In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
The United States Football League kicks off its first season with six games. Created as a rival spring league to the NFL, the USFL draws decent crowds in their first games. All eyes the first week are on the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the New Jersey Generals and Heisman winner Herschel Walker lose their first game to the Los Angeles Express 20-15. The USFL will play an 18-week schedule with the championship in July.
The idea of a spring football league belonged to David Dixon, a New Orleans businessman who was instrumental in founding the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. Over 15 years, Dixon studied how other rival leagues worked and failed, including the World Football League, which folded in the middle of its second season in 1975. In 1980, Dixon began formulating a plan that resulted in the league’s unveiling at New York’s 21 Club in 1982. That day 12 teams were announced to start to play in 1983.
In between the league’s announcement and the first week of games, there were plenty of growing pains as several teams had trouble finding a stadium, such as a proposed team in San Diego could not gain use of Jack Murphy Stadium and ended up playing in Arizona instead. Plans to put a team in Canada also failed due to a law forbidding an opposition to the CFL that was put in place after the WFL attempted to put a team in Toronto. Meanwhile, the Boston Breakers had to play at Nickerson Field after the New England Patriots blocked their access to Sullivan Stadium.
The USFL was able to get television contracts with ABC for its weekly Sunday schedule, while ESPN in the infancy of cable’s proliferation covered the upstart league’s Monday Night games. The 12 original teams were placed in three four-team divisions. The Boston Breakers, New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars, and Washington Federals were in the Atlantic Division. The Central Division featured the Birmingham Stallions, Chicago Blitz, Michigan Panthers, and Tampa Bay Bandits. While the Western Division featured the Arizona Wranglers, Denver Gold, Los Angeles Express, and Oakland Invaders. Helping to give the league some star power was the New Jersey Generals owned by Donald Trump, who signed Heisman winner Herschel Walker to a three-year contract worth a record $5 million.
In Tampa, the Bandits edged the Breakers 21-17, led by John Reeves 358 yard passing game. The Blitz, coached by George Allen, steamrolled the Federals 28-7 at RFK Stadium. In the showcase game, the Express beat the Generals 20-15, as Herschel Walker, New Jersey’s $5 million man, was held to 65 yards on 16 carries in his first professional game. The Invaders blanked the Wranglers 24-0 in the desert, while the Stars upset the Gold at Mile High Stadium 13-7. In the first Monday Night Game, the Panthers upended the Stallions 9-7 in a defensive battle at Legion Field.
The first season of the USFL was largely successful, with the Michigan Panthers beating the Philadelphia Stars in the first Championship Game in Denver 24-22. The league added four teams in 1984, but a plan to move their games to the fall and provide a direct challenge to the NFL in 1986 ultimately led to the USFL’s demise.