Thirty years ago Tuesday, Bobby Hebert threw the final pass in USFL history.
And he’s still bummed out about it.
An end-zone attempt to Gordon Banks was knocked away, leaving Hebert’s Oakland Invaders on the wrong end of a 28-24 score against the Baltimore Stars in the league’s third (and last) championship game.
“You know how LeBron James talked about how he’d rather not go to the championship if you don’t win it?” Hebert said. “That’s the way it was for me. No matter what team you’re playing for, it’s an empty feeling when you come so close and don’t.”
Jim Mora can empathize with Hebert’s feelings, even if he doesn’t totally agree with him.
“I don’t know why Bobby should feel bummed out,” said Mora, the Stars coach that day in 1985. “We beat them fair and square. But he’s right about nothing in sports beats winning a championship, and nothing is worse than coming up short.”
The USFL, the dream of New Orleans businessman Dave Dixon, folded in 1986 after an unsuccessful attempt to move to a fall schedule pushed by New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump.
And a few months after that title game, Hebert and Mora were on the same team in New Orleans, a relationship that lasted for seven years.
Hebert signed with the Saints shortly after the title game for a $1.2 million bonus, then one of the largest in league history, thanks to new owner Tom Benson being persuaded that a home-state product like Hebert was just what the team needed.
Between preseason, regular-season and postseason games with two teams that year, Hebert participated in 44 games.
And in January, after the resignation of Bum Phillips and the hiring of Jim Finks as general manager, Mora was named coach of the Saints.
But the USFL title game, like the one in 1983 when Hebert’s Michigan Panthers defeated the Stars, who were then located in Philadelphia, seldom came up in conversation between the two.
“I guess, since we had one each, there wasn’t much else to say,” said Hebert, who has parlayed his “Cajun Cannon” persona into a broadcasting career along with becoming a restaurateur.
“It would have been fun to have been 2-0 on him, though.”
Hebert nearly was.
The Invaders, who had merged with the Panthers that season, had the league’s best regular-season record at 13-4-1. The Stars, who had won the 1984 title, had squeezed into the playoffs at 10-7-1.
Moreover, while technically based in Baltimore, the team still practiced in Philadelphia, first at Veterans Stadium and then at Franklin Field after being booted from its regular digs.
The move to Baltimore had been made in hopes of filling the gap left by the Colts’ move to Indianapolis in 1983. But the Stars, who played their “home” games at the University of Maryland in College Park, a Washington suburb about 40 miles from Baltimore, had a hard time catching on with the public.
“The only time I was ever in Baltimore was on Mondays for the press conference,” said Mora, now 80 and living in retirement in Palm Desert, California. “We were struggling for most of the season, too (6-6-1 with five games to go), but got it going at the end. It said a lot about our organization and our team that we got to the championship game.”
That the Stars were semi-homeless reflected the state of the league at that time.
Dixon’s original plan — playing in NFL markets along with some ambitious ones like Jacksonville and Memphis with a secured TV deal but controlled spending — was abandoned when Trump and Chicago Blitz owner Eddie Einhorn first promoted rapid expansion to 18 teams. And when that proved unsustainable, the move to the fall for 1986 was made with the hope of forcing a merger with the NFL.
Neither ploy worked.
“I don’t know if spring and summer football would have ever succeeded,” said Mora, who had been an assistant at Washington, Seattle and New England before moving to the Stars in 1983. “So then there were a few owners who thought they had a chance to expand into the NFL, but they weren’t financially able to pull that off, either. I think we were underrated when you look at some of the players and coaches. But there was a lot of doubt about where we were going.”
Hebert had been one of the original USFL players, signing with the Stars for $80,000 rather than waiting for the NFL draft, for which he had been projected as a third-round pick in a year that saw future Hall of Famers John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly go in the first round, along with three other quarterbacks.
“I had a wife and daughter to support, and we’d been on food stamps for four months,” said Hebert, who played at Northwestern State. “I felt like I was going from rags to riches. And I probably gained a lot more experience in the USFL than I would have the first couple of years in the NFL.”
Hebert wound up as the USFL’s all-time passing leader with 13,137 yards.
The championship game itself, played in the rain before an announced crowd of 49,263 in the Meadowlands, was tight throughout.
The Stars got the final score on Kelvin Bryant’s 7-yard run with 8:15 left. Oakland began its final possession at its 5 and drove to the Baltimore 5.
On third-and-2, Oakland’s John Williams was stopped for no gain by Sam Mills.
“The best player I ever coached,” Mora said. “We were together for 12 years, and there was never a practice or a game when Sam Mills didn’t give it his all.”
But a personal foul call on the Invaders’ Tom Newton away from the play kept it third down, although pushing the ball back to the 20.
From there, Hebert tried twice for Banks. Banks got a hand on the second one, but so did Stars cornerback Jonathan Sutton.
The Stars then ran out the clock, securing their second straight title.
“Somebody told Newton how dumb he was in the shower, and it started a big fight,” Hebert said. “There were naked guys throwing punches everywhere.”
But that, Hebert added, shows just how much winning can mean.
“The only two times I was ever part of a championship team were as a senior at South Lafourche and that first year with the Panthers,” Hebert said.
“That’s about as happy as a human being can get.”
Similarly, Mora said he ranked the title among his proudest accomplishments.
“We had some good players,” he said. “But most of them had never made it to the NFL or had had short careers there. They would do just about anything to play professional football. I’ve never been around a bunch of guys who worked as hard as those guys did.”
Mora still has his championship rings, miniatures of the trophies and replicas of game tickets to the three title games in his office. Hebert has memorabilia at home and in his restaurant.
“I think I’ve kept stuff from every team I ever played with,” he said.
He just wishes there were one more championship ring.