Fusina was in elite company in USFL

Posted: July 18, 2014

THE LIST OF quarterbacks who played in the United States Football League includes two Hall of Famers (Jim Kelly, Steve Young), a Super Bowl MVP (Doug Williams), an NFL MVP (Brian Sipe) and six Pro Bowlers (Kelly, Young, Sipe, Bobby Hebert, Doug Flutie and Greg Landry).

The league's most successful quarterback, though, turned out to be a guy who barely made a ripple in the NFL.

Chuck Fusina appeared in just 14 NFL regular-season games as a backup for the Tampa Bay Bucs and the Green Bay Packers. Had 37 career pass attempts and one touchdown pass. That and $23 will get him through the front doors of the Hall of Fame to see the bronze busts of Kelly and Young.

But during his three memorable seasons with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars, Fusina didn't have to take a back seat to Kelly or Young or any other quarterback. The former Penn State star guided the Stars to two league titles in 1984-85. With the steady Fusina at the helm, the Stars won 41 of 54 regular-season games and seven of eight in the postseason.

Fusina was the league's MVP in '84, throwing 31 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions and completing 65 percent of his attempts as the Stars cruised to the first of their two titles.

"He was Chuck," Stars president Carl Peterson said. "I remember when I talked to Joe Paterno about him before we signed him. I said, 'Tell me about Chuck Fusina.' He said, 'Chuck doesn't look good throwing the ball, doesn't look good running the ball, doesn't even look good in his uniform. But he does one thing that you and I want the most from any player. He wins.' "

Fusina won for Paterno at Penn State, where he led the Nittany Lions to consecutive 11-1 seasons, and he won with the Stars.

He wasn't the most physically gifted quarterback in the world. At 6-1 and 197, he wasn't particularly big or fast. He had an average throwing arm. But he was a smart player who made the most of what he had.

"He had ability," said Stars coach Jim Mora. "He wasn't [Tom] Brady or [Peyton] Manning or somebody like that, obviously. But he was exceptionally smart. He prepared extremely well. He was cool. Poised. A leader. He could make plays. He wasn't going to overwhelm you by making a lot of big plays. But he didn't screw it up very often.

"He was just an efficient player. That's probably the best way to describe Chuck. Smart and efficient. He got the job done."

On a team with a dominant defense and one of the league's best running backs in Kelvin Bryant, smart and efficient was exactly what Mora needed at quarterback.

"Chuck had the right temperament," said Cleveland Browns personnel executive Bill Kuharich, who was the Stars' assistant general manager. "He had the right intelligence. He had the right understanding of the game. I don't want to call him a game manager. But you weren't going to lose because of Chuck."

Fusina, who was the Heisman Trophy runner-up to Oklahoma's Billy Sims his final year at Penn State, was taken by the Bucs in the fifth round of the '79 draft. Spent three seasons in Tampa as a backup. Attempted just five passes in those three seasons.

In the summer of '82, he was traded by the Bucs to the San Francisco 49ers. When they released him before the start of the season, he signed with the Stars.

"I was just looking for an opportunity to play," said Fusina, who owns a company in Pittsburgh, A.D. Starr, that manufactures and distributes baseball and softball equipment.

"With a new league, I was ready for anything. You knew you were taking a risk. But my 3 years with the Stars ended up being one of the high points of my life."

While Bryant, who rushed for more than 4,000 yards in three seasons, was the straw that stirred the Stars' drink, Fusina was the offense's unquestioned leader and calming influence.

In the '83 playoffs against the Chicago Blitz, he engineered one of the most amazing comebacks in pro football history when he shook off four earlier interceptions and brought the Stars back from a 21-point deficit with 11 1/2 minutes left, throwing three fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Earlier in the game, he also caught a touchdown pass from running back Allen Harvin.

"Chuck was a quiet, unassuming gentleman," said wide receiver Tom Donovan, who played with Fusina at Penn State and with the Stars. "But in that huddle, he was in charge and everybody knew it.

"From the day he took over the starting position at Penn State and the whole time he was with the Stars, he was the man. He didn't have to scream and yell. All he had to do was poke his head in the huddle and everybody listened and had confidence in him."

Duck Riley, who was the Stars' fullback, still remembers an incident in the Stars' 1984 playoff game against the New Jersey Generals.

"We're in the huddle and Chuck starts talking about a dream he had the night before where he was getting ready to throw a touchdown pass to Kelvin. We're supposed to be calling the play and he's sharing this dream with us. We all start laughing and we break the huddle and what does he do? He goes and throws a touchdown to KB."

After the USFL folded, Mora was hired to be the head coach of the New Orleans Saints. There was speculation that he would take Fusina with him.

But the Saints already had signed another USFL quarterback - Hebert - who had Louisiana roots. Fusina ended up signing with the Packers. He played in seven games as a backup for them during the '86 season, completing 19 of 32 passes for 178 yards.

Hebert spent seven of his 11 NFL seasons with New Orleans, making 100 starts for the Saints. Fusina never played another down after the '86 season.

"I asked some of the coaches down there [with the Saints] whether they thought I could play," Fusina said. "The feedback I got was that they thought I could. But I understood. Especially when I sat back and thought about it.

"They already had a quarterback who had been in the USFL who I had competed against. It's hard for a coach who's starting out fresh and coming from another league to bring people in. But that's OK. I got to play a lot longer than I ever thought I would."

On Twitter: @Pdomo

Blog: eagletarian.com

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