Jeff Pearlman has penned the book I contemplated writing a hundred times for the last 30 years.
It’s called “Football For A Buck” and while it’s terrific, don’t be misled, you will have to pay more than a dollar for it.
Don’t worry, the book is worth 10 times more than the court judgment rendered that eventually shut the lights out on the United States Football League.
“Small potatoes,” right Donald?
Pearlman did everything I had in my mind to do:
–Get Rick Neuheisel to tell San Antonio Gunslinger stories.
–Find Greg Fields, the L.A. Express player who punched out coach John Hadl, then find the whereabouts of phony “self-made billionaire” Express owner, J. William Oldenberg, whose company (IMG) banged a gong after every big business deal but ended up being “The Gong Show.”
–Comically detail how the Chicago Blitz and Arizona Wranglers traded their entire rosters but kept the same names. Tell bat-shit-crazy George Allen tales, especially the one about the raisins, but not the one where he once called me at home to say he was training for a 1984 Olympic torch run by carrying a brick over his head.
–Tell the story of the U-haul ready Breakers, who were based in three different cities in three seasons: Boston, New Orleans, Portland, then explain how the last home game for the L.A. Express ended up being played in front of empty fold-up chairs at a junior college even though it starred TWO future Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks.
–Ferociously blame Donald J. Trump for the league’s demise, break for lunch, then blame him again.
The only thing that stopped me, I swear, were two words: “who cares?”
Maybe I was too close to the story.
Pearlman’s book is, in many ways, the story of my young, adult life and maybe that’s why it was too much for me to handle in the three-decade midst of writing six thousand stories (one million words) for a daily metropolitan.
I’m not envious Pearlman has done this book, I’m eternally grateful.
The USFL was my first major beat for the Los Angeles Times. I was 24 years old in late 1982 when I was handed, by incredible luck and default, the assignment of covering the fledgling Express.
For the next three years I made loads of rookie mistakes, nurtured lifelong-to-come friendships and met two Youngs who would heavily influence my thinking.
One was named Steve—the young quarterback from BYU about whom I later told Al Davis would be a Super Bowl MVP if some team would just give him a chance.
Davis actually tried to trade for Young, then sitting behind Joe Montana in San Francisco, but couldn’t pull it off.
Steve and I related to each other, I think, because we were both young and scared. And we loved Springsteen. Young would turn out to be the most intellectually curious superstar athlete I would ever cover.
He asked ME once what it was like to be so young and be a sportswriter for the L.A. Times.
I countered he had done pretty well for himself at a young age.
The other Young I met at the Express was a media relations assistant named Sheila.
Oh, I married her.
The USFL began with modest goals but couldn’t keep true to its spring-league mission and flamed out in 1986 after three half-baked seasons, becoming that rare combination of three-ringed circus and 20-car NASCAR wreck.
The fact the USFL’s most detestable owner became President of the United States only seals the merits of the book’s worthiness while confirming the saying truth is stranger than FAKE NEWS!
The USFL ultimately sued the NFL, hilariously “won” a whopping $1 in damages (trebled to $3 under anti-trust laws), then disappeared to history’s ash bin.
For me, though, the USFL will always be a loved-it story.
It was responsible for my launching whatever writing career I’ve had and singularly responsible for my wife and boys named Danny, Drew and Joey.
If “Finding Your Roots” tested my DNA the pie chart would come back, “half French, a quarter Italian, 20 percent Slav and five percent Eddie “Meat Cleaver” Weaver.
So, yeah, this is personal and every word in the rest of this story, which isn’t really much of a book review, is romantically skewed and tinted.
I was young nobody, working in the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times when the USFL was hatched.
I was reminded by Pearlman’s exhaustive reporting that Los Angeles only got a franchise because of stadium-lease complications in San Diego.
Think about that: If San Diego gets the franchise, I get no wife named Sheila or my three boys.
Even then I was a long shot for this 32-year marriage. The downtown LAT office wanted the USFL like a union brick through the window. Sports already had two NFL franchises (Raiders and Rams) and editor Bill Dwyre was feverishly preparing for the crowning event of his career: the 1984 Summer Olympics.
And now you’re dropping a spring football league in his lap?
No way. He basically said “get some kid in OC” to cover it and by “cover it” he meant clear out some space near the penile dysfunction ads.
Someone told me later I won the job on a coin flip.
And so, in February of 1983, I became the 24-year old beat-man covering the L.A. Express. And any true fan of the league will know that, in the first game, against New Jersey Generals, an Express back named Tony Boddie out-gained superstar Herschel Walker.
The downtown bosses so detested what I might have to say about the L.A. Express to the point of almost not running my biggest blockbuster.
I called the office one night in early 1984 to inform my paper the Express was about to sign Steve Young to the biggest contract in professional sports.
The skeptical (rightly so) night editor shot back “Oh how do you know that?”
Well, I was scrub, but that pissed me off.
My source, I told them, was Express general manager Don Klosterman, former GM for the Rams, which is about as iron clad as it gets.
I said, “If you want a story in the L.A. Times tomorrow about the Express signing Steve Young, I’d be happy to write it given I am the team’s beat writer for your paper. If you don’t want it you can shove it…”
They took the story and it was the beginning of beautiful friendship.
We showed them. The Express was such a comic disaster my paper had no choice but to promote shenanigans like the owner throwing plates of food at the head coach. And a other stuff like that.
The team was a perfect training ground for a young writer. The Express made one mistake after another and so did I. The office was so preoccupied with other things no one seemed to care whether I wrote “gambit” instead of “gamut.”
I got better as a writer and the Express became a better and better story.
My future wife started in ticket sales and the moved over to Media relations. I kissed her first in a car parked outside Polliwog Park, where the team trained. I probably knew I was going to marry her at the 1984 playoff game in Tempe between the Express and Arizona Wranglers.
Thankfully, the Express lost, because the team’s uniforms and equipment had been confiscated after the game for lack of payment. The franchise would end up stiffing mom-and-pop vendors a million bucks but not before entertaining us with a “daytime” fireworks show!
Dating an employee was definitely a conflict of interest but I told my boss she was going to be laid off any minute. And about a minute later, she was.
So, yeah, I loved the USFL but one editor I broached about a book had the perfect answer as to why it should not be considered.
“If no one cared about it then, who would read about it now?”
But thank god, all these years later, Jeff Pearlman said to-hell-with-it.
Jeff had what I had, a passion for the USFL, plus options.
Unlike me, he came to the USFL book as an established author of several best sellers and used that leverage to pursue this passion project. It’s like a powerful movie director agreeing to do Robo Cop 6 so long as he gets direct his “art” film.
Pearlman packaged “Gunslinger,” his best seller about Brett Favre, with an option to do his book on the USFL.
Jeff was just a kid when the USFL was in business, but he fell in love with every letter of this alphabet league. For that we thank him.
Full disclosure: Pearlman interviewed me and my wife as part of his process, meaning I was emotionally attached even before receiving an advanced copy.
I am happy to report Pearlman took no shortcuts on this project and faithfully, eloquently and humorously captured a peculiar piece of sporting history.
I couldn’t have written it any better myself–good thing I didn’t even try?