New York area fans who remember the United States Football League (for the under-40 set, that was the fledgling 1983-1985 spring football league) and its local franchise, the New Jersey Generals, probably recall it for three people: Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie and Donald Trump. While the second one came along after the third one purchased the team (and tried to stick the rest of the owners with the bill, Mexican-wall style), it was the “H-Bomb” whose early exit from the University of Georgia directly to Chuck Fairbanks‘ inaugural squad made the league’s biggest splash as it fought for space on the football fans’ collective radar.
The Walker story, those of Flutie, Trump and the many other personalities that colored not just the Generals but the entire USFL are chronicled magnificently in former Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman‘s soaring new book Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pps., $28). Pearlman captures the best of the fun and insanity, with behind-the-scenes machinations of owners, on-and-off the field actions of players and, finally, how a pyrrhic court “victory” put the league to bed for good.
Players leaving college early for pro football and basketball, commonplace now, was literally unheard of in 1983. The Heisman trophy winner hedged on his decision, even telling Bulldogs coach Vince Dooley that he would return to UGA for his senior season, after all, before reconsidering and signing with the pre-Trump Generals. The announcement that the biggest name in college football was joining the upstart league was the de facto “arrival moment.”
“The signing of Herschel screamed, ‘We’re the USFL!’,” Pearlman told NYSportsDay. “It also had the NFL screaming, ‘What the (hell) is going on here?!’ Hard to imagine now, the hugeness of it all, but this would be the equivalent of, oh, Cam Newton coming out of college and going to the XFL instead of the NFL—times 100,000. Walker was simply an iconic college player at a time when icons lasted more than the cycle of a Tweet. It was an earthquake for sports.”
To a roster that had mostly NFL castoffs like starting QB Bobby Scott and linebacker Rod Shoate and hopefuls like Fordham’s Sam Bowers and Montclair State’s Terry Porter came the marquee thunder that was the H-Bomb. It took awhile for Fairbanks to know what to do with his superstar, who would go on to lead the league in rushing with 1812 yards (and an astounding 2411 in 1985), but whose teams never won a playoff game.
While it was Walker who first opened many fans’ eyes to the USFL, it was Trump who finally closed them, orchestrating a quixotic move to the fall, up against the NFL with no discernible plan that sped the league’s demise. Pearlman digs into both stories, with a reporter’s zeal that takes readers back 35 years to when a third pro football team called the Meadowlands home.