August 21, 2014

Steve Young, Rookie With the USFL’s Los Angeles Express in Spring 1984

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:

And here’s the team box score:

And, here’s the individual stats:

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.)

Comments

  1. I followed the USFL in 1983 and ’84, and I ignored it in ’85. I went to one game in ’84, when the Washington Federals hosted Doug Williams and the Oklahoma Outlaws. The best players on an awful Federals team were quarterback Reggie Collier and wide receiver Joey Walters. In front of 4,000 fans (yes, 4,000), the Outlaws won, 20-16. Former St. Louis Cardinals All-Pro wide reciever Mel Gray played for the Outlaws but didn’t see much action. I think he caught 8 passes for the whole season.

  2. From the Express-Generals box score, these are the players I remember (other than the obvious ones like Young, Walker, and Sipe). For starters, I remember Maurice Carthon scoring more touchdowns than Herschel Walker did in 1984. Carthon later played 7 seasons for the New York Giants, winning NFL Championships in 1986 and 1990. He blocked first for Joe Morris and then for Ottis Anderson.

    Mel Gray (not the same Mel Gray that played for the St. Louis Cardinals) later returned kicks for the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. He also spent time with the Houston/Tennessee Oilers and the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Roger Ruzek later kicked for the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles.

    Clarence Collins was a good wide receiver for the Generals, but I don’t have any memories of him playing in the NFL.

    Anthony Allen played for my beloved Washington Redskins in 1987 and ’88. He was part of the 1987 Championship team led by Doug Williams. I was at the NFC Championship against the Minnesota Vikings when Allen caught a key 3rd down pass from Doug to keep an early drive alive. That drive ended in a Kelvin Bryant touchdown in a 17-10 Redskins victory. That game was actually my favorite memory from the ’87 season, and Doug has said the same thing. The game obviously stands in the shadow of the 42-10 Super Bowl romp over the Denver Broncos.

  3. With their first names added, I recognize Carthon, Ruzek and Gray. I think some guys played in the USFL and NFL in the same year, for 30+ games played, which would be awfully hard. I’m not sure if, with better planning and execution, the USFL could have succeeded as a spring football league. It sounds like the Arena league is the fairly direct derivative of the USFL, but it never tried to compete with the NFL.

  4. The Generals had some great players on defense, such as Gary Barbaro, Jim LeClair, Kerry Justin, Bob Horn, Bob Leopold amongst a few other NFL vets that Trump signed during the ’83 offseason. At the time, The LA Express were considered to have some of the best young talent in the game, courtesy of William Oldenburgs’ generous wallet. The USFL made a genuine attempt at establishing itself as a major league enterprise. There were other good teams at that time such as the Stars, Stallions, Panthers, Wranglers, Bandits and Gamblers. All those clubs had enough talent to at least make a reasonable account of themselves had they faced NFL teams and not necessarily the bad ones. I firmly believe that. Had this league had some ample time to get its product off the ground, not try to challenge the NFL in the fall, maybe we would be enjoying spring ball to this day.

Speak Your Mind

*