defensive line coach Chuck Dickerson. "He's an awesome force. Nobody handles him. Nobody will. He can destroy your offensive line from tackle to tackle."
White's presence forced the Invaders to run wide, and they got only 47 yards rushing in the first half. He had been moved to nose tackle from defensive end after the fifth game of the season—a game in which these same Invaders had rushed for 213 yards and whipped the Showboats 31-19. Saturday White was all over the field. He caused one first-quarter interception by extending himself to such a height that Hebert threw too high and too soft, lofting a floater that was picked off by linebacker Steve Hammond. Then, with 19 seconds left in the first half and Memphis ahead 13-7, Carter got open behind Ray Odums. White, now playing right defensive end, slammed his blocker into Hebert, making the pass fall short, into Odums's arms.
Hebert had to switch to plays that featured a quicker three-step dropback after White and the blitzing Memphis defense harried him in the first half. But ultimately he was able to hit Carter with such good effect—thanks to a leaky Memphis secondary—that all of White's heroics went for naught.
"Anthony Carter is magic," said Memphis president Steve Ehrhart, "but I didn't go out and sign these defensive backs to not have them cover the right man." Cornerback Mossy Cade, the highly regarded rookie from Texas, was not picked on, and Carter was almost never double-teamed. "Didn't matter," said Carter. "I thought [Odums] played me pretty well. They probably should have stuck with him. Cade? No way he does it, either."
"You can't stop that guy," Rodgers had said of Carter the day before the game. "I don't care what you do. Let him get his. We can just play straight-up and see what happens."
Memphis did that, and the Showboats' defenders simply reacted poorly to Carter's clever moves and past experience, as most secondaries do. Later, coach Charlie Sumner—who now has a gaudy 15-4-1 record—said appreciatively, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And Anthony Carter, well, how much better can you be?"