Star-studded career for one player

Posted: July 18, 2014

I MIGHT HAVE been the luckiest player in pro football history.

Unfortunately, there are two kinds of luck.

My "Walter Mitty" career began as an undrafted free agent with the 1980 Eagles. Fresh out of Memphis State (now the University of Memphis), I was a converted power forward on the basketball team who chose football in his senior year as a last chance at realizing my childhood dream of being a professional athlete.

You see, the NBA wasn't looking for any 6-6 white centers, but the NFL did have a need for 245-pound tight ends who could run a 4.6 40-yard dash.

So I packed my bags and attended Dick Vermeil's dreaded training camp. Playing behind veterans Keith Krepfle and John Spagnola, my chances of making the team were exceedingly slim (as slim as my frame after losing 24 pounds in the sweltering heat at West Chester). But as fate would have it, an injury to Krepfle and a case of the stomach flu for Spags propelled me into the starting spot for two preseason games, and the team saw fit to keep me on the roster for that magical season, which ended with a crushing defeat in Super Bowl XV to Jim Plunkett and the Oakland Raiders.

The Birds released me in '81, and I had camp appearances with the Giants and Baltimore Colts in '82 before the Turk came calling and put me back on the waiver wire.

I was teaching tennis in Cherry Hill later that summer when Carl Peterson, who had been the Eagles' player personnel director, brought his daughter Dawn in for tennis lessons. Carl informed me that he had left the Eagles to become the president and general manager of the Philadelphia Stars in the new United States Football League, which was to begin playing spring football in March 1983. He asked whether I'd be interested in playing for them.

I asked about salary - he asked me to remind him what I was making with the Eagles. Keep in mind, the NFL minimum at the time was $25,000. I told Carl if he paid me the same as I was making in the NFL ($35,000), he had his man. I signed the contract then and there and reported to Veterans Stadium to meet the coaching staff and newly signed players.

George Perles, who had been the defensive line coach for the NFL-champion Pittsburgh Steelers of the late '70s, was the head coach. And the locker room was littered with players like me looking for a second chance. That group included ex-Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina, diminutive linebacker Sam Mills from Division III Montclair State, former West Virginia fullback David Riley and recent Eagles rejects, including wide receiver Rodney Parker, fullback Booker Russela and tight end Steve Folsom.

Perles ended up resigning a couple of weeks before the start of our first training camp at Deland, Fla., to take the head-coaching job at Michigan State, his alma mater. After considering big-name replacements, including Joe Paterno (the Stars even threw in a house in Stone Harbor in the offer to him) and Sid Gillman, Peterson and majority owner Myles Tanenbaum settled on New England Patriots defensive coordinator Jim Mora. Mora and Peterson had been on Dick Vermeil's staff at UCLA, and Peterson was comfortable with his style.

Mora put a staff together on the fly after a quick trip to the Senior Bowl, and the team gathered in February 1983 for its inaugural training camp. And it might have been the most interesting training camp ever.

Baltimore Colts great Lydell Mitchell came to try out. He was the only player I ever saw wearing what looked to be a toupee under his helmet, but rather quickly gave it up (not the toupee, his career). Eagles linebackers Al Chesley and Mike Curcio couldn't crack the roster, and neither could Cowboys quarterback Gary Hogeboom.

Peterson brought in an impressive array of rookies, including North Carolina running back Kelvyn Bryant, punter Sean Landeta from Towson State and highly acclaimed offensive linemen Bart Oates from BYU and Irv Eatman from UCLA. These wide-eyed but talented young players bought in to the importance the veteran core placed on their last chance to play the game they loved. Some other better-known names such as wide receiver Scott Fitzkee and linebacker John Bunting joined the club later in camp, and the roster was set for our first season.

The first game was scheduled against coach Red Miller and the Denver Gold at Mile High Stadium - and we almost didn't make it there. An unexpected stop for more fuel and a freak snowstorm in the Rockies made the Stars' chartered jet the last one in to the Denver airport that night. And instead of a fancy dinner at a five-star restaurant, the team munched on ham and cheese sandwiches and chips at a Holiday Inn as we hoped to play the following day.

We played . . . and we won. In the first two seasons, the team did virtually nothing but win. We went 15-3 in 1983, losing the first USFL championship game to Bobby Hebert and the Michigan Panthers. The next year, we went 16-2 and stormed through the playoffs, beating George Allen's Arizona Wranglers, 23-3, in the title game in Tampa. When we arrived in Philly the next day, the city streets were lined with adoring fans in a display of support that equaled the Phillies and Sixers parades I had attended in recent years.

Of course, the roster changed and improved over that time. We picked up solid pros like rookie linebackers George Jamison and Michael Johnson, defensive linemen Pete Kugler and William Fuller, and speedy Ohio State cornerback Garcia Lane.

The Stars defeated past and future NFL players (Vince Evans, Doug Williams, Joe Cribbs), All-Pro players (Herschel Walker, Frank Minnifield, Dan Ross), and Hall of Fame players (Steve Young, Reggie White, Jim Kelly).

In 1985, the team was forced to relocate to Baltimore due to the ill-conceived lawsuit that New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump convinced the other USFL owners to file. Trump's plan was to move the league to the fall in'86 and compete head to head with the NFL, hoping that the NFL would eventually agree to absorb four or five of the USFL's top teams. The Stars, the team that could do nothing but win, struggled as they continued to practice in Philly and bus to College Park, Maryland to play their home games.

Kicked out of Veterans Stadium due to a legal dispute with the city, we were forced to relocate to Penn that season and held our meetings in the ROTC building there while practicing at Franklin Field.

It may have been the worst conditions that a pro team had ever endured. Individual position meetings were held in the corners of the same classroom, with mammoth lineman sitting on desks made for 18 year old co-eds while watching game film on the wall. The environment challenged Stars assistants and future NFL head coaches like Vince Tobin and Dom Capers.

Our home games were a 3-1/2 hour drive down I-95, and we laughingly referred to ourselves as the I-95 Stars as we logged mile after mile. It was actually easier to play away games, since the Philly airport was only a few minutes from the Penn campus.

After stumbling to a poor start in '85, the team had a meeting and rallied to win seven of its last nine games and earned the final playoff spot. We were able to defeat the Generals and Birmingham Stallions on the road in the playoffs, and gained full-circle revenge with a win against Hebert, Anthony Carter, Ray Bentley and the Oakland Invaders (Michigan had merged with Oakland) in the 1985 USFL Championship Game in the Meadowlands.

There was no parade, and no real public acknowledgement of one of the great accomplishments in pro sports.

The Stars still hold the best 3-year record in the history of pro football (48-13-1) and the most wins in a single season (19, played in an 18-game regular season).

Of course, many of the Stars went on to great acclaim in the NFL. Bart Oates and Sean Landeta won multiple Super Bowls after the league ceased operations in 1986. Kelvyn Bryant won one with the Redskins. Carl Peterson was named president/GM for the Kansas City Chiefs in a successful post-Stars NFL career that lasted almost 20 years. Jim Mora was hired by the Saints, and brought them their first playoff appearance. He ended becoming one of only 24 coaches in NFL history to win 125 regular-season games. In his first season as the Indianapolis Colts' head coach in 1998, he and general manager Bill Polian drafted Peyton Manning. Of course, Jim's famous "playoffs?" rant has probably taken away from his accomplishments in the eyes of the public.

I was proud to be a member of that team for all 3 years, and proudly wear my 1984 and '85 USFL championship rings.

I had the rings appraised, and the stones turned out to be cubic zirconia.

The gems may be imitation, but the memories of what we accomplished remain very, very real.

Ken Dunek is the publisher of JerseyMan Magazine and the soon-to-debut PhillyMan Magazine. He wrote a book, "An Improbable Journey," and has produced a documentary on the Stars called "Dynasty Denied" that will come out this fall.

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