Week Three of the 1985 United States Football League season saw one of the most exciting individual match-ups in the league’s brief, colorful history. 58,741 showed up at Giants Stadium for the New Jersey Generals‘ home opener, eager to get their first look at New Jersey owner Donald Trump’s latest prize – Heisman Trophy-winning rookie quarterback Doug Flutie out of Boston College. A national television audience watched the Sunday matinee on ABC, with Keith Jackson and Lynn Swann handling the call.
Flutie was the only big-name collegian to sign with the USFL after the upstart league’s January 1985 draft. Belt tightening was the rule of the day. By 1985, Trump was the only league owner still willing to back up his bluster with blockbuster signings. (Flutie’s rookie deal was reportedly worth $5.5 to $7.5 million over five seasons). More typical was the approach of the Portland Breakers, who didn’t even bother to contact most of their draft picks.
What a difference a year makes. Just twelve months earlier, the USFL was flush with confidence and with the cash of new owners like Trump, Edward DeBartolo, Sr. and Bill Dunavant. In the month following the USFL’s January 1984 college draft, the upstart league lured away approximately one third of the Top 100 prospects for the 1984 NFL draft. DeBartolo had the #1 overall pick and landed Mike Rozier, the reigning Heisman winner from the University of Nebraska, for his Pittsburgh Maulers club. Dunavant signed future Hall-of-Famer Reggie White out of the University of Tennessee for his Memphis Showboats.
But nobody made a bigger splash than Los Angeles Express owner William Oldenburg. Oldenburg’s ownership of the Express lasted only eight wild months, from December 1983 to July 1984. But during his brief reign, he hired long-time Los Angeles Rams personnel man Don Klosterman and gave him an open checkbook to build a championship team. Possessed (briefly) of seemingly unlimited cash, Klosterman decided to do this through the draft. During a two-month spree from January to March of 1984, the veteran exec assembled one of the most remarkable teams in the history of pro football.
Klosterman signed 31 rookies, including more than a dozen players projected to go in the first four rounds of the NFL draft and two future Hall of Famers. The headline maker came in March 1984, when Klosterman reeled in Brigham Young quarterback Steve Young. Young was projected to go #1 overall in the 1984 draft to the Cincinnati Bengals. The terms of Young’s deal were as much an object of media fascination as the player himself. The contract called for Young to earn $40 million dollars over 43 years, though this was largely through annuity payments. (The Express’ actual commitment was probably closer to a much more normal-sounding $8.4 million over 4 years). Some outlets reported the complex deal as the richest in the history of professional sports.
With their 31 rookies the Express made it to within one game of the USFL Championship game in July 1984. But by that time Oldenburg was under federal investigation for fraud. The checkbook was closed and the league took over the franchise that same month. By the time the Express rolled into Giants Stadium to face the Generals in Week 3 of the 1985 season, the ownerless team was being operated as a ward of the league. The other 13 owners agreed to fund the Express’ massive payroll obligations, but cut all other expenses, from marketing to medical supplies, to embarrassing levels. Two weeks before the Generals game, the Express fired their cheerleading squad in order to save $980 per game.
Neither QB set the world on fire this day. Steve Young absorbed seven sacks and threw two interceptions into the arms of Generals cornerback Kerry Justin, including a pick-six with under three minutes left. Doug Flutie scrambled for a first half score but appeared lost in the passing game, completing only two passes for 19 yards in the first half. But it was Flutie who wowed Generals fans and the national TV audience with one of his famous 4th quarter rallies. The Express took a 24-14 lead into the final quarter. Then Flutie led the Generals on clock-chewing drives of 70 and 78 yards, capping both with rushing touchdowns. On the day, Flutie ran for 97 yards and three scores. Young got the ball back with 2:43 remaining, but Justin put a dagger in the Express with his 42-yard interception return for a score on the drive’s second play. The Generals won 35-24.