A dollar and a dream: Author Jeff Pearlman discusses USFL book

New York real estate magnates Stephen Ross, left, and Donald Trump, right, speak about the agreement they have reached in principle to merge the Houston Gamblers and New Jersey Generals football franchises, Thursday, August 2, 1985 in New York. USFL Commissioner Harry L. Usher, center announced the agreement. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)
New York real estate magnates Stephen Ross, left, and Donald Trump, right, speak about the agreement they have reached in principle to merge the Houston Gamblers and New Jersey Generals football franchises, Thursday, August 2, 1985 in New York. USFL Commissioner Harry L. Usher, center announced the agreement. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Marty Lederhandler)
Former Georgia football player Herschel Walker holds up his new jersey at a press conference in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 26, 1983. Walker joined the New Jersey Generals of the USFL and worked out for the first time at their spring camp at the University of Central Florida. (AP Photo/Ron Lindsey)
Former Georgia football player Herschel Walker holds up his new jersey at a press conference in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 26, 1983. Walker joined the New Jersey Generals of the USFL and worked out for the first time at their spring camp at the University of Central Florida. (AP Photo/Ron Lindsey) (AP/Ron Lindsey)
FILE - In this March 8, 1984, file photo, Donald Trump shakes hands with Herschel Walker in New York after agreement on a 4-year contract with the New Jersey Generals USFL football team. The New Jersey Generals have been largely forgotten, but Trump’s ownership of the team was formative in his evolution as a public figure and peerless self-publicist. With money and swagger, he led a shaky and relatively low-budget spring football league, the USFL, into a showdown with the NFL. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff, File)
FILE – In this March 8, 1984, file photo, Donald Trump shakes hands with Herschel Walker in New York after agreement on a 4-year contract with the New Jersey Generals USFL football team. The New Jersey Generals have been largely forgotten, but Trump’s ownership of the team was formative in his evolution as a public figure and peerless self-publicist. With money and swagger, he led a shaky and relatively low-budget spring football league, the USFL, into a showdown with the NFL. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff, File) (AP/Dave Pickoff)
New Jersey Generals' Herschel Walker runs a nine-yard gain for a first down during the USFL game against the Los Angeles Express, in Los Angeles, March 6, 1982. Los Angeles defeated the Generals, 20-15. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
New Jersey Generals’ Herschel Walker runs a nine-yard gain for a first down during the USFL game against the Los Angeles Express, in Los Angeles, March 6, 1982. Los Angeles defeated the Generals, 20-15. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon) (AP/Reed Saxon)
Tim Wrightman, left, former UCLA tight end and a third round draft choice of the Chicago Bears, announces at a press conference in Chicago, Ill., that he has signed a two-year contract with the Chicago Blitz of the newly-formed USFL, Aug. 6, 1982. George Allen, right, said the signing was a "historic day, he's the first major player signed by the league, the first with total credibility." Allen will be the coach of the Blitz. (AP Photo/Charles Knoblock)
Tim Wrightman, left, former UCLA tight end and a third round draft choice of the Chicago Bears, announces at a press conference in Chicago, Ill., that he has signed a two-year contract with the Chicago Blitz of the newly-formed USFL, Aug. 6, 1982. George Allen, right, said the signing was a “historic day, he’s the first major player signed by the league, the first with total credibility.” Allen will be the coach of the Blitz. (AP Photo/Charles Knoblock) (AP/Charles Knoblock)
Philadelphia Stars Kelvin Bryant, left, leaps in the air with teammate Scott Fitzkee for a high five in celebration of Bryant's second quarter touchdown against the New Jersey Generals at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, March 13, 1983. The former North Carolina player led his team to a 25-0 victory with 114 yards rushing. (AP Photo/George Widman)
Philadelphia Stars Kelvin Bryant, left, leaps in the air with teammate Scott Fitzkee for a high five in celebration of Bryant’s second quarter touchdown against the New Jersey Generals at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, March 13, 1983. The former North Carolina player led his team to a 25-0 victory with 114 yards rushing. (AP Photo/George Widman)
Running back Marcus Dupree (22) of the New Orleans Breakers, gets caught in a crowd of Washington Federals defenders during the first half of game on Sunday, June 24, 1984 at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington. The Federals topped the contest 20-17. (AP Photo/Richard Folkers)
Running back Marcus Dupree (22) of the New Orleans Breakers, gets caught in a crowd of Washington Federals defenders during the first half of game on Sunday, June 24, 1984 at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington. The Federals topped the contest 20-17. (AP Photo/Richard Folkers) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Richard Folkers)
The New Orleans Breakers newly-acquired running back Marcus Dupree stands with the team mascot on the sidelines prior to the Breakers USFL game against the Invaders in Oakland on Sunday, March 5, 1984. Dupree just signed a $6 million dollar contract with the New Orleans club. Dupree last played football for Oklahoma before quitting the team. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
The New Orleans Breakers newly-acquired running back Marcus Dupree stands with the team mascot on the sidelines prior to the Breakers USFL game against the Invaders in Oakland on Sunday, March 5, 1984. Dupree just signed a $6 million dollar contract with the New Orleans club. Dupree last played football for Oklahoma before quitting the team. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Eric Risberg)
University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly is all smiles at his press conference, Thursday, June 10, 1983 after signing a multi-year contract with the new USFL franchise, the Houston Gamblers. His college teammate running back Mark Rush also signed with the Gamblers. Both were drafted by NFL clubs. (AP Photo/F. Carter Smith)
University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly is all smiles at his press conference, Thursday, June 10, 1983 after signing a multi-year contract with the new USFL franchise, the Houston Gamblers. His college teammate running back Mark Rush also signed with the Gamblers. Both were drafted by NFL clubs. (AP Photo/F. Carter Smith) (AP/F. Carter Smith)
Runningback Craig James holds up his new jersey during a press conference, on Friday, April 20, 1984 at Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., where it was announced that he has signed with the New England Patriots football team. James, formerly of the USFL's Washington Federals and Southern Methodist University, was a 7th-round draft pick of the Pastriots in the 1983 NFL Draft. (AP Photo/Ted Qartland)
Runningback Craig James holds up his new jersey during a press conference, on Friday, April 20, 1984 at Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., where it was announced that he has signed with the New England Patriots football team. James, formerly of the USFL’s Washington Federals and Southern Methodist University, was a 7th-round draft pick of the Pastriots in the 1983 NFL Draft. (AP Photo/Ted Qartland) (AP/Ted Qartland)
United States Football League commissioner Harry Usher gestures during a news conference in New York, Aug. 4, 1986. the USFL club owners voted to suspend play until 1987, less than a week after they were awarded only $3 in damages in a $1.69 billion anti-trust suit against the National Football League. The eight-team league, which operated for three years with a spring-summer schedule, was to have opened its first fall schedule on Sept. 13. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan)
United States Football League commissioner Harry Usher gestures during a news conference in New York, Aug. 4, 1986. the USFL club owners voted to suspend play until 1987, less than a week after they were awarded only $3 in damages in a $1.69 billion anti-trust suit against the National Football League. The eight-team league, which operated for three years with a spring-summer schedule, was to have opened its first fall schedule on Sept. 13. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan) (AP/Susan Ragan)
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New York real estate magnates Stephen Ross, left, and Donald Trump, right, speak about the agreement they have reached in principle to merge the Houston Gamblers and New Jersey Generals football franchises, Thursday, August 2, 1985 in New York. USFL Commissioner Harry L. Usher, center announced the agreement. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)
Former Georgia football player Herschel Walker holds up his new jersey at a press conference in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 26, 1983. Walker joined the New Jersey Generals of the USFL and worked out for the first time at their spring camp at the University of Central Florida. (AP Photo/Ron Lindsey)
FILE - In this March 8, 1984, file photo, Donald Trump shakes hands with Herschel Walker in New York after agreement on a 4-year contract with the New Jersey Generals USFL football team. The New Jersey Generals have been largely forgotten, but Trump’s ownership of the team was formative in his evolution as a public figure and peerless self-publicist. With money and swagger, he led a shaky and relatively low-budget spring football league, the USFL, into a showdown with the NFL. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff, File)
New Jersey Generals' Herschel Walker runs a nine-yard gain for a first down during the USFL game against the Los Angeles Express, in Los Angeles, March 6, 1982. Los Angeles defeated the Generals, 20-15. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Tim Wrightman, left, former UCLA tight end and a third round draft choice of the Chicago Bears, announces at a press conference in Chicago, Ill., that he has signed a two-year contract with the Chicago Blitz of the newly-formed USFL, Aug. 6, 1982. George Allen, right, said the signing was a "historic day, he's the first major player signed by the league, the first with total credibility." Allen will be the coach of the Blitz. (AP Photo/Charles Knoblock)
Philadelphia Stars Kelvin Bryant, left, leaps in the air with teammate Scott Fitzkee for a high five in celebration of Bryant's second quarter touchdown against the New Jersey Generals at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, March 13, 1983. The former North Carolina player led his team to a 25-0 victory with 114 yards rushing. (AP Photo/George Widman)
Running back Marcus Dupree (22) of the New Orleans Breakers, gets caught in a crowd of Washington Federals defenders during the first half of game on Sunday, June 24, 1984 at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington. The Federals topped the contest 20-17. (AP Photo/Richard Folkers)
The New Orleans Breakers newly-acquired running back Marcus Dupree stands with the team mascot on the sidelines prior to the Breakers USFL game against the Invaders in Oakland on Sunday, March 5, 1984. Dupree just signed a $6 million dollar contract with the New Orleans club. Dupree last played football for Oklahoma before quitting the team. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly is all smiles at his press conference, Thursday, June 10, 1983 after signing a multi-year contract with the new USFL franchise, the Houston Gamblers. His college teammate running back Mark Rush also signed with the Gamblers. Both were drafted by NFL clubs. (AP Photo/F. Carter Smith)
Runningback Craig James holds up his new jersey during a press conference, on Friday, April 20, 1984 at Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., where it was announced that he has signed with the New England Patriots football team. James, formerly of the USFL's Washington Federals and Southern Methodist University, was a 7th-round draft pick of the Pastriots in the 1983 NFL Draft. (AP Photo/Ted Qartland)
United States Football League commissioner Harry Usher gestures during a news conference in New York, Aug. 4, 1986. the USFL club owners voted to suspend play until 1987, less than a week after they were awarded only $3 in damages in a $1.69 billion anti-trust suit against the National Football League. The eight-team league, which operated for three years with a spring-summer schedule, was to have opened its first fall schedule on Sept. 13. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan)

WASHINGTON — Before we begin, a disclaimer. You cannot write a book about the USFL (United States Football League) without writing about the man in the center of the league’s lawsuit against the NFL and its eventual downfall: Donald Trump. But that’s not why Jeff Pearlman published “Football for a Buck: The crazy rise and crazier demise of the USFL” now, in 2018.

This is a book he waited nearly 30 years to write. He finally got his chance several years ago, well before the last presidential election.

“I could never get a USFL book,” he told WTOP. “I would pitch it, and I’d get rejected. And I would pitch it, and I’d get rejected. I was told by my agent that nobody wants a USFL book, so I gave up on it for a while.”

In 2014, when the chance came to write a book about Brett Favre, Pearlman saw an opportunity. He actually took less money to do the Farve book, “Gunslinger,” in exchange for a two-book deal, which he used to finally write his dream book about the league he followed as a kid, and about which he wrote a 30-page high school paper … which earned him a B+.

His English teacher’s feedback on the USFL paper caused an itch he wouldn’t scratch until years later when he wrote the book: “Solid job. But I feel like there is much more to this story.”

Such as?

“I was a pretty naive kid in a pretty small town,” said Pearlman. “There was no way I knew about the drugs, the sex, the alcohol, the impact of steroids. My head would have probably exploded if you had told me these guys were smoking joints on the way to the games.”

Everything about the USFL is fantastical, and Pearlman chronicles it in a way that will bring fond memories to those who followed the league and raised eyebrows for those who don’t remember it.

There was much more. Boston Breakers head coach Dick Coury held a weekly contest where fans designed plays for the team to run. The winner would stand on the sideline and hold headset wires that week, and at some point, the play would be put into the actual game.

The Tampa Bay Bandits (of which Burt Reynolds was a minority owner) held a car giveaway, during which a fan sneaked onto the field and stole one of the cars, driving it right out of the stadium.

“They had a sense of humor about it, kind of like Minor League Baseball,” said Pearlman. “It was funny to them, so they would try anything.”

Much like Minor League Baseball, the USFL differentiated itself by being a league that said “yes,” rather than “no.” That also extended to on-field decisions that the more rigid and stuck-in-its-ways NFL was slow to embrace.

“The NFL has always lacked a sense of humor about itself,” said Pearlman. “It takes itself ridiculously seriously. From the uniform codes, to the penalty codes, to how the cheerleaders all have to be just the same, their hair can’t be over a certain length.”

The USFL’s open-mindedness yielded everything from the successful implementation of the two-point conversion (later copied by the NFL) to the acceptance and promotion of a handful of black quarterbacks including Doug Williams, several years before he earned Super Bowl XXII MVP honors in Washington.

It also existed as a snapshot of a bygone era.

“There’s nothing more ‘80s than the USFL. Nothing,” said Pearlman. “Cocaine, big hair, embarrassingly dressed cheerleaders, alcoholic excess, unprotected sex, then protected sex because you hear Liberace had AIDS.”

And, of course, Trump.

“The proposal probably mentioned Trump,” said Pearlman. “But it certainly wasn’t like, ‘Now that Donald Trump will likely be president …’ I mean, who the hell though he was going to be president (in 2014)? That was a preposterous idea. That had nothing to do with it. It was the weirdest timing I ever had for a book.”

Pearlman said, in fact, that the only part of the book that changed in light of world events was the epilogue. Everything else was already written.

“Him being president has very little to do with the USFL, except that you can see a lot of his behavior from his USFL days,” he said.

That behavior mostly played out through the league’s fateful decision to file an antitrust suit against the NFL. Trump was the one who pushed for the league’s immediate move to the fall, despite the fact that the USFL had filled a practical void, playing in the spring, where it wasn’t competing against the more established league.

The crazy thing is, the USFL had a great case — the NFL had a television rights monopoly, through which they could apply pressure against the fledgling league, and had actually commissioned a study on how to undermine the USFL. It’s fascinating to go back and see how it all played out, and how close the league really was to potentially pulling it off, something Pearlman appreciated more now as an adult.

“The trial itself I did not know that much about,” he said. “When you’re a kid, you want to read about football — you don’t want to read about legal proceedings.”

“Football for a Buck” dives into the details of both, each of which are crazy in their own way. Pearlman’s meticulous research really shines in those moments, the anecdotes and perspectives from the inside that might have been otherwise lost to history.

“There’s a million, trillion stories that you had no clue about,” he said. “I mean, that’s the fun of it all, is digging and finding little things, the nuggets.”

Other football leagues are still trying to compete against the NFL, but the league has become such a behemoth, it’s hard to imagine any of them breaking through. The Arena Football League is still hanging around; rumors of the XFL’s return are on the horizon; and a new league, the Alliance of American Football, is set to start play the week after the Super Bowl in 2019. Pearlman’s not sure that there’s the kind of space for a league to do what the USFL did.

“It’s about the ubiquitousness of the NFL,” he said. “The NFL has made itself so it’s always there; it’s always on.”

Maybe they will, at least for a few years, and maybe someday they’ll draw that same nostalgia and appeal as the USFL does to its junkies. Pearlman hosted a recent meetup via Twitter of old fans — about 15 showed up, one sporting a Chicago Blitz shirt. It’s been a fun experience for him, connecting over childhood memories with other fans who still obsess over and reminisce about the league’s freewheeling, wild three-season run.

“I’m hearing a lot from them, which is actually kind of rewarding, kind of nice,” he said.

“Because I am them. I’m that same guy.”


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