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Hanging around with the big boys
Rick Telander
September 16, 1985
A number of talented USFL players have made the major leap onto NFL rosters
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September 16, 1985

Hanging Around With The Big Boys

A number of talented USFL players have made the major leap onto NFL rosters

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My, don't those old USFL guys look normal now. Since they've taken their pants with the flames on the sides and their helmets decorated with those masked bandits and swapped them for the gray flannel three-piece suits of the NFL, why, they look positively old money.

Last week 78 former Up-Start Football League players were on the rosters of 27 of 28 Now (we) Feel (better) League clubs (only Pittsburgh lacked a USFL defector). They arrived in the NFL by means of buy-outs, wait-outs, wheel-and-deal-outs and—in the peculiar case of players from the USFL's moribund San Antonio and Portland franchises—virtual throw-outs. To a man they were thrilled to be, at last, on the side of tradition.

"This is the league I watched as a kid," exulted Tim Spencer, who is the new fullback for the San Diego Chargers. Spencer came over from Memphis, and along with seven other USFL refugees, he gives San Diego claim to the NFL's Ellis Island Award. Give us your poor, your waived and your supplementally drafted....

Those cynics who thought the USFL was full of semipro players were, of course, victims of NFL propaganda. "We always knew there was talent over there," says Ron Nay, the Chargers' director of scouting. "Our thought was that the league wouldn't last and we'd get good players then. Or if the league didn't fold, we'd get them at the end of their contracts."

Whatever, they got them. And the list of potential stars is long: Spencer, offensive lineman Jerry Doerger and wide receiver Trumaine Johnson at San Diego; defensive end Keith Millard and wide receiver Anthony Carter at Minnesota; running back Mike Rozier and placekicker Tony Zendejas at Houston; offensive lineman Dan Fike and running back Kevin Mack at Cleveland; center Bart Oates, fullback Maurice Carthon and punter Sean Landeta at the New York Giants, to name a few. Rozier got off to a good start Sunday, scoring two touchdowns, including the game-winner in the Oilers' 26-23 upset of Miami. Zendejas contributed a 46-yard field goal.

And is the NFL thankful for the groundwork laid by the USFL, for all the things the upstart league taught raw players like Johnson and Mack and Carthon? Uh, no. Remember, NFL salaries increased because of USFL competition. Remember, spring football dulled everybody's appetite for the pro game. Remember, the USFL has filed a $1.3 billion antitrust suit against the NFL.

Says New Orleans quarterback Bobby Hebert ( Michigan Panthers, Oakland Invaders) of the USFL's struggle against the NFL monopoly, "It's like a new car company trying to compete with General Motors." Indeed, there was early concern that Hebert himself might be more Bricklin than Cadillac. In the eight series he directed for the Saints in two exhibition games, he ended each with either a sack, a fumble, a bad pitch or an interception.

The newer NFL guys joke about their old league but they don't get nasty. "I'd much rather be in the NFL—I'm not gonna lie about that," says Washington Redskins punt returner Gary Clark, formerly of Jacksonville. "But I had a good experience in the USFL, and I'm not gonna lie about that, either."

For Hebert, the switch meant a lot of money. His contract with the Saints—$2.75 million for five years, plus a $1.3 million signing bonus—is truly big time. But some players took pay cuts to join the NFL. Spencer, for instance, dropped from an estimated $450,000 annually in the USFL to salaries of $250,000, $325,000 and $375,000 with the Chargers. Other players didn't take cuts, but they didn't make killings, either. Green Bay Packer nosetackle Charlie Martin made $50,000 playing for Birmingham in 1984. This year, his second with the Pack, his base salary is $75,000, the lowest of any Green Bay starter.

"Who cares?" says Martin. "It's still a lot of money." One should bless the USFL for such a statement.

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