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Hanging around with the big boys

Sept. 16, 1985
Sept. 16, 1985

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Sept. 16, 1985

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Hanging around with the big boys

A number of talented USFL players have made the major leap onto NFL rosters

My, don't those old USFL guys look normal now. Since they've taken their pants with the flames on the sides and their helmets decorated with those masked bandits and swapped them for the gray flannel three-piece suits of the NFL, why, they look positively old money.

This is an article from the Sept. 16, 1985 issue Original Layout

Last week 78 former Up-Start Football League players were on the rosters of 27 of 28 Now (we) Feel (better) League clubs (only Pittsburgh lacked a USFL defector). They arrived in the NFL by means of buy-outs, wait-outs, wheel-and-deal-outs and—in the peculiar case of players from the USFL's moribund San Antonio and Portland franchises—virtual throw-outs. To a man they were thrilled to be, at last, on the side of tradition.

"This is the league I watched as a kid," exulted Tim Spencer, who is the new fullback for the San Diego Chargers. Spencer came over from Memphis, and along with seven other USFL refugees, he gives San Diego claim to the NFL's Ellis Island Award. Give us your poor, your waived and your supplementally drafted....

Those cynics who thought the USFL was full of semipro players were, of course, victims of NFL propaganda. "We always knew there was talent over there," says Ron Nay, the Chargers' director of scouting. "Our thought was that the league wouldn't last and we'd get good players then. Or if the league didn't fold, we'd get them at the end of their contracts."

Whatever, they got them. And the list of potential stars is long: Spencer, offensive lineman Jerry Doerger and wide receiver Trumaine Johnson at San Diego; defensive end Keith Millard and wide receiver Anthony Carter at Minnesota; running back Mike Rozier and placekicker Tony Zendejas at Houston; offensive lineman Dan Fike and running back Kevin Mack at Cleveland; center Bart Oates, fullback Maurice Carthon and punter Sean Landeta at the New York Giants, to name a few. Rozier got off to a good start Sunday, scoring two touchdowns, including the game-winner in the Oilers' 26-23 upset of Miami. Zendejas contributed a 46-yard field goal.

And is the NFL thankful for the groundwork laid by the USFL, for all the things the upstart league taught raw players like Johnson and Mack and Carthon? Uh, no. Remember, NFL salaries increased because of USFL competition. Remember, spring football dulled everybody's appetite for the pro game. Remember, the USFL has filed a $1.3 billion antitrust suit against the NFL.

Says New Orleans quarterback Bobby Hebert (Michigan Panthers, Oakland Invaders) of the USFL's struggle against the NFL monopoly, "It's like a new car company trying to compete with General Motors." Indeed, there was early concern that Hebert himself might be more Bricklin than Cadillac. In the eight series he directed for the Saints in two exhibition games, he ended each with either a sack, a fumble, a bad pitch or an interception.

The newer NFL guys joke about their old league but they don't get nasty. "I'd much rather be in the NFL—I'm not gonna lie about that," says Washington Redskins punt returner Gary Clark, formerly of Jacksonville. "But I had a good experience in the USFL, and I'm not gonna lie about that, either."

For Hebert, the switch meant a lot of money. His contract with the Saints—$2.75 million for five years, plus a $1.3 million signing bonus—is truly big time. But some players took pay cuts to join the NFL. Spencer, for instance, dropped from an estimated $450,000 annually in the USFL to salaries of $250,000, $325,000 and $375,000 with the Chargers. Other players didn't take cuts, but they didn't make killings, either. Green Bay Packer nosetackle Charlie Martin made $50,000 playing for Birmingham in 1984. This year, his second with the Pack, his base salary is $75,000, the lowest of any Green Bay starter.

"Who cares?" says Martin. "It's still a lot of money." One should bless the USFL for such a statement.

A number of players, of course, are simply coming back to the league that spawned them. Others had joined NFL teams in previous years. Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Jim Smith signed with the Los Angeles Raiders after spending three seasons with Birmingham. Tight end Dan Ross, a Super Bowl hero for Cincinnati in 1982, rejoined the Bengals after a stint with the Breakers, as did defensive end Ross Browner after a gig with the Houston Gamblers. And offensive tackle Luis Sharpe returned to St. Louis after a short time in Memphis.

Browner is a good example of the player-for-hire hybrid inspired by year-round football. He played last season for the Bengals, relaxed for a couple of months, then signed with the Gamblers for the final six games of their season before going back to Cincinnati. His fee from the Gamblers: a $10,000 bonus and $10,000 per game.

Body breakdown and burnout, however, may lie in wait for former USFL players who think they can glide untouched through back-to-back football seasons.

Raiders nosetackle and defensive end Dave Stalls played in 33 games from September 1983 to June 1984—first with the Tampa Bay Bucs, then with the Raiders and finally with the Denver Gold. "I hope they're getting a helluva lot of money, because they're going to need it for their psychiatrists and doctors," he says of the double-season guys.

Stalls says he nearly cracked with the Gold. "It was just too much," he says. He asked for, and got, a week off at midseason to unwind.

Ross played in 38 straight games from August 1983 to June 1984 and recalls that by the end he "couldn't run, couldn't think, couldn't move."

So, how much sympathy can these new or reborn NFLers expect to receive this season? Not much. As Saints coach Bum Phillips says, "Businessmen work 11 months a year."

PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEUpstarters who have joined the Chargers: Johnson (83), Lee Williams (99), Anthony Steels (44), Doerger (65) and Spencer (43).PHOTOANDY HAYTHebert has some fat figures in his New Orleans contract, but not on the stats sheet.