March 11, 2010
The Houston Gamblers, new to the United States Football League in 1984, had established themselves as a potent passing team in the first two weeks of the season. Rookie QB Jim Kelly had thrown for a combined 538 yards and three touchdowns as the club lost a narrow 20-17 verdict at Tampa Bay and handily defeated the San Antonio Gunslingers, 35-7. In their third game, on March 11 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, it was RB Sam Harrell making headlines as he became the league’s first 200-yard rusher and scored four touchdowns in a high-scoring battle won by the Gamblers, 45-36.
There were just 7808 fans in attendance as the two offenses piled up 81 points, the most in any USFL game thus far. Harrell scored on runs of 7, 53, and 2 yards as he amassed an even 200 yards on 20 carries; he also scored on a 13-yard pass from Kelly. The young quarterback hit WR Ricky Sanders for a 61-yard TD that opened the scoring in the first quarter and WR Greg Moser from 33 yards in the third quarter. In the end, Kelly completed 13 of 26 passes for 229 yards with three touchdowns against a lone interception. Sanders was Houston’s top receiver with 4 receptions for 119 yards.
Chicago’s QB Vince Evans, formerly of the NFL’s Bears, had a big statistical day as he completed 22 of 36 passes for 371 yards with a touchdown and an interception; he also ran for two scores. TE Gary Lewis led the Blitz receivers with 7 pass receptions for 105 yards. The running game was not nearly as effective as Houston’s, accumulating 91 yards on 26 attempts – leading ground gainer was Larry Canada with 35 yards on 11 carries.
“This is the greatest game I’ve ever played, that I’ve ever had in my life,” said Harrell afterward. It was certainly the highlight of his season – he gained a total of 697 yards on 120 carries, averaging an impressive 5.8 yards-per-carry and scoring 14 touchdowns on the ground. He also caught 25 passes for 304 yards and two more scores in a year in which he missed several games due to a broken leg. He was part of an effective running tandem with Todd Fowler, who was ultimately the club’s leading rusher with 1003 yards.
The 6’2”, 225-pound Harrell had been chosen in the 11th round of the 1980 NFL draft out of East Carolina by the Minnesota Vikings, but he missed all of that season due to a hip injury and saw extremely limited action in ’81 and ’82. Released during preseason in 1983, he signed with the Gamblers and started the first eight games of ’84 until sidelined by the injury.
Head Coach Jack Pardee’s team remained committed to the innovative “run-and-shoot” passing game that allowed Jim Kelly to lead the league in attempts (587), completions (370), yards (5219), yards per attempt (8.9), and touchdown passes (44) – on the downside, he also led in interceptions (26). The Gamblers ended up with two hundred-catch receivers in wide receivers Richard Johnson (115) and Ricky Sanders (101).
Houston ended up with a 13-5 record to win the Central Division, but lost to Arizona in the first round of the playoffs. The Blitz, who were the remnant of 1983’s Arizona Wranglers team (the franchises had switched locations), were the mirror opposite, going 5-13 and ending up at the bottom of the same division.