The United States Football League is making a comeback?
God bless America.
There might be another pro football team in Chicago?
Make it happen.
“You know what? Give it a shot,” is where Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy stands.
I had to call Levy, a hometown football treasure, and take his temperature on news of a USFL return in the spring of 2022. There will be teams in at least eight cities — all locations to be determined — with the league holding rights to the original names from its 1983-1985 existence. And how great some of those names were: the Houston Gamblers, the Memphis Showboats, the Birmingham Stallions, the Boston Breakers.
Of course, the Chicago Blitz, too.
The Blitz gave it a go for two seasons — sort of — before dying on the vine. Playing games on ABC and ESPN in the spring, they were a winning team in 1983 and drew as many as 32,000 fans to a game at Soldier Field. But then came tomfoolery on the parts of halfhearted owners passing like ships in the night, and before Blitz fans knew it there had been an all-out swap with the less-talented Arizona Wranglers: of full rosters and all other assets, down to the very pompoms.
In 1984, the Blitz were a pathetic lot. Their new ownership ditched them after two games, forcing the league to take over the team. The remaining front office was wiped out to cut costs. Bill Polian — who, like Levy, would be immortalized in Canton, Ohio — was installed to help the team’s first-year coach hold things together. That was Levy, the native South Sider. Somehow, they pulled five victories (in 18 games) out of the whole mess.
“I never even got paid,” said Levy, now 95 and a longtime resident of Lincoln Park. “The owner never paid me. Bill Polian and I had to buy the toilet paper because nobody else would.”
Levy struggled with his rotten luck back then — “live the devil,” he puts it — but now he looks back almost fondly. The Blitz led him to the Buffalo Bills, whose brand-new GM, Polian, hired him in 1986. The rest was four-Super Bowl history.
The USFL was fun and ridiculous. It poached veteran players from the NFL and paid some college stars more than the NFL would. It vaulted Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker to enormous fame and sprung Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White, Anthony Carter and others to sudden, dramatic heights. It stacked expansion franchises like hotcakes but went wildly off the rails when the influential owner of the New Jersey Generals, Donald Trump, convinced his cohorts to take on the NFL by moving its season to the fall.
Come to think of it, is a new USFL really a good idea?
“I’m not investing in it, I’ll tell you that,” Levy said. “I think the chances of something like that surviving are slim, but so what? That’s the way many leagues start.”
The new USFL, with Fox Sports as its broadcast partner, is promising “the best football viewing product possible during what is typically a period devoid of professional football,” meaning the spring. But that’s not really accurate. The Alliance of American Football came and went as a spring league in 2019. The XFL came and went as a spring league in 2020, the onset of the pandemic blowing up its season. The XFL also has plans to give spring ball another try in 2022.
Maybe the whole thing is just a losing proposition. Just ask the World Football League, which failed to last two seasons in the mid-1970s. Then again, if you ask the American Football League of the 1960s, it’ll remind you that it was such a success, it eventually merged with the NFL.
The point is: Why the heck not? It isn’t our money.
“I would hope Chicago gets a team,” said former Blitz, Wranglers and Bears offensive lineman Tom Thayer. “We have venues here that deserve the opportunities. We have the population. I think that people would go to the games.”
Bigger picture: Thayer would like to see a whole bunch of players get an opportunity to play pro football. A man who had his 1985 couldn’t see the matter differently if he tried. That year, the Joliet native played a full USFL season in Arizona only to join the Bears — two days after his season finale — at training camp, earn a starting spot and win the Super Bowl.
“I was a young guy going to my hometown team,” said Thayer, 59. “It was the biggest thrill of my life.”
Thayer had a Blitz teammate, cornerback Frank Minnifield, who became a four-time Pro Bowler with the Cleveland Browns. Minnifield was one of smallest players at his position in the NFL, much as Sam Mills — a USFLer who became an elite NFL player — was, at 5-9, the shortest linebacker.
“Those are the kind of guys I’m thinking of,” Thayer said, “the guys who just need an opportunity to go somewhere and compete.”
Thayer still has a couple of T-shirts from his Blitz days. Maybe he’ll get to break them out again and go to a game. That sure would be fun.
Fun while it lasts, anyway. Chances are, the new USFL won’t be around for long. But we’ll cross that bridge when it collapses.