The USFL more than just a footnote in sports, you may not find a crazier time

(Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images) /

The USFL was a bold attempt to once again challenge the power of the NFL, but out of that failed league came great players and even greater stories.

Allow me to rattle off a few great football names for you; Steve Young, Herschel Walker, Reggie White, Jim Kelly…

A list of College Football and NFL Hall of Famers? Yes. But even more surprising is that before they all made headlines as NFL stars every one of those players began their career in the USFL.

The rise and fall of the league that some predicted would beat the NFL at their own game has been chronicled in a new book by acclaimed author Jeff Pearlman, and if you thought the USFL was fun before, just wait until you read this book.

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In 1983, the United States Football League bellowed its way into American homes, touting themselves as the alternative to the NFL. A league that would venture into cities the NFL refused to even look at and who would play during spring and summer when the NFL was on hiatus to expand the popularity of American football by creating competition for the first time since the merger with the AFL.

What an amazing idea it was. And with the money that was being thrown around by USFL owners – including then-New Jersey Generals owner, now President Donald Trump – it was hard for some of the premier football talents in the country to resist.

"I was at a party in Beverly Hills, and everyone in sports was there. Magic Johnson, Wayne Gretzky, Kareem. And I spotted my idol – Hank Aaron! I walked up to him and introduced myself. He said “I know who you are. You made a great decision going to the USFL.” I was shocked. Then he leaned in and whispered, “Tom, You always have to get the money. Get the f**cking money. Because they don’t care about you”  – Tom Ramsey, Los Angeles Express quarterback."

Excerpted from Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL. Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Pearlman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Ramsey’s story was not uncommon at that time. The league was going after the prime college recruits and even some stalwart veterans with the thought of putting a top-quality product on the field from day one.

Pearlman goes into shocking and often hilarious detail about the goings-on in the fledgling league, including interviews with many of the key players and coaches from the USFL. He chronicles the meticulous planning by New Orleans businessman David Dixon – who had begun hammering out his idea for the league in 1965 – all the way through the hijacking of the league by Donald Trump, whose insistence that the USFL move to a fall schedule to compete with and eventually merge with the NFL led to the league’s eventual demise.

From a conversation with Jeff Pearlman with book publisher Houghton Mifflin on researching the book during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign:

"“Maybe the strangest thing I’ve ever experienced as a Journalist. Here I am, simultaneously going back in time to watch Donald Trump enter – then ruin – a football league as he’s campaigning for the presidency. I mean, super weird, and hard. Because, if we’re being honest, Trump was a poisonous snake when it came to the USFL. He never showed an ounce of concern for its long-term success.”"

Egos, money, drugs, legal maneuvering, successes, and failures – ultimately the USFL had it all, and there’s no better way to learn about (or relive) what was one of the most unusual times in American football than spending some time reading Pearlman’s work of passion.

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It will also make watching the upcoming debuts of the new XFL and AAF even more fun to observe with some of Jeff’s stories in mind.