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You could pose the same question about the Express, which had signed Young to a ballyhooed 43-year, $36 million contract in March 1984 and fallen on dismal economic times. The league took over the club, which was having severe cash-flow difficulties, in mid-January. But L.A. has never missed making its payroll—unless you count the annuity premiums on Young's contract and also those of offensive linemen Gary Zimmerman and Mike Ruether. "They owed us $350,000 for about a week," says John Marchiano, the agent for Ruether and Zimmerman. "We had grounds to leave. But the guys have camaraderie. It would be ridiculous, though, to say the [lack of stable ownership] hasn't affected them." Says Leigh Steinberg, Young's agent, "The premiums weren't tendered on time, but they were tendered. There's no chance the league will ever allow Steve Young's contract to be defaulted on."
The league now finds itself responsible for Young's annual salary, roughly a $300,000 base. The other 13 franchises pay all Express salaries and expenses from their $20 million (and dwindling) contingency pool. In a sense, Houston's owners couldn't lose Sunday. They had employees on both sides of the Coliseum field.
In the wacky world of the USFL, where all things are possible, Jay Roulier succeeded J. William Oldenburg as owner of the Express; during that time the league controlled Roulier's share in the Houston franchise.
In January the Express started doing without necessities. Soon Roulier was back in Houston. "I was there to make sure Young stayed," Roulier said. "He never even said goodby," said Young. "My middle name is naive."
The Express couldn't even get a local radio station to broadcast their opener. "And who would buy a season ticket when people were saying we were going to Hawaii next?" asks L.A. president Don Klosterman. Express players bemoaned a lack of coverage by the Los Angeles Times. Be careful what you ask for, though. On Friday, Times columnist Jim Murray commented. "They finally offered the club around," wrote Murray, "to anybody who had an unexpired American Express card."
Express math works out to $10 million in expenses, including a $7 million payroll, against $2 million income from TV. Oh, and there are nine home dates that promise mostly empty seats. "I know people with the money," says Klosterman, "but they say, 'Yes, Don, your team is good, but show me when I'll get my 10 million back.' "
After Sunday's game a laughing Kelly said, "[The USFL] can succeed if we stay in the spring. We can have fun and watch the NFL in the off-season." Not far away, in the home team's locker room, Young stood with his jaw set as a shirtless Hadl held his shoulders and tried to explain losing to him. The Express has no owner and few fans, yet losing still hurt. Young looked as if he felt one step from nowhere. He said, "Tell Jim Kelly I love him and that we'll see him later on." Spirited competition was about the only sure thing Young had left, give or take a few million bucks.