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He may be just a name in a press guide to most people in pro football, but J. William Oldenburg, owner of the USFL's Los Angeles Express, has just become Donald Trump West. On Monday Oldenburg signed Steve Young, Brigham Young University's All-America quarterback, to what is believed to be the biggest contract in pro sports history—virtually a lifetime deal that will pay Young about $36 million over the next 43 years.
The deal approved by Oldenburg, board chairman and president of San Francisco-based Investment Mortgage International (IMI), was one Young couldn't refuse, particularly since it had become apparent that he wouldn't be getting nearly as lucrative a contract in the NFL. Last week the Cincinnati Bengals finally gave Young's lawyer, Leigh Steinberg, a commitment that they would make Young the first pick in the May 1 NFL draft, but the numbers they were suggesting—a $1 million bonus and $500,000 per year for five years, unguaranteed—didn't measure up.
With Mike Rozier having gone to the Pittsburgh Maulers, the NFL has now lost two potential No. 1 picks to the USFL. And Herschel Walker, who was originally supposed to come out in this year's draft, is a third. What's going on? It now seems clear that the NFL, or a good part of it, is determined to stay out of a contract war with the USFL. After all, with stadiums filled every week and television bringing in $14 million a year per team, the NFL doesn't want to jack up its salary structure by spending big bucks for new stars. Meanwhile, it hopes that the fledgling league will drown itself in red ink.
On the other hand, how many more players like Rozier and Young, not to mention Marcus Dupree (see box, page 30) can the NFL afford to lose? Young wanted nothing more than to perform in the NFL. "I dreamed of playing on Monday Night Football," he says. "When [Bengal owner and general manager] Paul Brown said hello to me at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, I remember thinking, 'Omigod! Paul Brown spoke to me!' " For Young to have signed with the new league, the USFL would have had to make an extremely attractive offer, and the NFL would have had to do practically nothing. And that's exactly what happened. That hello from Brown was the last word he ever spoke to Young.
Clearly, Young was a VIP—Very Important Pick—not only to the Express, but also to the USFL in general. In the Bengals, on the other hand, Steinberg faced a team known for its intractability. Young and Cincinnati assistant general manager Mike Brown, Paul's son, talked briefly in Hawaii in January, the week of the Hula Bowl, but Young was turned off by the exchange.
"He said they were thinking about picking me, but that was all," said Young. "And when I worked out for [coach] Sam Wyche he said, basically, 'We'll get back to you.' That tells me nothing. That's just like a hello."
The contract with the Express, which covers only four playing seasons and is guaranteed by IMI should the team and/or the league fold, was hammered out by Steinberg and Express general manager Don Klosterman in an all-night session last Thursday at Klosterman's home in the Hollywood Hills. Its specifics:
?Young gets about $4 million up front, $2.5 million as a signing bonus, $1.5 million as a tax-free loan.
?Deferred payments totaling $30 million begin when Young, now 22, is 28, and don't stop until he's 65. That's guaranteed money, regardless of whether Young stays with the Express after his four years are up or jumps to the NFL. The payments escalate as he gets older; he reaches the $1 million milestone at age 53 and $2.4 million in the contract's final year, 2027.
?Next to those sums, his per-year salary money looks almost paltry—$200,000 for 1984, $280,000 for '85, $330,000 for '86 and $400,000 for '87.