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A football league that collapsed spectacularly in the 1980s is coming back


JIM LAMPLEY: ABC Sports presents...


Hardcore football fans of the 1980s were treated to a new league that tried to give the NFL a run for its money.


LAMPLEY: ...The season premiere of the United States Football League.

MARTÍNEZ: The USFL collapsed spectacularly after only three seasons. But tomorrow, the league returns. A reconstituted USFL is playing its first game since 1985. Jeff Pearlman literally wrote the book on the league. It's called "Football For A Buck." It recounts the birth and demise of the USFL, a demise, he writes, thanks in large part to a certain future U.S. president. Pearlman also points to the USFL's habit of paying huge salaries to a handful of marquee players, like Herschel Walker and Steve Young, but only a pittance for the rest of the league.

JEFF PEARLMAN: They would pluck as many guys as they could from the local amateur leagues. They would find guys who hadn't played in the NFL for five or six years - you know, teams like the San Antonio Gunslingers. The owner was a guy named Clint Manges, and he had a ranch. And he signed his ranch hand to be the punter because he thought, this guy has a really good leg. He's going to be a really good punter. It didn't work out. But there was a lot of thriftiness in the old USFL. It adds to - it makes some of the best stories in football history, but it doesn't necessarily make for great football.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, one of the things that a lot of NFL fans are used to - it's almost an event as big as the Super Bowl - is the NFL draft. It's at the end of April, when the NFL chooses college players. And those college players don't get a choice. They don't get a choice of which team drafted them. They wind up usually just signing, and then they go on with their careers. And finally, when they become free agents, they get to pick the team they want to be with.

How was the USFL different, particularly with someone, say, like Herschel Walker, who had a lot of leverage, the Heisman Trophy winner, when he eventually got to the New Jersey Generals? How were their rules different from the NFL in that respect?

PEARLMAN: Well, the rules were that they didn't really have any rules in this regard. Like, they really wanted Herschel Walker. Herschel Walker called. He wanted to come out of Georgia early. At the time, the NFL would not take underclassmen. They had a strict rule against it. And Walker - you know, he came from Wrightsville, Ga., a small town, very poor family. And he wanted to come out. Then he called the USFL - his agent did - and they said, where do you want him to go? And they wanted him to go to the New York market. So that was the New Jersey Generals.

I mean, those drafts were fixed. Like, a lot of those picks - they knew where they were going way before the draft. They knew the order of the draft. They just manipulated the market to make sure. What they really desperately wanted, honestly, is legitimacy. And they knew they had to put themselves in the best situation to sign as many marquee guys as possible.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the first USFL season in 1983 had some high points. But, Jeff, things started to change once they welcomed a brash young owner to their New Jersey Generals franchise. So tell us about who that was.

PEARLMAN: Donald Trump - he always wanted to be an NFL owner. Like, he desperately, desperately wanted to be in the NFL owners club. And he tried buying the Baltimore Colts at one point - failed miserably. So very early on, he has a meeting with Pete Rozelle, who was then the commissioner of the NFL. They met at a suite in the Pierre Hotel in New York City. And Donald Trump says basically, you know, I own this team in the USFL. I don't care about this league. If you guys get me an NFL franchise, I would help you kill this league. And Pete Rozelle, to his credit, says to him, as long as I'm involved in the NFL, as long as my heirs are involved in the NFL, you, Donald Trump, will never have a team in this league.

MARTÍNEZ: And Donald Trump had some pretty kind of wild ideas about what he wanted to do with the league to change the league. He had some kind of plans that he thought would maybe go up against the NFL and take it down.

PEARLMAN: Basically, his plan was, I'm going to use the USFL. We're going to force a merger with the NFL. The USFL was a spring league. And he kept pushing for fall. He kept saying, it's fall. It's fall. He would manipulate figures. He would do studies and then lie about the studies, showing that fall was the way the USFL could go. It made no sense whatsoever. Why would you challenge the NFL directly? But he was very manipulative and very powerful in that owners room. And they wound up moving to fall, trying to move to fall.

And he wound up leading the USFL's death dive, which was, we're going to sue the NFL. We're going top file this antitrust suit. And what happened is the NFL - it was a crazy, complicated lawsuit that the USFL alone actually won. But they were given $3 as a reward because what the jury decided was that, yes, the NFL was guilty of some antitrust violations. But the USFL and Donald Trump were their own - was the USFL's own worst enemy.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, that last season for the USFL, that last third season - and I'm a teenager at the time. So I'm not, like, that tuned into to the business. I knew it wasn't doing well through my uncles and my dad. But I didn't know how bad until they went from playing at the LA Memorial Coliseum...

PEARLMAN: Oh, yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...To LA Pierce Community (laughter) College in the San Fernando Valley for their last home game. And that's when I even thought, OK, this league's in trouble.

PEARLMAN: It's a funny moment because it was the LA Express playing the Arizona Outlaws. And the quarterback for the Express was Steve Young. And the quarterback for the Outlaws was Doug Williams, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star. And they're playing at this tiny little field, and nobody's there. And it's really pathetic.

And at the end of the game, Young and Doug Williams, you know, meet. They shake hands. And Williams says, what the hell are we doing here? And Steve Young is like, I don't know, man. I don't know. But the funny thing is, a year later, Steve Young was playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were awful at that point. And he said he would have preferred to stick with the Express, that even they were better than the lowly Buccaneers.

MARTÍNEZ: I was there, Jeff. No one was there. I was there. I actually watched that game (laughter).

PEARLMAN: That's amazing.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Well, you know...

PEARLMAN: You were the one.

MARTÍNEZ: It was a cheap ticket. It was a cheap ticket.

PEARLMAN: That's awesome.

MARTÍNEZ: What can I say? Now, OK, a shiny new version of the USFL is going to be starting up again really soon - this weekend, actually. So what lessons do you think they have to learn to try to survive?

PEARLMAN: All right. So I just want to say that when people say the USFL is back...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

PEARLMAN: ...I struggle with that because it's sort of like - let's say KISS breaks up this year, and they never perform again. And then 10 years from now, four guys put on KISS make up, and they're like, KISS - we're back. Like, KISS isn't back. It's four guys in makeup.

This is not the USFL. This is a league kind of, I think, trying to make money quick off of spring football, a TV deal on Fox league, where they're using USFL uniforms, USFL logos. I don't actually totally get why. They've shown no interest in the old league. I talked to one of the guys with the league. I was like - he hadn't read my book. And I'm not saying anyone should read my book. It was weird that a guy was starting a new USFL and didn't read the book about the USFL.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

PEARLMAN: I just found the whole thing - and again, I'm not - he could have bought it for a nickel. I don't care. I just thought it was weird. I love the USFL. You sound like you love the USFL. There aren't that many of us. So it's kind of weird that like, they're starting a league with USFL uniforms, and that's it. And almost none of it makes any sense to me. So I don't know what to expect. It just seems really disjointed.

MARTÍNEZ: Jeff Pearlman is the author of the 2018 book "Football For A Buck: The Crazy Rise And Crazier Demise Of The USFL."

Jeff, thanks a lot.

PEARLMAN: Thank you.


KISS: (Singing) I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.