June 15, 2011

1985: Outlaws Defeat Express at Pierce College

As the 1985 United States Football League season neared completion, the Los Angeles Express franchise was in critical condition. J. William Oldenburg, who purchased the team prior to the 1984 season, was forced to surrender it back to the league, and GM Don Klosterman was running the club while frantically assisting the USFL to find a buyer. The colorful Oldenburg had caused plenty of excitement and poured money (too much money, it turned out) into the franchise during his brief tenure – most notably a contract worth over $40 million to rookie QB Steve Young.

The Express had never been a good draw while playing at the huge Memorial Coliseum (they bottomed out by drawing a combined 12,629 for their last three games there), and the final home game, on June 15 against the Arizona Outlaws, was moved to 16,000-seat John Shepard Stadium at Pierce College in Woodland Hills. The team, coached by John Hadl, had lost six straight games and was barely remaining viable due to lack of money. As a result of injuries and the inability to sign replacements, LA fielded only 37 players for the game, including two kickers, with Tony Boddie (pictured above) the only healthy running back.

There were just 8200 fans in attendance at the small facility. The stadium had added temporary bleachers and the scoreboard showed the team names written with felt marker on paper, adding to the sense of decline. “It was humbling,” said Young. “I almost expected the cheerleaders to dress up our team bus like they did in high school.” (Alas, even the club’s cheerleading squad had been disbanded as a cost-cutting measure)

The visiting team was a union of two clubs that played as the Arizona Wranglers and Oklahoma Outlaws in 1984. Coached by Frank Kush, the offense boasted a seasoned veteran quarterback with NFL experience, Doug Williams, and RB Reggie Brown, who paced the ground attack. Arizona was 7-9 coming into the contest and out of playoff contention.

The Outlaws opened the scoring midway through the first quarter as Williams threw to a diving WR Greg Anderson for a 23-yard touchdown. However, the extra point attempt failed and the score stood at 6-0 after one period of play.

LA’s Tony Zendejas kicked a 50-yard field goal to put the Express on the board in the second quarter. Luis Zendejas, Tony’s brother and counterpart as placekicker for Arizona, responded with a 22-yard field goal to make the score 9-3 at the half.

Luis Zendejas booted another field goal, of 27 yards, in the third quarter before the Express scored a touchdown on a one-yard run by Boddie. With the score at 12-10, it seemed as though Los Angeles might pull out a win in its home finale. But two fourth quarter personal foul penalties proved disastrous for the Express. The first ended a drive by the offense at the Arizona 46. The second, on defense, helped prolong a possession by the Outlaws that culminated in Brown’s one-yard TD five plays later.

Reggie Brown’s touchdown with 4:45 left in the game made the score 18-10 (an attempted two-point conversion failed) and, for all intents and purposes, nailed down the win. Luis Zendejas capped the scoring with his third field goal of the game, of 20 yards, with just under five minutes left on the clock and the final tally was 21-10 in favor of the Outlaws.

Arizona gained 129 yards on 34 running plays and 250 yards through the air while Los Angeles ran the ball 24 times for 102 yards and netted 125 passing yards. The Outlaws also had the edge in first downs (19 to 13), although they had to overcome five turnovers (to three by LA).

Reggie Brown ran for 99 yards on 26 carries including a TD, and thus crossed the thousand-yard threshold for the season (he ended up with 1031 for the year, along with 12 rushing TDs). Doug Williams completed 15 of 29 passes for 250 yards with the one TD and two interceptions. Greg Anderson caught 5 passes for 109 yards and a score.

Tony Boddie led LA in both rushing and receiving with 73 yards on 18 carries and 4 catches for 44 yards. Steve Young contributed 29 yards to the ground total while running five times and also threw 25 passes, completing 13 of them, for 125 yards with no TDs and two interceptions.

GM Klosterman accented the positive and expressed encouragement with the turnout at the small venue. “For me, this (turnout) provides light at the end of the tunnel for prospective owners that wasn't there at the Coliseum,” he said. “But nothing's going to happen until after we find an owner, and I can't promise there's going to be anybody.” In the end, no new owner was ever found, and the USFL folded in any case.

“With these big, professional guys on that tiny field ...I don't know, it seemed kind of weird,” summed up Young after the game. “I don't mean to make fun of the efforts of anybody, though, and I guess these (spectators) were excited. Even under the circumstances, I still had fun.” In the offseason, Young bought out of the huge contract and moved on to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

John Hadl and his staff had already been told they would be let go after the finale in Orlando, which ended up being a loss that put the cap on a dismal 3-15 season. The Express finished up at the bottom of the Western Conference, while the Outlaws, who also lost their last game, came in fourth with an 8-10 record.