The opening week United States Football League contest between the Houston Gamblers and Los Angeles Express on February 24, 1985 featured two of the most highly-regarded young quarterbacks in the league. Houston’s Jim Kelly had a remarkable rookie season in 1984, throwing for 5219 yards and 44 touchdowns. The Gamblers, coached by Jack Pardee and utilizing a run-and-shoot offense, went 13-5 and only a first-round loss to Arizona in the playoffs could put a damper on the outstanding year.
Steve Young of the Express joined the club after the ’84 season was already underway and, while not putting together the spectacular numbers that his fellow rookie did in Houston, nevertheless performed capably and had a positive effect on the offense. LA was 2-3 and having difficulty generating points when the mobile lefthander out of Brigham Young took over, but rallied to finish at 10-8 and gain a spot in the postseason in the weak Pacific Division (and defeated Houston in the first head-to-head encounter between the two quarterbacks). Following a triple-overtime win over the defending-champion Michigan Panthers in the first round of the playoffs, LA had finally succumbed to the Arizona Wranglers.
There was a typically sparse crowd of 18,828 in attendance at the LA Memorial Coliseum for the untelevised game. The Gamblers took the early advantage as Kelly threw two one-yard touchdowns to WR Ricky Sanders in the first quarter to build up a 13-0 lead (the extra point attempt was missed following the second of the TDs). The Express responded with two field goals by Tony Zendejas, of 26 and 48 yards, in the second quarter and the score was 13-6 at halftime.
Zendejas added a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter, and then Young connected with WR JoJo Townsell for a 64-yard touchdown. RB Kevin Nelson ran for a two-yard TD and the Express, aided by Houston turnovers, was ahead by 23-13 after three quarters.
LA appeared to put the game away in the fourth quarter when safety Troy West intercepted a Kelly pass and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown, making the score 33-13 with less than ten minutes to play. However, two plays from scrimmage later Houston narrowed the gap in lightning fashion as Kelly threw to WR Richard Johnson for a 52-yard touchdown.
The Express played conservatively, trying to run out the clock, and the Gamblers got the ball back at the LA 43 following a poor 16-yard punt by Jeff Partridge with the clock down to 4:05. This time it took five plays to drive to another Kelly scoring pass as he connected with WR Vince Courville from 20 yards out. With the successful extra point it was now a six-point game at 33-27.
LA managed only a running play and two incomplete passes in its next series. Following another punt, the Gamblers had possession with just under two minutes to go. They only needed 40 seconds to cover 84 yards and cap their furious comeback as Kelly found Sanders open over the middle, beating West (who had two interceptions in the game and returned one for a score) for a 39-yard touchdown. Toni Fritsch kicked his fourth extra point of the game to provide a one-point margin.
Still, there was time on the clock for LA to attempt to drive into field goal range, and Zendejas had been successful on all four of his attempts. But Young was intercepted by LB Mike Hawkins to nail down the 34-33 win for Houston.
The Gamblers rolled up 585 total yards, with only 25 of that total on the ground, on a mere 8 carries. The Express ran the ball 20 times, but for just 49 yards while gaining a total of 267. Houston also had the edge in first downs (26 to 12), although the Gamblers hindered themselves by turning the ball over five times, to just one by LA.
Jim Kelly completed 35 of 54 passes for 574 yards and 5 touchdowns. In doing so, he not only surpassed Bobby Hebert’s USFL record of 444 yards, but Norm Van Brocklin’s NFL record of 554 and was just 12 yards short of Sam Etcheverry’s 586 yards with Montreal of the CFL in 1954. It was the second time Kelly had tossed five TDs in a game, tying the league record that he shared with four others.
Three Houston receivers gained over a hundred yards, led by Richard Johnson with 174 on 11 catches, including one score, and followed by Ricky Sanders with 9 receptions for 108 yards and three TDs and RB Sam Harrell’s 105 on 6 catches. Harrell led the almost non-existent running attack with 16 yards on four carries.
For the Express, Steve Young was successful on 13 of 27 passes for 255 yards with a TD and an interception and was the leading rusher with 27 yards on five carries. JoJo Townsell gained 104 yards on his two catches, including the one long touchdown, while WR Duane Gunn had four receptions for 42 yards.
“I’ve been in some comebacks before, but never anything like that,” said Kelly. “Pulling out that win was the best feeling I ever had in my life.”
“He’s a great quarterback; that’s a great offense,” summed up Steve Young, whose own efforts had come up short.
“I got too conservative in the fourth quarter,” lamented Express Head Coach John Hadl.
It was the beginning of another outstanding year for Houston and Jim Kelly. While the second-year quarterback out of Miami missed several games due to injury, he still led the USFL in pass attempts (567), completions (360), yards (4623), touchdowns (39), and passer rating (97.9). The Gamblers finished third in the Western Conference with a 10-8 record but were the league’s highest-scoring club with 544 points. They qualified for the postseason but once again lost in the first round, falling to Birmingham by a 22-20 score.
They were far ahead of the Los Angeles Express, who finished at a miserable 3-15 and wound up the year playing at Pierce College’s small venue while unsuccessfully seeking new ownership. It was a tough season for Steve Young as well, who threw for 1741 yards with 6 TD passes and 13 interceptions and rushed for 368.
With the demise of the USFL, both quarterbacks made their way to the NFL. Kelly played for Buffalo, the team that had his rights after drafting him in the first round in 1983, and led the Bills to four straight AFC titles – although the club fell short in the Super Bowl after each. Young went to Tampa Bay and was then dealt to the 49ers, where he was a backup on two Super Bowl-winning squads, was the starting quarterback when San Francisco won the NFL Championship in 1994, and led the league in passing six times. They both eventually ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – the USFL performances were just the opening chapter.
Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 24, 2012.