The NFL drafted 10 new players in less than 12 minutes, but teams had no idea when, if ever, the newcomers would arrive. Three of the first four picks, selected in less time than it takes the commissioner to clear his throat nowadays, went on to the Hall of Fame. Yet media coverage of the event was nearly nonexistent. Most fans, even the Trekker-like first-gen draftniks of the era, were not quite certain that the event took place, and no one at the time was sure what it truly represented.
The NFL held a supplemental draft to determine who held the rights of USFL players in June 1984. NFL owners rolled the dice that the USFL would collapse at a time when the new league appeared to be here to stay. The upstarts scoffed, stomped and threatened the NFL with lawsuits. The whole affair, which decided the NFL fates of future Hall of Famers like Steve Young, Reggie White, Gary Zimmerman -- and others like Mike Rozier, Lee Williams, William Fuller, Gary Clark and Vaughan Johnson -- lasted just three hours on the evening of June 5 and received a smattering of headlines. "The attitude seemed to be to get it over with and file the names for future reference," wrote Larry Dorman of the Miami Herald.
The future came quickly, and players who would change the course of NFL history arrived in the league like a ship in the night.
Lay Back and Watch It.
Most fans have heard the old AFL draft stories of the 1960s: prospects approached in the end zone after college bowl games, players locked in hotel rooms and offered briefcases full of money, that sort of thing. The AFL merged with the NFL, and those stories survive as examples of how winners write the history books.
The USFL lost and lost badly. Thirty years down the road, the league looks like a footnote and an asterisk, a bumbling mess more like the WFL and XFL that preceded and followed it than the triumphantly assimilated AFL. A quick search of the 1983-84 stacks reminds us that it was anything but. The USFL battled toe to toe with the NFL for talent, earned major media headlines and looked ready to force a future merger, if not to survive on its own once the growing pains eased.
The USFL had its own set of draft battles with the NFL. The league cleverly circumvented the NFL in a variety of ways. First, it permitted college juniors to enter the USFL and provided the biggest stars with nudge-and-wink perks (contracts that skated around the salary cap; choice of teams). The relaxed rules about underclassman allowed Herschel Walker to arrive in New Jersey with the Generals, a team that Donald Trump would soon purchase.
When the USFL drafted, it avoided some of the top talents in the pool who obviously had little interest in joining a startup league -- no one bothered drafting John Elway, for example. The USFL did make a run at Dan Marino (who was coming off a collegiate injury) but focused much of its draft effort on players NFL teams might undervalue, like scrambling quarterbacks and small-school stars.
But the USFL's best weapon in the NFL war was a January draft. The new league got a three-month negotiation jump on the old league. Combined with lucrative, multi-year contracts, the USFL's early draft led to a lot of quick decisions by both major and minor stars.
There was also plenty of dirty pool. The Chargers could not sign first-round pick Gary Anderson in 1983, try as they might. Legendary agent Jerry Argovitz kept steering him toward the Tampa Bay Bandits. Anderson later sued Argovitz, claiming that the agent misrepresented the Chargers offers in an attempt to curry influence with the new league. Anderson then revealed during the trial that he was barely literate and therefore had trouble understanding just which team was offering what and for how long. Meanwhile, Argovitz worked his way up to managing owner of the Houston Gamblers. Anderson played three full seasons for the Bandits and led the USFL in rushing once.
Jim Kelly's case is more famous. Kelly told his agent before the draft that he did not want to play for any cold weather NFL teams. The Bills clearly did not get the telegram (Kelly did not broadcast his desires the way Elway did) and selected him with the second of their two first round picks. When George Allen, then a USFL executive, got wind of Kelly's displeasure, he offered the former Miami superstar his choice of teams. Kelly landed with Argovitz's Gamblers.
After riding the star power of Walker, Kelly and a few others -- plus strong television exposure and some deep-pocketed investors -- to a moderately successful 1983 season, the USFL upped its ante for the 1984 draft. Whereas the USFL tiptoed around some of the biggest stars in 1983, the rival league adopted a strike early and pay crazily philosophy in January 1984. They drafted Young and Heisman winner Mike Rozier and rained cash on them. Rozier signed a $3.1 million "personal services contract" with the Pittsburgh Maulers, earning $1 million the moment he signed. Steve Young received a $4million signing bonus from the L.A. Express, with an option to fund a $40 million, 40-year annuity. Young never funded the annuity; if he had, he would still be earning money from that 1984 contract.
The NFL, meanwhile, still drafted in late April and offered relatively modest contracts. In 1984, the league was fishing for secondary stars. Imagine if Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney had already signed $200 million contracts this year, and you get a sense of the NFL mood. "The NFL Draft used to be the greatest auction in America. Now all it is The Draft, Part II, a battle to snatch up the USFL's leavings." Paul Zimmerman (Dr. Z) wrote for Sports Illustrated. By the doctor's count, 26 of the 84 players who would have gone to the NFL in the first three rounds were under USFL contract, including Young, Rozier, Walker and Reggie White, one of the best defensive linemen in the nation.
Dr. Z suggested that the NFL was represented in the USFL battle by the law firm of "Layback and Watchit." An attempt to move the draft forward a few weeks or months was stalemated during NFL owners meetings. The Bengals, who held the first pick in the draft thanks to a 1983 trade, tried to negotiate with Young before the draft but ran into a $40-million problem. The Bengals gave up and traded the first pick to the Patriots in early April.
It is important to keep in mind that not all owners or personnel experts regarded the draft the way they do now. Teams blithely traded out of the first and/or second round for years at a time. Old owners who recalled the 17-round drafts of the 1970s or 30-rounders of the 1950s were still accustomed to selecting players who might prefer to remain in the Yankees farm system or medical school. The 1983 draft was so flush with talent that players like Gary Anderson and Jim Kelly were barely missed, and NFL teams took late flyers on second-tier stars who were already in USFL uniforms by the time April rolled around in 1983.
But letting teams roll the late-round dice on 26 or more top prospects in 1984 was a recipe for anarchy: imagine some outside-the-box general manager grabbing for Young, Rozier and White in the third-fourth-fifth rounds, for example. The NFL kicked around the idea of a supplemental draft at the March owner's meanings, along with some other bold innovations like drafting underclassmen. All decisions were tabled for further discussion. Just days before the draft, the league finally announced that USFL players were not eligible for the traditional draft. They would be selected in a special "futures" draft in June.
Dick Steinberg, personnel director for the Patriots, summed up the pros and cons of the decision. "The bad thing is that the teams picking early get to pick early in both drafts, double-dipping, you might say," he said when the supplemental draft was announced. "The good thing is that it eliminates the guessing game of when you start using picks for future rights." The removal of all USFL players from the traditional draft pool meant the remaining college players would move up the boards. "It means that people will be digging deeper on Tuesday," said Al LoCasale, executive assistant with the Raiders.
Teams sure did dig deep.
The Patriots selected Irving Fryar with the first pick in the regular draft. Then came Dean Steinkuhler, Carl Banks and Kenny Jackson, all very good college players who became serviceable-to-great pros.
But things got ugly by the middle of the first round. Names like Alphonso Carreker and Ron Faurot began leaving the board. The Saints traded to acquire perpetually-beleaguered Jets quarterback Richard Todd rather than stand pat at No. 15. Teams tried to trade down, but everyone was in the same boat. No one was going to trade up in the first round to select a glorified second rounder.
Rich Hoffman of the Philadelphia Daily News described the scene at the site of the NFL draft. "The draftniks, normally a rambunctious lot, remained uncharacteristically quiet on the morning when the NFL picked through the USFL's leftovers."
This was 1984, so Hoffman helpfully explained his jargon. "Draftniks are the people -- primarily New Yorkers -- who stand in line overnight for the privilege of watching the Giants and Jets make their draft picks live and in person. They hang over the balcony at the Omni Park Central and, in normal years, are pretty vocal in their reactions."
The Giants picked third that year. When their turn came up, a fan tried to start a "Herschel, Herschel" chant. Another fan asked aloud if the Giants would draft Hakeem Olajuwon. Pete Rozelle, then much closer to earshot of the ordinary fan than Roger Goodell is at Radio City Music Hall, quipped "Almost." He then announced Carl Banks. "There were some cheers, some boos -- the Giants only have about 98 good linebackers already -- and very little else from the draftniks at-large," Hoffman reported.
Hoffman's article revealed just how tenuous the NFL's draft situation had become. The high picks were all represented by agents who had good reputations and relationships with NFL teams. Players whose agents were known for funneling players to the USFL, like Wilber Marshall, lingered on the board longer than expected as teams fretted about their ability to sign them. The NFL acted like a proud lion that did not notice the splinter in its paw, but it was suddenly relying on a pipeline of loyal player agents, as much as on its wealth and prestige, to acquire the talent it needed.
As for the fellow shouting "Herschel," he would have to wait far longer than expected.
Bowling for Dollars.
The 1984 draft may have been a snooze, but news was not all bad for the NFL. An ABC television report in mid-May revealed that pro bowlers earned higher Nielson ratings that USFL games. No, not NFL Pro Bowlers: the Pro Bowlers Tour, then a more established staple of ABC's weekend schedule than the quirky new football league.
The Chicago Tribune quoted Nebraska coach Tom Osborne questioning the viability of the USFL. "You sometimes wonder how all this is going to be paid off, and if the USFL continues to do what they're doing, whether they'll be able to meet their obligations. You wonder if some of their deferred money is ever going to be realized."
The proliferation of "personal services" contracts that circumvented the USFL salary cap did not escape notice. The NCAA, not surprisingly, reacted to the Walker signing as if the USFL was walking around campuses handing out heroin samples, and USFL scouts and agents were not welcome on many campuses. NFL stars that jumped ship began having serious second thoughts. Joe Cribbs, the former Bills superstar who sued to extract himself from his NFL contract, walked out on the Birmingham Stallions early in the USFL's spring 1984 season in a contract imbroglio.
Some NFL teams may have sensed a quicker-than-anticipated demise. But not everyone was convinced. The Bears traded all of their supplemental picks to the Bengals for three late-round selections in the actual draft. Better a 10th rounder in hand, the Bears reasoned, than a first-rounder indefinitely stationed in Birmingham or Memphis.
Steinberg took the high road when discussing the supplemental draft. He talked about players whose USFL contracts might soon expire instead of hinting about insolvency or America's preference for ten-pin. "If everything works out normally, the minimum I think you could hope for is that some of the better players will be available for the 1986 season," the Patriots exec said. "But the thing is not that big a deal. There's absolutely nothing to lose. If the player doesn't develop, you don't sign him."
Carl Petersen, then general manager of the Philadelphia Stars, was more defiant about the NFL's decision to give its teams four-year rights to players under USFL contracts. "Some teams obviously haven't done their homework regarding the length of the contracts," Petersen said. He jabbed at the Redskins and Chiefs for drafting USFL stars Kelvin Bryant and Irv Eatman in 1983: after all, what sense was there in acquiring the four-year rights to players under five-year contracts? "They might as well have taken the draft choice and thrown it away," he said.
"Let's face it," Petersen added. "What they're betting on is the demise of the USFL."
Three Lightning Rounds.
So the NFL owners met in June and drafted a group of players who, for all they knew, might not be available for two years or forever.
Steve Young's rights went to the Buccaneers. Mike Rozier's to the Oilers. The Giants acquired the rights to standout Oregon lineman Gary Zimmerman, the Eagles Reggie White. The Chiefs selected Mark Adickes, one of the best offensive linemen in the nation in 1984. The Chargers took defensive end Lee Williams, a small-school tape-measure prospect playing for the L.A. Express. The Bengals, who had tried in vain to sign Steve Young when they had a chance, took a chance on former Florida quarterback Wayne Peace.
And so it went. The Browns used the Bears' first traded selection on running back Kevin Mack. The Packers used the 12th pick on Buford Jordan, a McNeese State running back who was tearing up the USFL for the New Orleans Breakers. That was just the first 10 minutes: a Heisman winner, a Heisman runner-up, some superstar defenders and linemen, a Florida quarterback who had near Tebow-level fame in his day, a couple of small-school phenoms.
Speaking of bruising running backs, you may have noticed one name absent from the list above. Herschel Walker would have been part of the 1984 draft class if not for the USFL. Still, the NFL declared Walker and Marcus Dupree (a superstar Oklahoma running back who also left school early) to still be off-limits by their interpretation of the agreements they had in place with the NCAA and Players Association. The league decided during the May meeting that hammered out details of the supplemental draft to treat Walker and Dupree something like medical redshirts who would not be eligible until 1985: it's almost as if their USFL contracts were a contagious disease, not gainful employment.
The logic is murky now, and some think the NFL was acting to somehow punish Walker. That reasoning does not stand up -- no one at all thought that Walker would be looking for work in September 1984 when he was earning millions for the Generals in May. NFL owners may simply have been giving the NCAA the courtesy of a wide berth, a wise choice considering the organization's usefulness as an ally in a league war, while punting on the player whose presence could cause the biggest uproar among any opponents of the supplemental draft concept.
Even without Walker, there was talent to be found in the late-first, second and third rounds. Vaughan Johnson and Ricky Sanders left the board in the middle of the first round in back-to-back picks. William Fuller soon joined them. The second round brought Gary Clark to Washington. Talent began to dry up in the third round -- USFL rosters were as top-heavy as their budgets -- but the Vikings picked up a quality linebacker named David Howard, the Redskins a 5-foot-8 speedster named Clarence Verdin.
Stop for a moment to take stock of just how much NFL history entered the league in that barely-discussed, poorly-remembered three-hour whirlwind. Young and White made history, of course, and Zimmerman was one of the greatest tackles of his generation. Mack and linebacker Mike Johnson, a mid-round supplemental draft selection, were key members of Marty Schottenheimer's doomed Browns teams; they were joined by Frank Minnifield, who sued his way out of the USFL when his contract kept getting passed among insolvent teams. Sanders joined Clark in the Redskins Posse when the Patriots gave up his rights. Johnson welcomed other ex-USFL stars to the Saints' Dome Patrol. Verdin became one of the greatest return men of his era. Howard was one of the bargaining chips thrown into the Herschel Walker trade. Rozier's pro career was ordinary, but he was in Houston when another USFL innovation arrived in the NFL: the run 'n' shoot offense.
All of that was in the future. In June 1984, the NFL had to fend off one last battle from the USFL.
A Mind to Put Out of Business.
Myles Tanenbaum, owner of the Philadelphia Stars, filed a suit in Philadelphia District Court days after the supplemental draft. He sought to prevent NFL teams from "negotiating with or making contractual offers to" Stars players, and by extension USFL players, who were currently under contract. "The NFL has seen the success of our league and the Philadelphia Stars in particular and is of a mind to put us out of business," Tanenbaum said.
Tanenbaum feared that futures rights would soon lead to futures contract offers, with NFL teams offering deals postdated to the moment the player sours on USFL life. He had reason to worry. NFL teams swooped in when the league champion Michigan Panthers had contract squabbles with key players after the 1983 USFL season. Several Panthers left the league, and the team's prized asset, quarterback Bobby Hebert, received a healthy wooing. The supplemental draft could streamline the process of signing futures contracts and make the system more cost-effective for NFL teams: they would only have to top USFL offers, not each other's offers.
There was no hard evidence that contract tampering was in the NFL's plans. "It was conducted for reasons which are entirely internal to the NFL and had the specific approval of the NFL Players Association," league executive Joe Browne said of the supplemental draft following Tanenbaum's suit. "The supplemental draft procedure will have no effect on current USFL or CFL clubs." In fact, the NFL may not have thought that far ahead.
Tanenbaum's lawsuit devolved into an elaborate war of rhetoric. League officials accused each other of roster tampering. Petersen chuckled about the NFL wasting time and energy. The NFL waited to see if the USFL would soon implode.
Cracks became more visible as the 1984 USFL spring season wore on. The Pittsburgh Maulers could not afford all of the bells and whistles of Rozier's contract. The team, hemorrhaging cash, disbanded at the end of the 1984 season, with Rozier promptly opening negotiations with the Oilers. There was a Young-to-NFL rumor in August after Los Angeles Express owner J. William Oldenburg realized that he could not pay a quarterback millions of dollars to play in front of an empty Coliseum. Other teams folded or desperately merged. Cash-strapped owners tried to sell teams, only to have on-the-hook suitors spooked by the rumors that were eventually confirmed in October: Donald Trump convinced his fellow owners to switch to an autumn schedule and compete head to head with the NFL in 1985.
Trump and his voting bloc were committing leagicide in the name of forcing some combination of a merger and a massive antitrust payoff. Ironically, the supplemental draft that Tanenbaum thought was designed to kill the USFL helped keep it alive another year. Rozier returned to the USFL to honor an escape clause in his "personal services contract" and play for the Jacksonville Bulls. Young returned for an ugly USFL season for an Express team so financially shoe-strung that they could not sign backups: Young actually played fullback in some of their games. (The team was a ward of the league; the ABC television contract mandated a Los Angeles area team.) Both superstars, as well as others, might well have been swayed to sue or agitate for USFL release if 10 NFL teams were bidding up their market value instead of just one team each.
Tanenbaum's suit never became a major issue. The USFL had too many internal problems. In the 10 months between the USFL draft and the announcement to abandon spring football, the NFL's hand improved from a pair of deuces to a royal flush. Even the forced antitrust suit was a problem to be solved by sitting and waiting: league lawyer Paul Tagliabue had subtle legal jujitsu up his sleeve. The league that let the biggest football stars in the world walk away just had to wait one more year for them to return. The supplemental draft began to look like a stroke of genius: when the USFL finally folded, there would be no bidding wars for Steve Young or others, just an orderly procession by the newcomers to their assigned teams.
Three Hours that Changed the NFL
The USFL disbanded after the 1985 season. Some of the players allocated in the supplemental draft signed with their assigned teams. Some of the assigned teams had no interest in the lower-quality players. A few rights were traded here or there. The Vikings acquired Zimmerman's rights from the Giants. The Patriots traded Ricky Sanders to the Redskins. The NFL enjoyed a sudden influx of serious talent, and as always happens when external competition disappears, salaries began to drop. Players were displeased with their lack of leverage and mobility. NFL owners took note of the hundreds of moderate-quality football players suddenly out of work. The stage was set for the 1987 player's strike. But that is a whole different story.
The NFL was found guilty of monopolistic practices in NFL v. USFL, but the USFL was found guilty of causing almost all of their own problems and crashing into the NFL's bow in a last-ditch effort to turn their own incompetence into a trumped-up (Trumped-up) slip-and-fall suit. That's an oversimplification, but that's the gist of it.
The Cowboys drafted Herschel Walker in the fifth round of the 1985 draft. Let's imagine for a moment if the NFL had not been stubborn about Walker's status in 1984. The Buccaneers or Oilers would have held Walker's rights. There would be no Herschel Walker trade and probably no 1990s Wowboys. What's shocking is that Walker lasted into the fifth round in 1985, when the USFL was clearly about to smash into an iceberg. If Johnny Manziel took three years to dominate a rugby league, then announced that he would soon return to the NFL, would you wait for the fifth round to draft him? Walker was twice as dominant a college player as Manziel (or nearly anyone else), and while the USFL was not the NFL, it was not rugby. The Cowboys fleeced the league, then turned around and traded that fleece for a whole pasture of fleeces.
There was other business left unfinished by the 1984 Supplemental draft. USFL stars like Bobby Hebert arrived at the NFL's doorstep as full-fledged free agents. Hebert signed with the New Orleans Saints, who became a clearinghouse for many of the best USFL expatriates.
By and large, the NFL got the best of both worlds, as it so often does. The supplemental draft prevented full-scale bidding wars. Players folded into NFL rosters in an orderly fashion. By the summer of 1987, when the USFL lawsuit was finally settled, the USFL was merely a paper entity, its players all working for an NFL that was moving on as if nothing had happened.
Thirty years later, almost all of the circumstances surrounding the arrivals of Young, White and numerous other significant players into the NFL have been almost completely forgotten. The history of the NFL in the late 1980s and 90s changed during a brief, procedural selection meeting of possible vaporware at a time when the league's future was not completely certain. There will never again be a draft quite so quiet, and there may never one quite so important.