CFL Pass

Remembering the USFL, part II: Crossover players, impact on CFL

Here at CFLpass, we’re obsessed with that bizarre ephemeral spring professional football league known as the USFL. (Okay, so not *we* exactly; more like Os and Joe.) In celebration of the 33rd anniversary of the USFL’s opening day, Joe Pritchard takes a look at those players, including a handful of Canadian Football Hall of Famers, who crossed over from that wacky experiment to the CFL or vice versa. Because, you know, this website *is* ostensibly devoted to the CFL…

How the USFL impacted CFL rosters
I’ve dug into researching players that played for both the CFL and the USFL to come up with five Canadian Football Hall of Famers who also played in the USFL.

Junior Ah You parlayed a Hall of Fame career north of the border into a few seasons bouncing around various USFL teams. Less Browne didn’t make the roster of one of the worst USFL teams, the Pittsburgh Maulers, in 1984, but was able to bounce back and put together a Canadian hall of fame career with Hamilton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and BC. Ronnie Estay finished out his long career in Washington with the dreadful Federals after a long career with the Edmonton Eskimos.

Though you can certainly forgive a new or casual CFL fan for having trouble recalling these players, it’s extremely hard to imagine the CFL without the next two players, both of whom got their professional football careers started in the USFL.

First and foremost, Doug Flutie got his start in New Jersey, taking some of Donald Trump’s money to become the starting quarterback for the Generals in 1985. The Generals had already acquired former NFL MVP Brian Sipe, but traded him to Jacksonville within 24 hours to make room for Flutie.

The Sports Illustrated cover story dated February 25, 1985, wondered whether Flutie could save the USFL, but that was outside even his powers to do: Flutie struggled in his rookie year in New Jersey, completing less than half his pass attempts (134 of 281, or 47.7%) and throwing more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (13). His mobility did impress at times, however, and he wasn’t alone in carrying the Generals offense, but the team would once again fall to the Baltimore Stars (relocated from Philadelphia), and after the league folded, bounced around the NFL before arriving in BC. The rest, as they say, is history.

The other household name is Gizmo Williams, who got his start in 1985 with the USFL’s Memphis franchise. Williams did most of the kick and punt return duties for the Showboats, but never broke a big one – but once he got to Edmonton, he thrilled Eskimos fans until 2000 with his return magic and his flips after scores.

Those are but a few of the names that played in the CFL and the USFL. Among the CFL league All-Stars who spent time in the USFL are Zenon Andrusyshyn, Al Burleson, Gregg Butler, Pete Catan, Zac Henderson, Mike Holmes, William Miller, Rick Mohr, Ray Odums, Joey Walters, Brett Williams, Mike Wilson, and Harold Woods – and this list doesn’t include the members of CFL Divisional All-Star teams.

There are so many names I’m either glossing over or omitting completely, but a few more notable CFL players to show up in the USFL at some point include Loyd Lewis, Ken Hobart, Jerald Baylis, Derrick Crawford, Mike Raines, Richard Crump, Rick Johnson, Angelo Snipes and many more, to be sure. I did want to drop in a special mention of the one of the best football names I’ve ever come across in Admiral Dewey Larry...

Coaches were also not exempt from the temptation to move south; among others were Edmonton’s Hugh Campbell and Winnipeg’s Ray Jauch, who both took the reins of USFL teams in the league’s first season in 1983. With the losses of Campbell and Estay, it appears the USFL played at least a small part in the 80s demise of the Eskimo dynasty!

It seems like the USFL laid off of Canadian talent, as there were only three Canadians to play in the USFL. We’ve already mentioned Zenon Andrusyshyn, but Kari Yli-Renko and Vince Abbott were also Canadian, so one thing is for sure, the Canadian talent base the CFL had was not impacted in a major way, as Andrusyshyn and Abbott were kickers, and Yli-Renko was an offensive lineman.

Impact on the CFL
As for the USFL’s long-term effects on the CFL, the CFL emerged no worse from wear immediately after the USFL’s collapse but had their own problems to deal with, including the failure to secure a sizable TV contract in 1987, which, when paired with salaries going nowhere but up, put the CFL’s teams in peril from time to time; no time was more financially worrisome than the early- to mid-1990s.

This period saw most CFL teams in financial danger, and the league resorted to expansion to the US in an attempt to grow the game’s revenue base and to inject some much needed funds into league coffers. The expansion was not a success in a lot of ways, but one way it helped was with expansion fees, with the US-based teams suffering their share of the financial burden. Had the USFL still existed at the time – which isn’t a sure thing even had they stayed with their initial plan – could those owners have been investing their money in that league instead of the CFL at its time of need? I’d think so.

Would the CFL have died off altogether in the 90s without the US expansion money? Maybe not. There were things that could have been done to stay alive during those dark times, whether it was smaller salaries for imports, since the import talent level would have fallen off some. It’s hard to speculate what may have happened given a different situation – considering that Flutie and Gizmo, among others, are likely out of the CFL picture; that maybe Bruce McNall puts his money into the USFL instead; that Rocket Ismail plays in, say, Los Angeles instead of Toronto in 1991 … the possibilities are really endless, and I’m just scratching the surface here. But one thing’s for sure: The worst-case scenario for the CFL and the Canadian game had the USFL survived would be the possibility of expansion into Canada, pushing CFL football off the fan’s map entirely.

Let’s all be thankful that won’t be the case, and that the Canadian game as we know and love it is still here and thriving…

I would to thank Jim Parcels for his help in gathering the CFL All-Star data and the list of Canadians in the USFL, as well as jets/rider fan, among others on Twitter, for additional help. I wish I could have used all of their contributions!  

– written by Joe Pritchard