May 1, 2010

1983: John Walton Throws for 423 Yards as Breakers Fall to Panthers

35-year-old QB John Walton had made the rounds of minor and major pro football leagues prior to becoming a member of the Boston Breakers of the United States Football League in 1983. He had won a Continental Football League championship as a rookie with the Indianapolis Capitols in 1969 and spent a year with the Columbus Barons of the Midwest Football League in ’73. In between, he was on the taxi squad of the NFL’s Rams.

Walton moved on to the World Football League - after backing up in Chicago in 1974, he got a chance to start and performed well with the San Antonio Wings in 1975. From there, it was back to the NFL and a backup role with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976-79. At that point he retired as a player and returned to his alma mater, Elizabeth City State, where he was the head coach for three seasons before taking a shot at the USFL (his coaching record was 20-10-1).

Everywhere Walton went he had impressed with his strong throwing arm, and age had not diminished his passing ability. He also provided leadership; as Head Coach Dick Coury put it, “Talk about character, John’s the catalyst of that on the field.”

The Breakers had a 5-3 record as they hosted the Michigan Panthers (4-4) on May 1, 1983 at Nickerson Field. The Panthers had won three straight after a slow start, and scored the first touchdown when TE Don Echols recovered a fumble in the end zone. Boston scored 10 points in the second quarter as Walton passed to WR Nolan Franz for a 44-yard touchdown and Tim Mazzetti booted a 38-yard field goal. However, Michigan led 14-10 at the half thanks to a five-yard TD pass from QB Bobby Hebert to TE Mike Cobb.

The Panthers extended their lead to 21-10 in the fourth quarter as Hebert threw another TD pass, this one covering 47 yards to WR Anthony Carter. However, Walton drove the Breakers back into the lead with two touchdown throws to RB Anthony Steels that covered one and 13 yards, respectively. Boston had a 24-21 lead, but the storybook performance by Walton failed to have a happy ending; a shanked punt by Dario Casarino gave the Panthers good field position at the Breakers 43 yard line, and with under two minutes left to play, RB John Williams plowed over for a touchdown and the lead for the Panthers.

Walton and Boston still nearly pulled the game out. Taking possession at their own 22 yard line, the Breakers drove to the Michigan three. However, Boston was unable to stop the clock at that point and time ran out. The Panthers won, 28-24.

The veteran quarterback put on an impressive passing display in defeat, completing 37 of 48 passes for 423 yards with three TDs and no interceptions; the yardage figure was the highest of the ’83 USFL season. He also spread the ball around well, and several receivers had noteworthy performances: WR Frank Lockett and RB Richard Crump caught the most passes, with 8 apiece for 85 and 66 yards respectively, while Nolan Franz gained the most yards, 103, on six catches with the one TD. FB Tony Davis caught 6 passes for 65 yards, while veteran WR Charlie Smith (who had been a teammate of Walton’s with the NFL’s Eagles) had 4 catches for 75 yards. Anthony Steels, who caught the last two touchdown throws, had 5 receptions for 29 yards.

Michigan outgained the Breakers on the ground, 121 yards to 65, as RB Ken Lacy led the way with 55 yards on 16 carries and John Williams added 41 yards on 13 attempts, including the winning TD. Tony Davis, by contrast, led the Breakers with 26 yards on seven attempts.

Bobby Hebert completed 17 of 26 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns; like Walton, he had none picked off. Elite rookie Anthony Carter gained 77 yards on three catches with a TD while Mike Cobb led the club with 5 catches (for 53 yards).

There was plenty of sloppy play along the way, as the teams combined for 27 penalties (14 by Michigan, 13 by the Breakers for more yards).

Boston ended up with an 11-7 record, finishing in second place in the Atlantic Division. The Panthers surged to a 12-6 finish, and thanks to tiebreakers won the Central Division title over the Chicago Blitz. They also won the first USFL championship, defeating the Philadelphia Stars.

John Walton ranked first in the league in pass attempts (589), second in completions (330) and yards (3772), and tied for third in touchdown passes (20). However, it was the unheralded rookie, Bobby Hebert, ranking first among USFL passers in leading the Panthers to the title; he also topped the league in yards per attempt (7.9) and touchdown passes (27).