As the USFL restarts, a look back at the mad dash of the Washington Feds

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Before the Washington Federals even played a game, the writing was on the wall.

DC’s United States Football League franchise has returned home from its first training camp in Jacksonville, Florida, still having to overcome many hurdles, including the fence around its training ground at the exterior of the RFK stadium.

“We had a padlock on it and we had to jump over the fence, climb the fence to get to the practice field,” former running back Craig James recalled. “We should have known.”

Nearly four decades after the USFL’s debut, the league returns this weekend with a full slate of games. Headlining defending Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, the premier USFL also played a spring schedule and remains the latest league to give the NFL a hard time. The new league includes many of the original teams — the New Jersey Generals, the Birmingham Stallions, the Philadelphia Stars — but not the Washington Federals, an ill-fated franchise both on and off the court, the kind of team no league would want to restart or reproduce.

“That team was just a s—show,” said Jeff Pearlman, author of the 2018 book “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL.” “It was just a total s—show. They were badly organized, badly directed, badly managed. The fans didn’t care.

The franchise had hoped to expand into a football-crazed region and build on the popularity of the budding Washington Redskins dynasty. The Feds, who debuted in green, black and white with an eagle logo, failed to satisfy the appetite of home fans, stumbling at every step to become the league’s worst team over the course of their unique two-year run.

“They were just a very, very, very bad football team made up of a draft pick here and a spare there, kind of those taxis you see that’s made up of 16 other different cars “, said David Remnick, the present. editor of the New Yorker who covered the feds for the Washington Post.

The USFL rosters were mostly made up of NFL defrocks interspersed with a few up-and-coming recruits. For the Feds, that meant some players lived on the fringes of the NFL while others tiptoed on the fringes of society. James, one half of SMU’s “Pony Express” backfield tandem that also included future Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson, would have been a first-round NFL pick. With the Feds, he shared a locker room with dreamers and misfits, including a running back named Buddy Hardeman, who was arrested and charged with assaulting a district police officer just three days after Game 1. the team.

“Sometimes I was like, ‘You know, half of my teammates just got out of jail and the other half were heading to jail,'” James joked in a recent interview.

Perhaps pairing a strait-featured 22-year-old star with a barhopping 32-year-old quarterback retired from the NFL as roommates wasn’t the best move. But that’s exactly what Feds coach Ray Jauch did with James and Kim McQuilken.

James remembers first meeting McQuilken during training camp at the team hotel in Jacksonville.

“He comes in late at night and he opens the door,” James said. “I turn on the light and meet him for the first time. And he’s an old man. He’s 32 years old. I’m like, ‘He’s an old man I’m here with.’ I should have known. I quickly realized that it was a very bad strategy on [the Federals’] partly because all McQuilken taught me was how to break curfew. He was really good at it. This old veteran, he had the party on his mind and I was trying to play football.

“bowl [Kilmer] introduced me to all the bartenders in Georgetown,” McQuilken said, “and I introduced Craig James to all the same bartenders in Georgetown.

Jauch, who made the jump to the USFL as the fourth-winningest coach in Canadian Football League history, had a rather cavalier approach to coaching, according to McQuilken.

“He would show up for practice and he would have his golf clubs in the back of his car,” McQuilken said. “Once in a while he would pull out a golf club and play with a golf club. I vividly remember the times when practice was over…when Ray said he was going to play golf. And he left the assistant coaches like [offensive coordinator] Dick Bielski to lead the meetings. That, for me, set the bar in terms of respect.

Five weeks after Joe Gibbs helped give the district its first professional football championship in 40 years, the Feds would make their debut against the Chicago Blitz and George Allen, the legendary Redskins coach making his return to the stadium he has called home from 1971 to 1977.

“Ray Jauch was looking for spies,” a March 1, 1983 Washington Post article began. a dark tower that rises above the training ground of the RFK stadium.”

“‘I thought I saw someone climbing up there,'” the Washington coach said. “The tower, however, was free of any human presence.”

Jauch should have trusted his instincts. The week of their season opener, Allen sent two Blitz employees to Washington, according to Pearlman’s book. The men, wearing yellow USFL staff windbreakers, said they were part of the league’s film crew and had been given free rein to record the Feds practice.

“We knew every play they were running,” an assistant Blitz coach later told Pearlman. “There were no surprises.”

The Feds lost their inaugural game, 28-7, in front of a national TV audience and over 38,000 curious souls who made the trip to RFK. It was another sign of things to come.

“That first game for the Feds was a huge deal,” Pearlman said. “…And then they just got their asses kicked and that was it. They never recovered from that first match. Never.”

Plagued by a 10-game losing streak, the Feds finished the 1983 season 4-14. Nothing seemed to be going well, on or off the pitch.

James recalled a particularly low moment when the team bus broke down and the players found themselves stranded on the side of the road, struggling to hail uniformed taxis.

“I remember thinking, ‘Man, what are we doing here?’ “, said James.

The Federals’ colorful cast of characters proved unconventional and unpredictable – and it wasn’t just the players. Trying to get his team’s attention, Jauch turned to motivational techniques not found in most coaching manuals.

Guard Myke Horton and defensive back Don Burrell regularly vented their frustrations throughout the 1983 season, disrupting practice with their brawls and jaws. Jauch saw an opportunity. In the middle of a practice, as Burrell and Horton were starting over, the coach got between them. Reaching into the right pocket of his green jacket, he pulled out a gun and barked, “I’ve had enough of this!”

“And he takes out the whites and he shoots them both,” recalled former catcher Joey Walters. “And then you freeze then, like, ‘What in the world did he do?!’ … They wore it well. Maybe they should have gone into [acting] or something. I remember it felt like it was yesterday.

Jauch, Burrell and Horton were in cahoots. The players in contention remained on the ground for a few seconds before getting up with the whole team in bursts of laughter. The tension was officially broken.

And it turned out that Horton’s future was on camera. Years later, the hulking lineman transformed into “Gemini” on the hit game show “American Gladiators.”

“A group of untrained gerbils”

Although entering 1984 hoping to improve on a disastrous first season, Washington’s second campaign proved even worse, as the Feds finished 3-15.

The team’s opening game in 1984 against the expansion Jacksonville Bulls was even more humbling than its 1983 debut and set the tone for what became its final season in DC After a 53-14 loss, the The Feds’ main owner, Berl Bernhard, likened his team to “a bunch of untrained gerbils.

Jauch was fired three days later and replaced by Bielski, his offensive coordinator, who had played and coached in the NFL.

“I wanted this job like I wanted a disease,” Bielski told Pearlman. “F—, the team couldn’t come out for a good pair of tracksuit socks. I had been in the NFL for 21 years, and now I was in the minors. It was horses — .

The Feds were tasked with charting their own path in the shadow of a new NFL dynasty, but failed to live up to those expectations in spectacular fashion. In the USFL’s first two seasons, the Feds went to a league-worst 7-29 record, while fellow stadium tenants RFK went 22-3 in previous seasons.

Fan interest had peaked with the Feds’ 1983 season opener. Enthusiasm quickly waned as heavy rain spoiled almost every home game in 1983 and awkward play failed to attract many loyal customers.

“Being in Washington with the Redskins, it’s a tough environment to come out there and try to steal fans,” former quarterback Mike Hohensee said. “We needed to be more successful than we had. Maybe if we had been more successful at the start, maybe we would have put a lot more people in the stands because that’s a good football city.

“There really wasn’t anything set up that said we were going to be successful,” James said. “We could have brought in the Redskins coaching staff and trained – I don’t think we were going to win any football games.”

At the end of 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 the Spirit of Miami with Howard Schnellenberger as coach. However, the sale fell through when the league announced — at the behest of then-Generals owner Donald Trump — that it would compete directly with the NFL and move its season into the fall. The Feds were eventually sold to businessman Don Dizney in October and renamed the Orlando Renegades. The Renegades continued the Federals’ losing tradition, managing a 5-13 record in 1985, which would be the USFL 1.0’s final season.

What the Feds lacked in talent they made up for in character. Looking back nearly 40 years later, players who lived through the mad rush say playing the game they love with teammates they enjoyed helped mask the on-court failures and off-court dramas .

“It was a lot of fun,” McQuilken said. “We have been paid. We played in the Redskins stadium. It was high time. It was like the NFL. I know not every team in the USFL had that experience, but it felt like the NFL. We were just an undersupplied team. We didn’t have a big deep list. We didn’t have the same talent as the other teams. But it was a great experience. »

“My experience has been good,” Walters said. “The only bad experience I had: we didn’t win. We did not win. It overshadows everything else.

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