Football: New book delves into the rise and fall of the USFL

With the calendar flipping over to September, the sports world will be turning its attention to the football fields across America — from high school, to college and to the pros.

Jeff Pearlman. — photo via Twitter

While the sport in general is riding a wave of popularity despite a litany of controversies at every level, New York Times best-selling author Jeff Pearlman set his sights on one of the leagues that did not make it, the United States Football League, which folded in 1986 after three tumultuous seasons.

The prolific Pearlman, who has written books covering everything from the 1986 Mets, the Showtime Lakers to LeBron James, to gridiron icons Brett Favre and Walter Payton, described his latest, ‘Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL,’ as a passion project. Growing up in the tri-state area, Pearlman was drawn to the league as a grade-schooler.

“So I was 10 when the USFL started,” Pearlman said. “Grew up in a tiny town, Mahopac, N.Y. And my family didn’t subscribe to ‘Sports Illustrated’, only ‘Sports Magazine’. But I would walk down to the local library most weeks and read the new SI.

“Well, this one week there’s a photo on the cover of Herschel Walker in a New Jersey Generals’ uniform … Mind blown. I open up the issue, and there’s a spread of the 12 helmets from this new league. They’re colorful and explosive and wild. I’m in. Like, I’m totally in.

“From that moment on, I was all about the USFL. Followed religiously, watched as much as one possibly could. When it died I was genuinely sad, and it was sort of haunting. What could have been. So, all these years later I found myself asking, ‘What was it? And what could have been?’

With that seed from childhood planted, Pearlman began to contact luminaries from the USFL, which routinely challenged the NFL in acquiring high-end talent in its prime. But over the span of three-plus decades, some of the key figures were no longer around. Contacting others, including former Generals’ owner and current President of the United States, Donald Trump, posed other problems.

“Well, a lot of the owners are dead,” Pearlman said. “That was unfortunate. Also, a certain owner is now a pretty controversial world figure, and that definitely caused a lot of, ‘So, is this about Trump?’ looks and utterances. And I was constantly reassuring, ‘THIS is a USFL book — not a Trump book.’

“Even though obviously he’s a huge figure, and would have been even had the presidency never happened. So those were issues. But, overall, people were great. Chatty, nostalgic, telling. It was like going back in time to an old fraternity.”

Pearlman was able to speak to one of the USFL’s brightest stars, one with locals ties, in Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Young. The Greenwich native quarterbacked the Los Angeles Express for two seasons before heading to the NFL.

“He was fantastic,” Pearlman said of Young. “Love that guy. USFL officials actually went to his house in Greenwich to first plant the idea. He was home from BYU for break; a USFL guy just strolls down to chat.”

Stars like Young, Walker, Jim Kelly and Reggie White helped legitimize the USFL, which operated on a spring-to-summer schedule in its first three seasons. Its downfall came after its third season, when the fledgling league attempted to switch to a fall-to-winter schedule to take on the NFL head-to-head.

That cautionary tale is something that Stamford-based sports entertainment mogul Vince McMahon will undoubtedly heed when his Alpha Entertainment launches the second iteration of the XFL in 2020.

“It has to be a minor league, or some sort of supplemental league,” Pearlman said. “You’ll die a quick death trying to steal players from the NFL. It’s just impossible.”

‘Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL,’ will be available on Sept. 11.

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