Thirty years ago today, the Washington Federals and the United State Football League debuted. I was pretty young, so I don’t remember too many specifics other than one of my older neighbors had his birthday party at a game and another one was still using a Federals key chain a decade later. I also remember green and white uniforms and somewhere in my parents attic, there is an old Post sports section with the story of SMU’s Craig James signing with the franchise. I would see that every year when we went up to get the Christmas stuff down. There is a USA Today sports section previewing the NFL conference championships, but I’m getting off topic.
The upstart spring football league had a national TV contract with ABC. Some of the first Federals game is posted on youtube:
That was Jim Lampley & Lee Corso on the call. The opposition was George Allen’s Chicago Blitz, so I’m sure the former Redskins coach’s appearance in RFK Stadium was a big storyline. I think Corso went on to coach in the USFL — maybe even the successor to the Feds, the Orlando Renegades.
WFY: Why were you a Washington Federals fan and what motivated you to start up the Federals tribute site?
DK: The Federals were just getting started the year the Redskins beat the Dolphins in the Super Bowl. I loved football and being a football fan. I was just in 10th grade, and my family didn’t have Redskins tickets, so I got Federals tickets and became a fan.
In 2001 my son and I went to a Birmingham Bolts XFL game, and I shared some memories of the Federals with him, which led me to building the Federals site.
WFY: How many Federals games did you attend? Did the stands ever rock like the did for the Redskins? What was the average home attendance of the Federals?
DK: The first year of 9 home games I went to 6 including the debut vs. Chicago and their first win vs. Michigan. The second year, of 9 home games, I went to 7, including the farewell vs. New Orleans. The stands never rocked for the Federals. You have to remember that the Feds home games were all played either in driving rain or scorching heat. There weren’t any nice spring days at the stadium except maybe in ’83 vs. Boston and a beautiful spring night in ’84 vs. New Jersey. I won’t speculate on “average home attendance” since the house was pretty frequently papered up.
WFY: Did the Federals receive much local coverage in print and broadcast during their stay?
DK: At first they did, there was a lot of excitement and interest since DC didn’t have baseball and the Redskins were on top of the world. As soon as the losing and foul weather set in, interest really tapered off. This was before the Internet, so you couldn’t follow the team except on ABC if you were lucky while they were showing the Herschel Walker Game of the Week, or if you caught George Michael at 11:30 on Channel 4. The Washington Times’ coverage of the Federals was much better than the Post’s; at that time the Times ran color photos every day, which was unique, and put a lot of effort into it.
WFY: Were the Federals able to develop any rivalries?
DK: Not really. The nearest team was Philadelphia, but they were just unbeatable. There was a sort-of rivalry with Chicago because of the George Allen connection. There was no Dallas team in the USFL, so a copycat rivalry wasn’t going to happen.
WFY: Other than Craig James, did any other Federals make it into the NFL? Has James subsequent broadcasting career brought shame to the legacy of the Feds?
DK: There were several Federals who made it into the NFL after they left the USFL. Obed Ariri played for Tampa Bay; Mike Hohensee, of course, was the “replacement” quarterback for the Bears during the ’87 strike; Reggie Collier was the replacement QB for the Cowboys. Joel Patten played for the Raiders; Kevin Kellin had a good career in the NFL; D.D. Hoggard played a number of years for the Browns.
I have a special place of loathing in my heart for Craig James, and not just because he is a hypocrite and thief. He took lots of money from Mr. Bernhard, played when he felt like it, quit as soon as he could, and then blamed the team for his bad performance in Washington, never mind that Billy Taylor and Curtis Bledsoe both had excellent years behind the same offensive line that Craig James couldn’t manage to work with. The whole fracas with his son in college is just more evidence that he’s a look-at-me guy with no backbone, and since he was just as much on the take as everyone else at SMU in those days, he ought to shut his stupid mouth. James’ time with the Feds is an embarrassment, but only to himself.
WFY: Some USFL teams have had reunions, have the Federals? Have any of them found your site?
DK: I have reached out to a number of ex-Feds like Kim McQuilken and Walker Lee, who scored the first TD in Feds history. Most of them speak fondly of the Feds and the USFL but clearly have moved on. There was a sort-of reunion in ’88 at a benefit for Gurnest Brown, who was having severe health issues and later passed away. I’ve been in contact with Mr. Bernhard and have an invitation to interview him about it the next time I’m in D.C.
WFY: Which version of the uniforms did you prefer, the white/green or the silver/green combo? Did they typically wear white or green at home?
DK: I never really cared for the silver/green/black combo. A lot of team events in ’84 still used the team’s ’83 uniforms and merchandise, like the press conference to introduce Reggie Collier had “1983 Inaugural Season” team pennants in the background.
In 1983, they wore white at home and away for the first part of the season because their green jerseys were delayed. For the rest of ’83 and all of ’84 it was green at home and white on the road.
For a while my site linked to a company called Ra Ja Sha, which made USFL memorabilia merchandise like jerseys and hats, but they folded after a year or so.
WFY: What was the high-water mark for the Federals? Was the owner calling them “trained gerbils” the low point?
DK: No, the low point was the ’84 game vs. Vince Evans and the Chicago Blitz at RFK. They would have won the game with a chip shot field goal – their kicker then was Jeff Brockhaus, who wasn’t bad. The holder, I think it was Dave Smigelsky, dropped the snap, dove on it, and the game was over. I don’t think Smigelsky would have been able to do anything with the ball if he’d picked it up and tried to make something happen, but still, it’s the last play of the game! You’re a professional football player! Don’t just FALL ON THE BALL with ZERO ON THE CLOCK and you’re LOSING!!!
The official USFL retrospective video has a whole section on how bad the Federals were. They called Feds fans “Impervious to the obvious.” That’s embarrassing.
The high point was the Friday Night Surprise in ’84 against Brian Sipe, Herschel Walker and the New Jersey Generals. Greg Taylor returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, from somewhere they came up with a 98-yard scoring drive, and they won the game. The weather was perfect, cool and dry; the stadium was pretty full with Donald Trump’s traveling all-star show in town; the Federals showed up ready to play. That was the high point.
WFY: How tough was it for you when you found out the Federals were moving away?
DK: Not tough at all. It was understood that Mr. Bernhard had lost his shirt, so to speak, and couldn’t endure the financial losses any more. The writing was on the wall, and the first sale of the team, to Sherwood Weiser in Miami, was actually announced before the ’84 season was over. At the farewell game everyone knew it was over. They won the game over New Orleans on a drizzly gray day. Afterward the players started throwing equipment to the fans in the stands; I almost caught Dave Pacella’s helmet – and we all knew it was over. Weiser was going to move the team to Miami, but that deal fell through, and eventually they were sold to the guy from Orlando who moved them to Florida and renamed them the “Renegades.”
WFY: Where else online can we learn more about the USFL?
DK: There is a pretty good site called RememberTheUSFL which covers the entire league. Wikipedia should be avoided; like all crowdsourced media, it’s full of nonsense.
AFTER YOU CHECK OUT KENDRICK’S FEDS SITE
It Was Up, Up And No Way – Sports Illustrated (May 14, 1984)
“For the hapless Washington Federals, the USFL ain’t what it used to be”