The Greatest Game You’ve Never Seen: Jim Kelly outduels Steve Young in 1985 USFL classic
Long before the XFL, another spring football league was capturing fans’ attention with high-powered offenses, transcendent stars and coaching wizardry.
The United States Football League debuted in 1983. The league’s first two seasons produced many highs and lows, but by 1985 it was struggling. Several teams had either relocated or folded and, due to faulty ownership, many of the remaining teams faced an uncertain future.
The league eventually flamed out in 1986, due to an ill-advised push to move games to the fall and a bungled lawsuit against the powerful, well-established NFL. However, before stadiums went dark and players drifted to the NFL and other ventures, an epic clash between the Los Angeles Express and Houston Gamblers from Feb. 24, 1985 lives in pro football lore. It featured two of the future’s best quarterbacks, an innovative, lightning-quick offense, and a heart-stomping comeback.
HOW DID THEY GET HERE?
Jim Kelly was one of the first highly-touted quarterbacks to come from the University of Miami (Florida) after the program’s resurgence in the early 1980s.
After being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1983, Kelly was disappointed. He adamantly did not want to play in cold weather. The USFL’s Chicago Blitz intervened, also drafting Kelly. But, according to author Jeff Pearlman in his excellent book “Football for a Buck,” it was a ploy by Blitz GM Bruce Allen to get Kelly into the upstart league. Allen believed Kelly had the swagger and talent to be the next Joe Namath, recalling how “Broadway Joe” put the American Football League on the map in the 1960s.
Kelly got his wish. He was heading to Houston. The Gamblers traded four future draft picks for Kelly in June. In 1984, after initially struggling with offensive coordinator Mouse Davis’ run-and-shoot offense, Kelly adapted and flourished. Firing on the run and hitting small, speedy receivers, Kelly threw for 5,219 yards and 44 touchdown passes. He completed 370 of 587 pass attempts and was named league MVP.
Following in the footsteps of Jim McMahon, Steve Young helped Brigham Young University become “Quarterback U” in the early 1980s. Young could run and pass and his versatility was a dangerous combination. Heading into the ’85 season with the Express, the fleet-footed Young clocked a blistering 4.5-second 40-yard dash.
Ironically, as the USFL courted Young in 1984, legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell tried to convince him to join the league also believing he was “the next Joe Namath.” The NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals also wanted Young, but he wasn’t particularly interested in joining a team that already had veteran signal-caller Ken Anderson.
The L.A. Express offered warm, sunny weather, a solid coach in John Hadl, stout offensive line, and the opportunity to start immediately. Young liked the prospect of joining the Express. Soon after, enigmatic owner Bill Oldenburg sweetened the pot. Oldenburg offered Young a ridiculous rookie contract: $42 million total, $4 million up-front, $2.5 million signing bonus and a $1.5 million tax-free loan.
For the humble Young, who drove an old, used car and dressed in worn-out sneakers and jeans, it was a lot to process. He eventually signed and it was off to the races with the Express.
Because he signed late, Young missed the first six games of his rookie season. He rebounded, completing 179 of 310 passes for 2,361 yards and 10 TDs. He also ran for 515 yards on 79 carries. In ’84, he averaged 6.5 yards per attempt.
Also as a rookie, Young became the first QB in pro football history to rush for at least 100 yards and throw for 300 in a game during the week 9 matchup with the Chicago Blitz.
Los Angeles Times writer Chris Dufresne wrote about a “gutsy performance” Young had in leading the Express to a triple-overtime victory over the Michigan Panthers in a USFL playoff game. At that time, it was the longest game in pro football history.
The Express finished 10-8 in ’84; 2-4 without Young and 10-4 with him.
BUILDUP FOR THE GAME
The ’85 clash wasn’t the first time Young and Kelly met as pros.
In ’84, Young’s Express escaped Houston with a thrilling 27-24 overtime victory. The game was nationally televised on ESPN. It was deemed an “air show” with Kelly firing two touchdown passes, going 37 of 50 for 380 yards. Young finished 17 of 28 with 211 yards and also tossed a pair of TDs.
With Kelly orchestrating the run-and-shoot to perfection, the Gamblers finished 13-5 in ’84, clinching the Central Division title. Wide receiver Richard Johnson hauled in 115 receptions and 15 TDs, while running back Todd Fowler rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
Kelly believed the offense was unstoppable. But, the Gamblers lost Davis, the offensive coordinator, and guru of the run-and-shoot. Davis became head coach of the Denver Gold. The Gamblers elevated assistant John Jenkins to replace Davis and were confident.
In L.A., the Express tried to focus on football as outside turmoil swirled around them. The USFL took control of the franchise after Oldenburg fell into legal troubles. There was talk the team would move to Hawaii. Lacking an owner and not a lot of interest from prospective buyers, Young dubbed them the “L.A. Orphans.”
Yet the Express had potential. They made strides in ’84, taking the Pacific Division title and advancing to the Western Conference championship. Dufresne wrote they “could win the USFL title” in ’85.
L.A. carried a potent backfield, led by Young and running backs Kevin Nelson and Mel Gray. Young fired passes to wide receivers JoJo Townsell and Duane Gunn, along with tight end Gordon Hudson, his favorite target at BYU. Gary Zimmerman, a future NFL star, anchored a formidable offensive line.
The Express defense was paced by linebacker Howard Carson and strong safety Dwight Drane.
As it kicked off its third season, the USFL chose to make Kelly vs. Young II part of its opening weekend.
CLASSIC GAME FEW SAW OR HEARD
Despite the anticipated rematch, less than 19,000 fans filed into cavernous Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that sunny Sunday afternoon. According to the L.A. Times, the first 10,000 fans received a Young poster.
In his Monday morning column the following day, Scott Ostler wrote that some attendees got in free. They were given complimentary tickets for volunteering for the ’84 Summer Olympics.
To make matters worse, the Express failed to lock down a radio contract for the ’85 season. No stations carried the game. Was it on television? Your guess is as good as mine. A quick YouTube search reveals no video footage.
Those who actually did show up were in for a treat.
COMEBACK STUNS EXPRESS
The Express shot out to a fast start, staking a 13-0 first quarter lead. But no lead was safe against Houston’s mighty offense.
L.A. built a 33-13 lead with less than 10 minutes remaining. Kelly, unfazed, went to work. The young gunslinger fired three touchdown passes, including a 39-yarder to Ricky Sanders with 1:18 left. Houston notched the extra point kick. Suddenly, the stunned Express were down 34-33 with a minute left.
“When we went up 33-13, I think mentally we just said, ‘Let’s hurry up and get out of here,’” Young told the Times after the game. “That’s not right.”
The Express had one more shot. With a minute remaining, Young was intercepted by Houston’s Mike Hawkins. Comeback sealed. History made.
L.A. hoped to give nearly automatic kicker Tony Zendejas a chance to win the game. Zendejas was 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts that day, but was denied a fifth.
L.A. defensive back Troy West was having a marvelous game. West intercepted Kelly twice, but was burned on the game-winning throw to Sanders, streaking down the middle.
The Gamblers could score quickly and often. Kelly began the comeback with a 52-yard TD bomb to Richard Johnson. The drive lasted 53 seconds.
With the Express leading 33-20, Kelly hit Vince Courville for a 20-yard score. Clinging to a 33-27 advantage, L.A. tried to kill the clock. There was less than 3 minutes left. Plenty of time for Kelly and his crew.
“Pulling out that win was the best feeling I ever had in my life,” Kelly told reporters.
The future hall of famer’s performance obliterated the record books. Kelly finished 35 of 54 for 574 yards and five touchdowns. He passed for more yards in a game than any QB in pro football history, breaking Rams legend Norm Van Brocklin’s previous mark in 1951.
Express coach John Hadl admitted to playing too conservatively in the fourth quarter. Young was left to ponder what might have been. After the game, Young said, “I want to go back out there and try it again. Is there still another quarter left?”
In the midst of the Lakers’ dynasty, Ostler described the clash as “football’s version of show time.”
Young, however, didn’t see it as a dual with Kelly.
“I don’t look at it that way,” Young said. “It’s just football.”
Surprisingly, as Kelly and Young went on to greater success in the NFL, they never met in a Super Bowl showdown. Kelly guided the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, falling every time, while Young led the 49ers to a championship following the 1994 season.
PERFORMANCE OUTSHINES FLUTIE'S DEBUT
Houston’s dramatic comeback stole Doug Flutie’s thunder.
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner was making his USFL debut with the New Jersey Generals. On a dreary day in Birmingham, Alabama, Flutie’s Generals fell 38-28 to the Stallions. He rebounded from a rough 0-for-9 start to rally New Jersey, but was unimpressive. He tossed two interceptions.
Not far into the future, Flutie would be trying to fend off Kelly for the Generals’ starting QB job. New Jersey signed Kelly in the summer of ’86. He graced the July 21 cover of Sports Illustrated, with the bold-block headline: LOOK OUT MARINO, MONTANA AND FOUTS, The USFL’s Jim Kelly Is Ready To Prove He’s Pro Football’s Top Gun.
A Kelly-Flutie quarterback battle never materialized. The league fell apart a few weeks later. Kelly finally joined the NFL’s Bills to make more history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin Damask is an 80sFootballCards.com contributor as well as the Editor of the Columbus Journal in Columbus, Wisconsin.
You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Kevin on Twitter @kdamask