The first tryout, which involved some 100 players, was for California residents; the second, for out-of-staters. Both were rodeos. The overcrowding was exacerbated by a stream of walk-ons who kept asking Campbell to take a look-see. One uninvited hopeful stood around for a whole day, his tennis shoes hanging over his shoulders. That night the coaching staff cut about 30 players, and the next day the same fellow returned. He asked Campbell to time him in the 40, because there weren't as many people left. "I told him that's what we're trying to do, eliminate guys," Campbell remembers. "So he says, 'I can run a 4.4.' 'Are you sure?' I said. 'Not one guy in a hundred can.' So I told him if he could run a 4.4, then he could try out for our football team, but if he couldn't, he'd have to leave then and there. A lot of guys had overheard the conversation, and, by God, when the guy ran one, they all burst out clapping."
That guy was one of 177 who appeared at the final camp, although he was an early cut. The task of getting the Express down to a workable number was further complicated by bad weather, which turned the team's practice field at Aviation High School into a quagmire. (The Express' official practice site, formerly the La Marina Elementary School near Polliwog Park, has been unavailable. It's being resodded and also seems to be under siege by a large flock of sea gulls.) Hughes Aircraft came to the rescue by offering the team its company recreation field, which was designed more for picnics than for football. While L.A. management looked for a more suitable field, Hughes discovered just how distracting 177 men in cleats could be to its workers. The Express then moved on to the Lawn-dale High field, the one in the shadow of the San Diego Freeway.
Campbell's first coup as a negotiator was to sign Quarterback Tom Ramsey, who at UCLA was the NCAA leader in passing efficiency last season (153.5), completing 209 of 336 (.622) for 2,986 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Although the median salary in the USFL is around $40,000, Ramsey's contract is believed to be worth considerably more. Campbell also has control of that end of the operations, working within a budget, and one of his stipulations has been that there be no incentive clauses for extra performance. "Say you get around the five-yard line and you have a quarterback who gets a bonus for touchdown passes and a running back who gets one for touchdown runs—what's going through everyone's mind?" Campbell says. "We had one guy in here who asked for $1,000 if he led the league in interceptions. I said, 'I'll give it to you right now. You don't have to lead the league in anything.'
"People ask if we're going to be any good. Good is relative. To what? I'm working on the theory that it's more important to have good people than to have outstanding individuals. The key ingredient on a team is character and leadership. If you just picked the 40 best players, who's to say which direction the personality of the team will go? What I'm hoping to do is make Eskimos of these guys. I don't know what to call them but Eskimos. Basically what I mean is a group that can come from behind, that can stay ahead, that can play as a team in any sort of circumstances."
And circumstances couldn't be any tougher for Campbell and his new "Eskimos" when they open the season at home this Sunday. The opponent: the New Jersey Generals. And at running back, No. 34, Herschel Walker.
Welcome back to the U.S., Hugh.