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Post Bye week diversion: the USFL

Thursday October 22, 2009

Since it’s a bye week, I’ll go off on a tangent inspired by Mike Tollin’s excellent look back at the USFL as part of ESPN’s 30 on 30 series. It’s been a nostalgic week for those who remember the league, and I even picked up on a few things – somehow I never knew Scott Woerner had a pro career, but there he was returning kicks in the USFL championship game.

Longtime readers and friends know that I grew up a North Carolina fan. Living in the state at the same time that Lawrence Taylor and Michael Jordan owned college sports made it a pretty easy decision for a young kid. (It wasn’t until I enrolled at Georgia that my conversion began, but years of antipathy towards Tech and Clemson made the transition easy.)

In that light, the USFL was one thing to me: Kelvin Bryant vs. Herschel Walker.

Walker needs no introduction, but it’s my “original sin” as a converted Georgia fan that Herschel was the bad guy for fans of Carolina and Kelvin Bryant. History remembers other Heisman winners George Rogers and Marcus Allen as Herschel’s peers, but Bryant had emerged as one of the nation’s top tailbacks in 1981 after being part of a backfield that produced a pair of 1,000 yard rushers in 1980. Injuries slowed him during his last two college seasons, but 15 touchdowns in 3 games to start the 1981 season showed his potential – he finished 1981 with over 1,000 yards despite missing half the season. He entered the 1982 season as a legitimate Heisman candidate and a rival of sorts to Walker.

That “rivalry” (I don’t recall any actual bad blood or anything) got turned up when both players became cornerstones of USFL franchises. Walker usually got the best of Bryant – even at the bank where Bryant was the league’s highest-paid player until Walker signed. Bryant downplayed the role of foil, but it was an inescapable story. Walker led the USFL in rushing in 1983 and 1985, but Walker splitting time with Maurice Carthon gave Bryant the upper hand in 1984. Bryant was the league’s MVP in 1983, and Walker won the award in 1985.

Both players went to the NFL in 1986 and left as the top two running backs in USFL history. Walker had the longer and more successful NFL career, but Bryant earned a Super Bowl ring with the Redskins in 1987 to go along with two USFL championships. Bryant could never shake the injury-prone label and eventually retired in 1990. For a kid who grew up as a fan of Bryant, those few years spent watching those two in the USFL were like watching Kobe vs. Lebron today. You couldn’t enjoy one without appreciating the other, and the competition made an otherwise pass-happy league that much better.

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