See you in the fall.
Or not at all.
The United States Football League held its third championship game Sunday night in Giants Stadium in New Jersey, and the Baltimore Stars came from behind in the fourth quarter to defeat the Oakland Invaders 28-24, thus launching the longest off-season in history—maybe. The USFL is due to start again in the fall of '86. What part of the fall hasn't been determined. There's talk of a November to March season, which would mean a 16-month break.
Time to forget a lot of names and a lot of commitments, or maybe to regroup and come back stronger. Time to return with new faces and new cash, or maybe to just pack it in. Rich people have a way of finding new toys.
While the Stars and Invaders spent the week practicing for their title match, the USFL owners met in a hotel eight miles up the Jersey Turnpike and mapped the future of their league, neatly upstaging their own showpiece game. Why did they have to meet just then? Why not milk Little Super Bowl Week for all the publicity value they could? Hey, these are perilous times. A bunch of players want to jump to the NFL when their contracts officially run out Aug. 1. Others want to buy out of contracts with a year or two to run. The league had to figure out some kind of policy. Right now.
The game itself came off without a hitch, and it was pretty exciting at that. It put the final touches on one of the league's great rags-to-riches stories, the Baltimore Stars—driven from their home city of Philadelphia, driven from their offices in the toughest part of the season, the blackboards and furniture literally whisked from under their coaches' noses, a team that had to travel two hours for their home games, a team going nowhere until it suddenly caught fire. The whole thing finally came down to one goal-line-to-goal-line drive by the Invaders in the dying moments, and just when it looked as if Oakland was going to put the Stars away for good, a reserve fullback named Tom Newton got flagged for being too aggressive, and the 15-yard penalty rang down the curtain on the Invaders.
Poor Tom Newton. In one emotional moment he became a name for future trivia experts. Or maybe the whole game will be relegated to the cobweb section of history. Quick now, who won the last World Football League championship game? C'mon, it was only 11 years ago.
O.K., let's live in the present. The game started in a downpour, but 49,263 fans turned out to see it, a bigger crowd than anyone expected. The rain was good for Baltimore, a medium-range passing team that relies mostly on the heavy duty running of Kelvin Bryant. It was bad for Oakland, a big-play club with a great long-range pass-catch combination of Bobby Hebert to Anthony Carter.
It was not a night for the long ball. Part of the problem was the Stars' right cornerback, Garcia Lane, who played nine yards off the line and dedicated himself to stopping Carter deep—which he did. The other was the rain.
"We used new footballs," Hebert said. "When they got wet, they were slick. They were leaving my hand wrong. Chuck Fusina [the Stars' quarterback] told me he had the same problem."
With the final quarter half gone, the Invaders took over on their four-yard-line, trailing 28-24, Bryant having just run across for the go-ahead score. Their offense in the first half had consisted of one scoring drive and a 44-yard interception for a TD by their strong safety, David Greenwood. Carter had been a non-factor with one catch for four yards. In the second half, though, they started moving him around, slotting him, running him on crossing routes—he put them ahead 24-21 on a seven-yard pass from Hebert near the end of the third quarter—but now they were on their four, and things didn't look good.
"I turned to a guy on the sidelines." Stars coach Jim Mora said, "and told him, 'If they can drive the length of the field on us and score, they deserve the game.' "
Well, they drove to the Stars' five. It took them nine plays, most of the damage coming on John Williams sweeps, plus a clutch 28-yard crossing pattern to Carter through a zone defense, and now it was third-and-two with 2:50 left. Williams swept right, and Sam Mills, the Stars' tough little inside linebacker, stiffed him for no gain. It would have been fourth-and-two, and maybe the Invaders would have scored and maybe they wouldn't have, but we'll never know because Newton, the blocking back, was involved in a jam with cornerback Jonathan Sutton and down came the flag. Fifteen yards, back to the 20, third-and-a-mile. Two incompletes ended it.
Afterward, Oakland coach Charlie Sumner was furious. "It had been a rough game. They'd been calling offsetting penalties all night. How could they call it on just one guy?" he said.
"The play was kind of over, and he grabbed my face mask," Sutton said. "He was sticking his fingers in, trying to gouge my eyes. He threw a punch, too. I don't know why he did it. His own players were yelling at him."
Newton lingered in the shower long after everyone else had left. No one told him there was a water shortage. When he finally emerged, his eyes were red.
"I was just too aggressive," Newton said. He's 30 years old, a former Jet. In New York he'd earned a reputation as a wild and sometimes uncontrollable special teams player.
"We were both kind of fighting back and forth in the end zone," he said, "but I got caught. Hey, he had me, too. I think the refs were looking for something.... I'm getting the first flight out of here. This'll haunt me for a long, long time."
All week there had been hints from agents and other sources that some of the USFL's brightest stars were moving on to the National Football League—Carter, for example. His contract has an option year left. Miami has his rights. He might buy his way out. It's Oakland's move.
Hebert, who will be 25 years old next month, becomes a free agent on Aug. 1, but on Saturday night he reached an agreement with the Invaders to let him go right away. It cost $50,000, the amount of Hebert's incentive bonuses. He was scheduled to meet with Chuck Knox in the Seattle Seahawks' offices less than 48 hours after the game. The L.A. Raiders are also very interested. So is New Orleans.
Greenwood, who has been an All-League selection, is another potential buy-out, although he has another year on his contract. The price is $50,000, which seems to be the going rate. New Orleans holds his rights, but the Giants and Raiders are talking trade with the Saints.
A USFL source said the league figures to lose 20 to 25 players to the NFL. "The current position is that, if they want to go, we won't hold them," he said. "We'll save the money on their contracts and use it to invest in future draft choices. With some players, though, the price will be higher. If Steve Young wants to get out of the last two years of his contract, for instance, it'll cost him $2 million."
Young, the top college quarterback in '83, played for the L.A. Express, which was taken over by the league this season. His agent is claiming that the transfer of ownership constitutes a breach in his four-year contract, which makes him a free agent. The league says it will fight the case, unless he wants to buy his way out—for that $2 million.
"When these guys talk about walking into an NFL training camp after going through an 18-game season here, actually 21 games for us, I don't think they realize what they're getting into," says the Stars' middle guard, Pete Kugler. "A defensive lineman who does it would be looking for real trouble." Kugler, a former 49er, was coming off a strong 1983 NFL championship game against the Redskins when he jumped over to the Stars. He played the USFL season virtually without a break, and he said it nearly destroyed him physically.
"Noseguards aren't built for 40-game seasons," he said. "It killed me for two years, '84 and '85, not just one. My body still hasn't caught up. I started getting injured, the kind of injuries I never got before. I missed one week with a groin pull, another with a hamstring pull. I never got those before. I got a kidney injury, and I was passing blood for a week. I tore a ligament in my knee and missed six weeks. Right now I'm a wreck."
He's not about to try to get back into the NFL and pile another season on top of this one. Few of the Stars seem to be thinking in those terms.
"We came through a lot together," said Mora, whose team started off on a downer and didn't hit .500 until the 13th game (6-6-1). "I guess the low point came when they threw us out of our offices in [Philadelphia's] Veterans Stadium in June. There was a problem with the contract between the club and the city, and one Tuesday they told us to prepare to be evicted. We were trying to get ready for our second Birmingham game. We were drawing plays on the way because the chalkboard was in the moving truck. The coaches were sitting on the floor because all our furniture was gone. Yeah, we lost that Birmingham game, but then we won five straight."
"I think that brought us closer together," Fusina said. "Look, this is my team, my league. I signed a new contract last year. I'm going to remain a Star."
"I'm happy here," said Chuck Commiskey, the 290-pound guard whose solid work on the offensive line helped get Bryant 103 yards and three TDs—and himself a few votes for MVP. "I'm just hoping and praying this league will last."
Maybe it will, maybe it won't, but right now the Stars are sitting on top of it, for the second straight year. They could be a dynasty in the making or they could wind up a trivia topic. They'll have a long off-season before they find out.