Nearly four decades after the USFL debuted, the league returns this weekend with a full slate of games. Under Heisman winner Herschel Walker, the first NFL also played the spring schedule and was the last league to give the NFL a run for its money. The new league houses many of the original teams — the New Jersey Generals, Birmingham Stallions, Philadelphia Stars — but not the Feds, an unlucky franchise on and off the field, the kind of team the league doesn’t want to revive or replicate.
“This team was just a show,” said Jeff Perlman, author of the 2018 book “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL.” “It was just a complete show. They were poorly organised, poorly managed, and poorly managed. The fans didn’t care.”
The franchise hoped to spread into a football-obsessed region and build on the popularity of the burgeoning Washington Redskins dynasty. The Federals, who debuted in green, black and white with the eagle crest, failed to capture the interest of local fans, faltering every step of the way to becoming the worst team in the league in their unique two-year career.
David Remnick, present — a day editor at The New Yorker who covered Federals magazine, told The Washington Post.
The NFL rosters were mainly made up of NFL teams with some promising rookies sprinkled in. For the Feds, this meant that some players lived on the fringes of the NFL while others were on the fringes of society. James, one half of SMU’s Pony Express tandem that also included future Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson, would have been a first-round pick in the NFL. With the Feds, he shared the locker room with dreamers and misfits alike, including a fellow runaway named Buddy Hardman who was arrested and charged with assaulting a DC police officer just three days after the team’s first game.
“Sometimes I’d say, you know, half of my teammates just got out of jail and the other half are headed towards jail,” James joked in a recent interview.
Choosing a 22-year-old star with a 32-year-old quarterback after three years in the NFL as roommates might not have been the best decision. But that’s exactly what Feds coach Ray Gauch did with James and Kim McKillkin.
James remembered meeting McKillin for the first time during the team’s Jacksonville hotel training camp.
He walks in late at night, and opens the door,” James said. “I turned on the light, and I met him for the first time. And he’s an old man. He’s 32. I’m like, ‘That’s an old man I’m here.’ I should have known. I quickly understood that this was a very bad strategy.” [the Federals’] Part of it is because all McQuilken taught me was how to break curfews. He was really good at that. This old warrior, he was partying in his mind and I was trying to play football.”
“Billy” [Kilmer] “He introduced me to all the bartenders in Georgetown, and Craig James introduced me to all the bartenders themselves in Georgetown,” said McKillkin.
Josh, who jumped into the NFL as the fourth winning coach in Canadian Football League history, has had a somewhat smug approach to coaching, according to McKillkin.
“He’d come for practice, and he’d have putters in the back of his car,” McKillkin said. “Every now and then he would pull out a putter and swing a putter. I vividly remember the times when the rehearsals were over… where Ray said he was going to play golf. And he left my assistant coaches like [offensive coordinator] Dick Belsky to conduct the meetings. That, to me, set the standard in terms of respect.”
Five weeks after helping Joe Gibbs bring home the county’s first professional football championship in 40 years, the Feds would make their debut against the Chicago Blitz and George Allen, the legendary Redskins coach who returned to the field he called home from 1971 to 1977.
A Washington Post article began on March 1, 1983: “Ray Gauch was looking for spies.” “In search of George Allen’s terror and espionage agents at the Feds’ first practice here yesterday, he pointed to a dark tower looming over the RFK stadium training ground.”
“I thought I saw someone climb in there,” said the Washington coach. “However, the tower was devoid of human presence.”
Gauch should have trusted his instincts. In the season’s opening week, Allen sent two Blitz employees to Washington, according to Perelman’s book. The men, who were wearing yellow USFL jackets, said they were from the league’s photo crew and were given the freedom to record the Feds’ practices.
“We knew every play they were doing,” Blitz’s assistant coach later told Perelman. “There were no surprises.”
The Feds lost their opening game, 28-7, to a national television audience and over 38,000 curious souls who made the trip to RFK. It was another sign of things to come.
“The Feds first game was a huge deal,” Perelman said. “…and then they got kicked in the ass, and that was it. They never really recovered from that first match. Never.”
After a 10-game losing streak, the Federals ended the 1983 season 4-14. Nothing seems to be going well, on or off the field.
James remembers one particularly low moment when the team bus broke down and players were stranded on the side of the road, struggling to get into taxis in full uniforms.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, what are we doing here in the world?'” James said.
Federals’ colorful cast of characters proved unconventional and unpredictable – and they weren’t just players. In an effort to get his team’s attention, Jauch resorted to motivational techniques not found in most training manuals.
Guard Myke Horton and defensive back Don Burrell routinely took their frustrations out on each other throughout the 1983 season, disrupting training with squabbling and jaw-dropping. Gauch saw an opportunity. In the middle of one exercise, when Burrell and Horton were gone again, the coach put himself between them. He reached into the right pocket of his green jacket, pulled out a pistol and shouted, “I’m sick of this!”
“And he pulled the blanks, and he shot both,” recalls Joey Walters, a former wide receiver. And then he just froze, like, ‘What in the world did he do?! “…They carried it well. They probably should have entered [acting] or something. I can remember it was like that yesterday.”
Gauch, Burrell, and Horton were helpful. The feuding players lay on the ground for a few seconds before waking up with the entire team laughing. The tension was officially broken.
And as it turned out, Horton’s future was in front of the camera. Years later, the huge linear man turned into “Gemini” on the popular TV game show “American Gladiators”.
A group of untrained jerboas
Despite entering 1984 hoping to improve on a disastrous first season, Washington’s sophomore campaign somehow turned out for the worse, with the Feds finishing 3-15.
The team’s opening 1984 game against the Jacksonville Bulls expansion was more humiliating than its first start in 1983 and set the tone for what would become its final season in the capital.
Jauch was fired three days later and replaced by Belsky, the offensive coordinator, who played and coached in the NFL.
“I wanted this job as if I wanted the disease,” Belsky told Perelman. “F—, the team couldn’t get me a decent pair of sweat socks. I’ve been in the NFL for 21 years, and now I’m in the palace. They were horses—.”
The Feds were tasked with charting their own course in the shadows of the new NFL dynasty but they failed to meet those expectations in an astonishing fashion. During the first two seasons of the NFL, the Feds held the record worst in the league 7-29, while the RFK’s tenants went 22-3 in previous seasons.
Fan interest peaked with the 1983 federal season opening. Enthusiasm quickly waned as torrential rain spoiled nearly every 1983 home game and the sparkling game failed to excite many repeat customers.
“Being in Washington with the Redskins, it’s a tough environment to get in there and try to steal some fans,” said former quarterback Mike Heunessey. “We needed to have more success than we did. Maybe if we had had more success earlier, maybe we would have put a lot of people in the stands because it is a good football city.”
“There was really nothing set up to say we were going to be successful,” James said. “The Redskins coaching staff could have come and coached us – I don’t think we’d win football games.”
Late in the season, Bernhard agreed to sell the Federals to South Florida real estate developer Sherwood “Woody” Weiser, who planned to play in the Orange Bowl as Miami Spirit with Howard Schnellenberger as coach. However, the sale ended when the league announced – at the request of the Generals’ then-owner Donald Trump – that it would compete directly with the NFL and stage its season in the fall. The Federals was eventually sold to businessman Don Disney in October and renamed the Orlando Renegades. The Rebels continued the losing Feds tradition, managing the record 5-13 in 1985, which would be the last season of USFL 1.0.
What the Feds lack in talent, they make up for in character. Looking back nearly 40 years later, players who have experienced the wild ride say that playing the game they love with teammates they value helped mask failures on the field and drama off the field.
“It was so much fun,” McKillkin said. We got paid. We played for the Redskins. It was a long time. It felt like the NFL. I know not all NFL teams had that experience, but it felt like the NFL. We were just a poorly equipped team. “We didn’t have a big and deep roster. We didn’t have some of the talent that other teams had. But it was a great experience.”
“My experience was good,” Walters said. “The only bad experience I’ve had: We didn’t win. We didn’t win. That overshadows everything else.”