This offseason, Shutdown Corner will travel down memory lane with a series of stories presenting some interesting and sometimes forgotten stories from the NFL's past. Join us as we relive some of the greatest and craziest moments in the sport's history.
Jim Kelly played in four Super Bowls and made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he still gets questions about his days in the USFL, a league that folded more than 30 years ago.
Within the group that fondly remembers the defunct league is an even smaller cult. They'll bring up one of the greatest games in professional football history, one hardly anyone saw.
In the 1985 USFL season opener, the Houston Gamblers and Kelly faced the Los Angeles Express, who were quarterbacked by Steve Young. The two future Hall of Famers put on a show, and the Gamblers scored three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes to overcome a 20-point deficit and win 34-33. Kelly threw for 574 yards and five touchdowns.
Regardless of what league it was in, it was one of the best games ever played.
"It's not that often, but when people know about it they bring it up," Kelly said. "But more people need to know about it. Because it really was a great game."
The crazy circumstances surrounding the game add to the legend.
The USFL was entering its third and final season. The USFL's first season was fairly strong, but popularity was up and down after that. There was an announced crowd of 18,828 at the Los Angeles Coliseum for the first game, but ...
Let's say the crowd might have been even lighter than 18,000. Ralph Wiley wrote in Sports Illustrated at the time that more than half the crowd was "former Olympic Games volunteers who had entered the Coliseum on discounted tickets." The tiny crowd had a lot of elbow room, considering the Coliseum holds more than 93,000 fans. Most Express games were like that.
"From the press box, it would be so quiet I could hear Young shouting in the huddle," said former Los Angeles Times writer Chris Dufresne, who covered the Gamblers-Express classic in 1985. "You could almost hear him call plays."
At least someone heard something from that game. Dufresne's preview story for the game talked about how the Express were scrambling to find a radio deal at the last minute. The opener wasn't broadcast on the radio in Los Angeles. It wasn't on television either, because the USFL decided it would rather show Doug Flutie's debut with the New Jersey Generals.
"Sports Illustrated said once it was the greatest game no one saw," Kelly said.
That nickname for the game stuck, among those who remember it anyway.
The Express was a bit of a mess at that time. Its owner, J. William Oldenburg, lied about his wealth and was sued for fraud. The league took over operations of the team. Dufresne wrote a story on the Gamblers' comeback win over the Express, one of the great games in pro football history, and his next USFL story was that the Express fired its cheerleaders to save $980 a game.
Dufresne's own tale summed up where the USFL ranked in popularity — he was young, working in the Times' Orange County office and the editors threw him on the Express beat. Between his time covering the spring football league, Dufresne covered UC Irvine basketball games.
"They didn't want to cover this league," Dufresne said. "We had two NFL teams. In '84 L.A. hosted the Summer Olympics, To the paper, this was a nuisance they had to cover."
The Express' final crazy season produced some hilarious tales. Before the final home game at Pierce College, the Express' bus driver stopped on the way and demanded payment from the players before he would proceed to the stadium. The league moved the Express' home finale from the Coliseum to Pierce College, a junior college that added 10,000 temporary seats for the game, bringing the capacity to 15,000.
"Many people thought there wouldn't even be an opener in '85 for the L.A. Express," Dufresne said. "Then the game ends up being one of the all-time games for that league."
If the Young-Kelly duel happened on a normal NFL Sunday, we'd still mention it. Kelly ran the Gamblers' run-and-shoot offense and he was fantastic in it. The Gamblers attempted two runs in the first quarter, and one was an option play. Kelly handed off just a handful of times the entire game. Kelly passed, passed and passed some more.
"I loved that offense," Kelly said. "It was awesome."
"The NFL wasn't like it was today. At the time, [the run-and-shoot offense] was considered a joke, a gimmick offense that wouldn't work in the NFL," Dufresne said. "It took a while, and now you see a lot of the concepts in NFL passing games."
The Gamblers took an early lead but gave it away due to turnovers. Express safety Troy West returned an interception 42 yards for a touchdown with 9:47 left. The Express led 33-13. Kelly had 354 yards.
In the final 9:47, Kelly would add 220 yards, three touchdowns, and the Gamblers pulled off one of the biggest miracle wins. His 574 yards is still the record in American professional football history (it has been surpassed a few times in Canadian Football League games). Norm Van Brocklin holds the NFL record, with 554 yards for the Los Angeles Rams in a 1951 game.
Kelly's final pass, a 39-yard perfect strike to future Washington Redskins star Ricky Sanders, moved him past Van Brocklin. It also gave the Gamblers the lead with 1:18 left.
"I grew up a Rams fan, and I knew who Norm Van Brocklin was," said Dufresne, who watched the final minutes on the sideline and was paying close attention to Kelly's yardage total. "It was impressive to see [Kelly] and I don't care who it was against. I'm sure there were people in the NFL saying, 'Let's see him do it against the Chicago Bears.' He eventually took that act to Buffalo and did it."
Kelly would go on to play in some huge NFL games, including a 1992 shootout against Young in which Young's San Francisco 49ers and Kelly's Bills combined for 1,086 yards and zero punts — the first game in NFL history in which neither team punted. Kelly played in 17 playoff games, including four Super Bowls. Yet he still says the comeback against the Express is one of the 10 most memorable games of his career.
"Especially now, you look back at that game, and the one thing that stands out is that you never give up," said Kelly, who has fought two battles with cancer after his playing career. "My father told me, you go through some things and sometimes things look bad, but you never give up. You visualize positive outcomes, and in that game we never thought about the score or the clock, we just kept fighting."
Young wasn't yet the player we remember from his 49ers days. He was a raw athlete and not a refined passer, and Kelly was the better quarterback that day. Young was just 13-of-29 for 255 yards. But Young's talent was evident.
"Some of Steve Young's greatest games were played with the Express, in front of nobody, running for his life and doing some of the great things Steve Young did," Dufresne said.
Kelly said that he and Young still talk about the Express-Gamblers game when they see each other. The YouTube channel "USFL Forever" created a video of the game, using coaches film and sideline cameras with audio from the Gamblers radio feed, and posted it last year.
Considering there were fewer than 20,000 people in the stadium, nobody watched it live on television and the YouTube video has about 3,500 hits, if you've seen the game you're in a select group. And you know exactly how fun it was.
Previous Shutdown Corner NFL throwback stories: Joe Montana's underrated toughness | Barry Sanders' long-forgotten final game | Jake Delhomme's playoff nightmare | Barry Switzer, outspoken as ever | Was Sebastian Janikowski worth a first-round pick? | How Jim Harbaugh punching Jim Kelly helped Colts land Peyton Manning | Jay Cutler makes the greatest throw ever | "Has anyone ever kissed your Super Bowl rings?" | How the Patriots once faced a fourth-and-63 | The Packers survived a miserable two-decade run | "NFL PrimeTime" changed how we watch football
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