USFL legacy lives through its jerseys

aa2.jpgThe impact of the United States Football League is still being felt nearly 21 years after the Baltimore Stars defeated the Oakland Invaders, 28-24, in the league’s third and final championship game.

The revolutionary USFL rewrote the rules by playing a high-caliber brand of professional football in the spring. In those halcyon days of 1983-85, USFL footballs were flying from the hands of Greg Landry, Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Doug Flutie. As Dave Winfield and Don Baylor were cracking home runs in Yankee Stadium, Herschel Walker and Brian Sipe engineered touchdown drives for the New Jersey Generals in The Meadowlands. While the fancies of some young men turned to love, others were simply ready for some more football.

The inaugural 1983 season lineup of teams was as follows: Philadelphia Stars, New Jersey Generals, Washington Federals, Boston Breakers, Michigan Panthers, Chicago Blitz, Tampa Bay Bandits, Birmingham Stallions, Oakland Invaders, L.A. Express, Denver Gold and Arizona Wranglers.

aa3.jpgFor the 1984 campaign, the Houston Gamblers, Pittsburgh Maulers, Jacksonville Bulls, Memphis Showboats, Oklahoma Outlaws and San Antonio Gunslingers were added as expansion franchises.

The league’s final season of 1985 saw significant change within its ranks. Pittsburgh was no longer a member of the club, as the Maulers folded. The Breakers moved yet again, from New Orleans to Portland, Ore. The Federals packed up and headed south to sunny central Florida and became the Orlando Renegades. The Wranglers and Outlaws merged and became the Arizona Outlaws. The Michigan Panthers, the USFL’s first champions, were absorbed by the Oakland Invaders. Some of these moves were engineered in anticipation of playing in the fall starting with the 1986 season, the season that never was.

Ultimately, the USFL spent itself out of existence, but did manage to prevail in a lawsuit against the NFL. The full story, from soup to nuts, can be read in the book The $1 League, written by the league’s former director of communications, Jim Byrne. I would also recommend doing a Google search on the USFL to locate a host of websites that will chronicle the league’s birth, its life, and its untimely demise. In the end, the USFL offered football fanatics a product that arguably was on par with the NFL. Aside from Kelly, Young, Flutie, and Walker, Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White, as well as longtime Detroit Lions star receiver Anthony Carter, began their professional careers in this erstwhile spring football enterprise.

The uniforms worn in the USFL are indeed very desirable collectibles, even those donned by the league’s “common” players. Like those worn in other defunct sports leagues, these uniforms and equipment pieces become increasingly rare with each passing calendar.  From my viewpoint as a professional seller of game-used uniforms, USFL uniforms and equipment pieces are maintaining, and in some cases, gaining value 21 years after the game clock ticked down to all zeros in the 1985 championship game held at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

USFL jerseys were supplied primarily by Champion, Russell Athletic and Sand-Knit. Two secondary suppliers were Goodman and Speedline Sand-Knit jerseys supplied to the Breakers featured Exclusive tagging (see photo). With L.A. Express Sand-Knit jerseys, some bore the Exclusive tagging while others did not. The Breakers were supplied by Sand-Knit and Champion concurrently.  In addition to Sand-Knit jerseys, the Express also took the field in jerseys supplied by Champion and Goodman.  Unlike the contractual arrangements utilized by the NFL today, the USFL was flexible in it’s sourcing of game uniforms.

USFL teams wore mesh and fishnet jerseys.  Starting with the 1984 season, the fishnet uniform tops became more prevalent than the regular mesh shirts. This move to fishnet was inspired by the hot weather that would be the environment for so many USFL games, especially in the south during May and June. Conversely, some early season games in the northern cities were played in cold, snow, sleet and rain. An 18 game regular season that began in late February and culminated with a Championship game in early July would see a variety of weather conditions, resulting in USFL equipment managers needing a wide array of protective gear in their arsenals.
The jerseys worn by USFL players featured screened or painted-on numbers and player’s names. However, as you would guess, there are exceptions to those rules.

The 1984 Washington Federals jersey numbers and player’s names were a heavy vinyl, similar to what the NFL Rams wore for years. Some Birmingham Stallions and Tampa Bay Bandits jerseys sported tackle-twill letters on the nameplates. I have handled a Boston Breakers jersey worn by Louie Giammona with his name sewn to the plate as opposed to being screened or heat transferred.  I have handled three variations of the 1984 Chicago Blitz home/red jersey: one with tackle-twill numbers, one with a white collar and white letters on the nameplate, which is the most common, and one with a blue collar with white player’s name trimmed with blue. The described types of variations were not what I would consider to be anomalies back in the era of the USFL. In today’s super-consistent, highly regulated world of NFL uniforms, these variations would never occur.

Are there any USFL fakes to be found out there in the world of sports collectibles? Most of the bogus material centers around the coveted game-used helmets, but jerseys have not escaped the touch of the crafty hands of scofflaws seeking some dirty money. I have seen a home/red Herschel Walker New Jersey Generals jersey where the font style used for Walker’s name was a wide letter style-the letters placed tightly together.  The correct Generals font was a narrow style with a serif (see photo); the letters being spaced more widely apart.  An Oakland Invaders blue Anthony Carter jersey crossed my path that was shade too light in color, had Carter’s name sewn directly to the jersey back, and was a bit too beat up in my opinion for a wide receiver’s jersey. Wherever you have big-name players, you have the potential for fraudulent uniforms being created.

Real, game-worn USFL helmets are very coveted and rare collectibles. This is where most mistakes are made by collectors of the league’s memorabilia. There are certain models of Riddell and Bike helmets that the teams used for its players, however I will not include them here in this article being that as crazy as it may seem, I don’t want to tip off forgers as to what to use for their nefarious creations. I will also say that most of these helmet models are no longer produced, making the job of a forger a bit more difficult. I will tell you that the Riddell VSR series did not yet exist during the time of the USFL, so if you find one that is a VSR-1, 2, 3 or 4, it is at best, a reproduction and at worst a faked gamer.  Also, no USFL helmets were produced by Schutt, even though that company has absorbed Bike, who did supply many helmets to the league.

Though it is now just a memory, and a fond one for me, the USFL left behind a lasting legacy. There were a host of great players, some of which went on to NFL superstardom. There was a lot of stellar football played.  And, there are some great uniforms to be collected.

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