The USFL: When Pro Football Was Fun


"If the 1980s was the era of blissful, colorful, dynamic excess, the USFL was the football league of blissful, colorful, dynamic excess."

Minor-league sports get a bad rap. And Memphis has been a part of some ugly marriages with "professional" football: the WFL, the CFL, and the XFL to name three. But the United States Football League — home to the Memphis Showboats for two buzz-worthy seasons in the 1980s — was an exception. And Jeff Pearlman has brought the magic to life with his book, Football for a Buck (released earlier this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). There was a time when football teams called themselves Gamblers, Invaders, Gunslingers, and yes, Showboats. When two-point conversions and end zone celebrations were encouraged. When Burt f*****g Reynolds rode to midfield as part of the Tampa Bay Bandits ownership group. This was the USFL.

Pearlman's book is part history lesson, capturing the brilliantly mad idea of a spring football league that placed teams not just in NFL cities, but had them play in the very stadiums NFL teams called home. The league's first champion — the 1983 Michigan Panthers — played better football in the Pontiac Silverdome than did the Detroit Lions. But the enterprise seemed to survive on duct tape and barbed wire. One team hired a blind equipment manager. One hired 24-hour security for a coach whose life had been threatened by a player he chose to cut. During the league's first offseason, the Chicago and Arizona franchises were traded for each other. (Yes, 50 players in two USFL cities — and their families — moved to the other city for the 1984 season.)

But the USFL grabbed those who paid close attention. Herschel Walker was the first big name to take a lavish contract and snub the NFL, but Steve Young and Jim Kelly followed, pumping up TV ratings (somewhat) and giving the new league glitz beyond its scantily clad cheerleaders. Who cared about baseball in April when the reigning Heisman Trophy winner was cutting his professional teeth in the Big Apple?

"The Showboats were a model USFL franchise."

Memphis was among six cities that gained expansion franchises for the 1984 season. Under owner Billy Dunavant, general manager Steve Ehrhart (since 1994, the executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl), and wacky coach Pepper Rodgers, the Showboats got much of minor-league football right, in part by treating their Memphis fan base like they were big-league. Star players — most notably Hall of Fame-bound defensive lineman Reggie White — made public appearances, shook hands, and provided moments of connection long before selfies were a thing. And it showed on game day. More than 50,000 fans packed the Liberty Bowl for a sweltering June 1984 game against the Birmingham Stallions. (My dad and I were among them.) Memphis lost the game, but there was nothing minor-league about the experience. We left the stadium that day feeling like we'd witnessed the birth of a new regional rivalry, and that the ’Boats would be back.

The zany behavior — often blended with outstanding football — fuels Pearlman's storytelling. But there's a shadow figure throughout the tale. The USFL died a quick death in large part because a direct challenge to the NFL crashed mightily. The man leading the attempt to (1) move the USFL to a fall schedule and (2) merge certain franchises with the established league? One Donald J. Trump. (In a coincidence best appreciated by Robert Mueller, Pearlman's book was released on the same day Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House hit shelves nationwide.)

The upstart league actually won an antitrust lawsuit filed against the NFL, but was rewarded precisely one dollar in damages. As the future president might have put it, "So much winning." The NFL's commissioner at the time, Pete Rozelle, as quoted in the book: "Mr. Trump, as long as I or my heirs are involved in the NFL, you will never be a franchise owner in the league."

Pearlman has written books on more mainstream football subjects: Walter Payton, Brett Favre, the 1990s Dallas Cowboys. But Football for a Buck is a unique time capsule on as distinctive a three-year life as any minor-league American sports entity has seen. And that's the catch: The USFL may have been a minor league, but it was operated with major-league balls. Did it fail? When measured for posterity, it did indeed. But in generating memories for those of us who witnessed the colorful stumbles? The stories live on. And we finally have the book to prove it.

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