Reading Jeff Pearlman’s new book, “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL,” I regretted I did not pay closer attention to the renegade football league during its brief existence.
The history of the short-lived USFL, which played three spring seasons beginning in 1983, is a story of sex, drugs and football. Also opportunity and achievement; greed, hubris and ego; innovation and what might have been.
Pearlman, who’s written about the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Mets and Brett Favre, among others, calls this his best book, his dream book. It was clearly a labor of love, which he pursued despite little encouragement from publishers.
If only the USFL could have told its story as well.
It was the Wild West. A player once was placed on injured reserve after slamming a trunk on his private parts. Another punched his coach — John Hadl, whom Packers fans might remember — and then was signed by another team. It had owners who were solid businessmen, and others who were total hucksters.
The USFL included rookies fresh from college, veterans hoping for one more crack at the game and never-wases who saw a chance to finally get onto a professional football field. Four future Pro Football Hall of Famers began careers with USFL teams: Reggie White in Memphis; Steve Young and Gary Zimmerman in Los Angeles; and Jim Kelly in Houston.
Others, like Sam Mills, who was considered undersized for an NFL linebacker, might never have had a chance if not for his performance with the Philadelphia Stars. He went on to a distinguished NFL career with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.
The NFL’s reaction to the USFL was to try to ignore it, even as the new league signed some of the best college graduates — and notably, Herschel Walker, who was not a graduate — and tried innovations such as salary caps, sideline interviews, two-point conversions and instant replay, all of which the status quo league ended up adopting.
And then there was Donald J. Trump, who did not go on to a distinguished career in the NFL, although that was his only reason for buying the USFL’s New Jersey Generals.
Trump is the central villain of the USFL story. He dismissed the league as “small potatoes,” even while buying into it. He signed quarterback Doug Flutie to an inflated contract and, pretending to be made-up spokesperson “John Barron” in a telephone interview with a reporter, suggested other owners should pay part of Flutie’s salary.
In fact, Trump’s only interest in the USFL was to the extent that it could help him get NFL ownership, which has been consistently thwarted for decades — most recently in 2014 — a point that puts his constant criticism of the league into a certain perspective.
Before his USFL involvement, Trump met with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Trump arranged the meeting, though he later claimed Rozelle wanted to meet with him.
Pearlman quotes Rozelle as saying at that meeting, “Mr. Trump, as long as I or my heirs are involved with the NFL, you will never be a franchise owner in the league.”
Trump interpreted that statement to mean he still had a chance, and the USFL was worse off for it. Fatally.
Trump pressured the league to move from spring to fall seasons and to sue the NFL, predicting certain victory. He was the main witness in the trial, which the USFL won. The jury awarded the league $1 in damages, in large part, Pearlman writes, because of Trump’s damaging performance on the witness stand.
But the book isn’t all about Trump, or even most of it. There were many more interesting characters and stories, and Pearlman, with his usual plethora of interviews and broad research, tells them engagingly.
His writing style keeps the story moving forward. He doesn’t distract with expository tangents but instead weaves those facts into the narrative, daring you to find a place to stop reading.
‘Big Game: The NFL In Dangerous Times’
A good follow-up to Pearlman’s book would be Mark Leibovich’s “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times.”
Normally a political reporter, Leibovich took a year off to write about the NFL during which concussions, the Deflategate scandal and the decisions to move the St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland franchises were major issues. He has a facility for getting people to tell him things they end up wishing they hadn’t, and he’s good at cutting through the baloney that is the NFL’s default response to everything.
For the record, Leibovich is a football fan, particularly of the New England Patriots, so his reporting is not without some sympathy for the game and its fans.
If you’re one of those fans who doesn’t want to see player protests because they take away from your ability to escape real life, this is probably not a book for you. But if you want a glimpse of the reality of the business that is professional football, if offers that in abundance.
There’s also a chapter on his visit to Green Bay during the Packers-New York Giants playoff game in January 2017.
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