When Tampa Bay of the USFL began the season last month, its pluses were that it had the best nickname in football (Bandits); the best marketing (advertising catchline: "All the fun the law allows"); the most glamorous ownership (Burt Reynolds is in for 5%; his pal Loni Anderson appears on a Bandit poster that says, SPECIAL THRILLS PROMISED THIS SPRING); some of the best weather in the league; and a town that is bonkers over football.
The major minus was that the Bandits didn't appear to have much football ability. Central to that shortcoming was their quarterback, John Reaves. He had played with four different teams during his nine NFL seasons, and over that span he'd been arrested more often (three times) than he'd led his clubs to victory (twice). The word on Reaves was that drugs and alcohol had made him damaged goods.
But after their first four games the Bandits were the only undefeated team in the USFL. That was mostly because Reaves was playing not as he had in the NFL but as he had one glorious autumn afternoon 14 years before at the University of Florida.
For openers, Reaves bombed the Boston Breakers, completing 28 of 39 passes for 358 yards and three TDs. Next time out, against the Michigan Panthers, he threw for 154 yards and one touchdown. In Week 3, against the New Jersey Generals, he aired out his arm again: 19 of 29, 255 yards, three TDs. In a league desperate for a star, Reaves shot across the sky. After a subsequent Bandit victory over the Philadelphia Stars he was tied for the USFL lead in touchdown passes with eight and was second in passing yardage with 1,036.
And then, a fortnight ago with the Chicago Blitz in town, Burt and Loni in attendance and a splendid advance ticket sale of 53,344, Reaves was awful. He threw four interceptions, and Coach Steve Spurrier yanked him in the third quarter as booing reached a crescendo. Tampa Bay was hammered, 42-3.
Asked about the boos, Reaves said, "I deserved 'em. If I'd been in the stands, I'd have booed me." Then he walked outside the stadium to where his wife, Patti, and some friends were waiting for him—all wearing masks. "I almost didn't recognize you," said Reaves. Said Patti, "That's the point, John." Reaves laughed and put on a mask himself.
Then, presto, it was off with the mask last Saturday night, as Reaves threw for 357 yards in leading the Bandits to a 22-16 overtime victory over the Denver Gold, setting up the winning touchdown with a 28-yard bull's-eye to Wide Receiver Eric Truvillion.
Who is the man behind the mask? The three-week roller-coaster ride—way up against Philly, way, way down against Chicago and then up again against Denver—could be taken as a master plan for Reaves's career. When he was a sophomore at Florida in 1969, his very first pass in his college football debut went 70 yards for a touchdown. That day he threw five TD passes as the Gators thrashed highly regarded Houston 59-34; six weeks later, against Auburn, he had an NCAA-record nine interceptions in a 38-12 defeat. In 1972 he was the No. 1 draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles; within a couple of years he was, in his own words, "strung out on dope. Eventually I was separated from my wife, estranged from my children, an alcoholic, $100,000 in debt, wrecking cars, causing scenes in restaurants and hiding from the police." He sighs and says, "And to think I figured if I made it to the NFL, I'd live happily ever after."
In Tampa in 1973, a policeman happened upon Reaves and some friends in a parking lot and said he was going to arrest them for taking puffs on a joint. Reaves screamed, "My name is John Reaves. I play football for the Philadelphia Eagles. You can't arrest me." At which time he was arrested—and subsequently acquitted.
Along with Spurrier, Reaves is one of the two biggest heroes in University of Florida history; he holds 13 Gator passing records. Yet after a brilliant sophomore year—the Gators finished 9-1-1—he fell, gradually at first, into big league drinking and pot smoking. And that, Reaves was saying sadly the other evening at his Tampa home, ruined the chances the Gators had for superior records in the next two years. Florida slumped to 7-4 his junior year and collapsed to 4-7 his senior year.