It Happened in Jersey: Football
In 1939, George Halas purchased the Newark Tornadoes of the American Association, a minor-league circuit with teams up and down the East Coast. Halas renamed the club the Bears and used it as a farm team for his NFL club. The NFL Bears and AA Bears completed their regular seasons on the same day, December 3rd. Chicago finished in second place behind rookie quarterback Sid Luckman with an 8–3 mark. Newark finished 9–2–1, tied for first in the AA’s Southern Division.
A playoff game was scheduled between Newark and the 9–2–1 Wilmington Clippers to decide who would face the Paterson Panthers in the Association’s championship game. Halas wanted his farm club to win, so he sent Luckman to Newark. It’s worth mentioning that Luckman was no ordinary rookie. One year earlier, the former Columbia University star had made the cover of LIFE magazine, with the words “Best Passer” under his photo. In 1939, Luckman was also the NFL’s top punter and one of its best defensive backs.
The Clippers lodged protests before and after the game, but their objection to Luckman was overruled both times. Commissioner Joe Rostenover found a convenient loophole. The rules stated that only players who appeared for a team in the regular season were eligible to play in the league championship game. However, no mention was made of a playoff game!
The contest was held in Newark on December 10th, with almost 15,000 fans in attendance at Newark Schools Stadium. The Clippers outplayed Newark for most of the game, but Luckman found Dick Schweidler with a fourth-quarter TD pass to win 13–6. One week later, Newark defeated Paterson 27–7, without Luckman in the lineup. The American Association tightened its rules for 1940 to cover the use of ringers in playoff games. As for Luckman, he went on to redefine the quarterback’s role in pro football earned first- or second-team All-Pro honors each year from 1940 to 1948.
UNITED WE FALL
The United States Football League (USFL) played three spring/summer seasons—1983 to 1985—as a rival to the NFL. The quality of play left something to be desired at times, but the quality of the top players was exceptional. Among the NFL stars who got their start in the USFL were Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker, Kelvin Bryant, Bobby Hebert, Reggie White, Bart Oates, Kelvin Bryant, Gary Zimmerman, Steve Young, Doug Flutie, Sam Mills, Ken Hull, Nate Newton, Sean Landeta and William Fuller.
Like the NFL, the league held its championship game in a different city (each July) at the end of the season. The first was held in Denver, the second in Tampa and the third at the Meadowlands. The Stars—led by Mills, Bryant and quarterback Chuck Fusina (right)—participated in all three title games, the first two representing the city of Philadelphia and the third representing Baltimore. The Stars reached the big game despite a 1–3–1 start
The 1985 USFL Championship, between the Baltimore Stars and Oakland Invaders, was meant to be the final summer championship; in 1986, the owners agreed reluctantly to go head-to-head with the NFL in the fall. That never happened, meaning the title game at the Meadowlands was also the last USFL game ever played.
Just under 50,000 tickets were sold for the game, which began in a driving rain. This favored the Stars, who liked to run the football, while it hampered the Invaders, who counted on scoring passes from Hebert to Anthony Carter. Fusina opened the scoring with a 16-yard TD pass to Scott Fitzkee. Bryant scored a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter, but the Invaders, who ran a Fusina interception back for a score, kept the game close.
Oakland took the lead late in the third quarter after recovering a Stars fumble. Hebert and Carter connected on a short pass to make the score 24–21. The Stars rallied in the fourth quarter and went up 28–24 midway through the final period on Bryant’s third TD run. On the ensuing kickoff, Oakland muffed the catch and had to start on its own 4 yard line. Hebert led a magnificent drive into the Baltimore red zone, getting to the 5 yard line. On third down and 2, Oakland’s Tom Newton got into a scuffle with cornerback Jonathan Sutton and was whistled for a 15-yard penalty. With the Stars blanketing Carter in the end zone, Hebert tried two TD passes to Gordon Banks, but both were incomplete. With three TDs, 103 rushing yards and 56 receiving yards, Bryant (left) was named the MVP.