For a lot of NFL fans, it’s very easy to not know that the USFL existed: the league that died 27 years ago after playing games in the spring of 1983, 1984, and 1985 is scarcely discussed by either the NFL or the media covering the NFL, let alone by fans. One site, USFL.info, does a pretty good job of chronicling the challenger to the NFL’s supremacy in pro football, including the story of Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Doug Flutie, and even Sean Landeta beginning their careers in the United States Football League.
Steve Young, who would go on to be perhaps the most illustrious USFL alum, signed his first professional football contract with the Los Angeles Express (yes, L.A. once had three pro football teams). He made his debut with the Express on April 1, 1984 at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, against the New Jersey Generals. New Jersey’s most recognizable player was Herschel Walker; Jojo Townsell was probably the best Express player besides Young. The Generals won, 26-10, before just 19,853 at Memorial Coliseum. This level of attendance for a nationally televised game played in a cavernous stadium was not a good sign for the USFL’s future.
Here’s how the Los Angeles Times reported Young’s performance: “He completed 19 of 29 passes for 163 yards and at times ran the offense as if he had been a part of it for years. . . . Young, who signed a contract in early March worth more than $40 million over 43 years, took advantage of a breakdown in coverage to pass 9 yards for a touchdown to Jojo Townsell, a former draft choice of the Jets. During one stretch over the second and third quarters, he completed 9 consecutive passes before Kerry Justin, the Generals’ cornerback, made a good play to break up a pass intended for Anthony Allen.”
Young said: “I think it’s just a matter of time. I felt pretty comfortable out there. I was throwing the ball pretty well. We just have to get the continuity going. I feel comfortable with what I’ve done, but I’ve got to get better.”
His coach, John Hadl, made an accurate prediction: “Steve is going to be a great quarterback. He went up against one of the best defenses in the league and performed well. I like his leadership. He saw some things on the field that another quarterback wouldn’t see for a year.”
Nonetheless, Brian Sipe, formerly a longtime quarterback with the Cleveland Browns, led the Generals to victory in his fourth start of the USFL season, making the Express a 2-4 team after Young’s debut. Young stayed with the Express for two seasons, went to the NFL and Tampa Bay in 1985 and 1986, then began his four-year apprenticeship with the 49ers in 1987.
I’ve hunted down the stats for Young’s USFL debut game from the L.A. Times archives. Here’s a rundown of the scoring:
I don’t recognize most of the names in the box score, but Herschel Walker did have a good day, and the member of the famous Zendeyas kicking family making kicks for New Jersey was Luis. (The above stemmed from my project chronicling Bill Walsh’s 49er teams.)