Running with the Bulls
Fostoria graduate Johnson reflects on season in USFL
It’s been more than 30 years, but Joe Johnson still remembers the hit.
The Fostoria High School graduate was at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, playing for the Jacksonville Bulls of the United States Football League. It was the spring of 1985; Johnson had graduated from Notre Dame the previous January and was in his first pro season. He was the Bulls’ strong safety.
The Bulls opponents that day were the Generals, who were perhaps the troubled league’s most prominent team. They were owned by Donald Trump, and featured the league’s biggest star — tailback Herschel Walker.
Johnson was on the field to start the game. Walker was in the Generals’ backfield. On the second play from scrimmage, the tailback got the ball.
“Herschel Walker was coming around on a sweep,” Johnson said. “And I hit him. And I’m not sure if I hit him or he hit me, but I don’t remember. … I think it was a 13-play drive and I don’t remember one play after that. I stayed in the game, but I still could not remember one play.”
Being run into by Walker — one of the era’s most remarkable athletes — is not that notable. He did that to plenty of defenders.
But the story has a postscript.
Years later, the son of one of Johnson’s friends was watching an old interview with Walker. The Heisman Trophy winner was reminiscing about his career.
“And they asked Herschel, ‘What was one of the hardest hits you ever had,'” Johnson said, “and Herschel said, ‘ (It was by) some guy named Joe Johnson.'”
Joe Johnson’s name may not have been that familiar to Walker, but it is to people from this area who watched football in the early 1980s. Pat Magers, an Advertiser-Tribune contributor who has covered prep sports for 50 years, has said Johnson was the best high school player he has ever covered.
Johnson starred at Fostoria under legendary coach Dick Kidwell. From there, he went on to Notre Dame, where he had a standout career.
But it’s the one year Johnson spent as a professional athlete — his 1985 season with the USFL’s Jacksonville Bulls — that he focused on for this story.
The USFL was a spring football league that played from 1983 to 1985. Cleveland Browns fans may not realize a number of the team’s top players from the ’80s — fullback Kevin Mack, kick/punt returner Gerald McNeil, linebacker Mike Johnson and corner Frank Minnifield — got their starts in the USFL. The league also was the beginning of the pro careers of quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Steve Young, and marked the end for former NFL MVP Brian Sipe. Meanwhile, the league marked Trump’s short reign as a pro football owner — 32 years before he was elected president of the United States.
Author Jeff Pearlman has a new book out called “Football For a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL,” which is all about the league. It’s another strong piece of work from Pearlman, whose previous book topics have included Barry Bonds, the 1986 New York Mets and late Walter Payton.
“I didn’t know 98 percent of the stuff that was in the book,” Pearlman said in an interview earlier this week. “So, I just knew it was a league I wanted to write about, I didn’t realize all the craziness and the weirdness.”
Neither did Johnson, at least not in 1984, when he played his final season with the Irish. He said he knew he could play professionally. But at the same time, he was dealing with injuries.
“I was thinking NFL, because the USFL was just coming into play,” he said.
And while he knew he could play in the pros, Johnson said he wasn’t consumed by the notion.
“I’ll be honest with you. I did not live to play,” he said. “I think that football and athletics for me was … gave me an opportunity to do other things. So, that’s kind of how I looked at it. Football is something that I did. It’s not who I am.”
So how did Johnson end up in the USFL?
One phone call.
It came from Jim Johnson, Joe Johnson’s defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. Jim Johnson had recruited Joe –he beat out then-Ohio State assistant Nick Saban for him. Now, Joe Johnson’s former coach and recruiter was the Bulls’ defensive coordinator.
And he wanted Joe to join him.
“And, we had such a close relationship that to me, that was a no-brainer,” Joe Johnson said. “I respected him immensely. So that’s really why I went to the USFL, to the Jacksonville Bulls. Otherwise, I would have stayed and waited for the NFL draft.”
The Bulls were in their second season. They were an expansion team that played in the Gator Bowl, and the head coach was Lindy Infante. A few years later, Infante would be the Browns offensive coordinator, helping the Bernie Kosar-led offense to back-to-back AFC championship games. After that, he was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers.
“He was a great guy. A quiet guy, didn’t say much,” Johnson said. “But I think just a good coach.”
But the Bulls struggled to a 6-12 mark in ’84. Still, Pearlman said they were a USFL success story.
“I don’t think you have the Jaguars today if you don’t have the Bulls back in the ’80s,” he said. “They weren’t the best-run USFL team, but they were the team that generated the most support from a fan base. They consistently drew in excess of 40,000 fans. They weren’t always very good, but it was actually a really good lesson in how sometimes the best markets aren’t always the biggest markets.”
Johnson said the process from being a pro prospect to being a pro player moved quickly. When he got the call from the Bulls, he didn’t even have an agent. Notre Dame set him up with one.
“We flew down there two or three days after I got the call from coach Johnson,” he said. “We flew down to Jacksonville, and literally, signed (the) contract … and the next day I was on the practice field.”
And this created another problem. Johnson already was banged up from playing a full season at Notre Dame. The USFL played its games starting in March. He had no offseason.
“We went through training camp in January, February, we started playing, I’d say, early March. And, so I went playing 12 games at Notre Dame, and 18 games with the Jacksonville Bulls,” he said. “That’s 30 games in a year, and that has a toll on your body. But again, it was fun.”
Pearlman said it was common for USFL players to take a pounding.
“I mean, Herschel Walker, his last game in college was probably in January of ’83,” he said. “I think it was the Sugar Bowl, and then, in the spring starting in March, he started on the USFL schedule. A lot of these guys were playing an insane amount of games.
“For a lot of these guys, the number of games just beat the (heck) out of them,” Pearlman said. “I’ve talked to a lot of these guys, and they will tell you that they did some truly irreparable damage to their bodies by playing that much football.”
Then there were the field and practice area conditions.
“You go from Notre Dame,where you had top-tier facilities, to the USFL, and trailers — literally, trailers,” Johnson said. “Our practice field in the USFL was a cow pasture.”
Pearlman said it wasn’t like that for all USFL teams. But for many players, it was different than what they were used to.
“(USFL franchises) generally weren’t sharing with the NFL teams. The NFL teams weren’t really generous when it came to sharing facilities,” he said. “A lot of times, you were getting second-, third- and fourth-rate facilities. It’s interesting, guys coming from a Penn State, USC, Alabama, it was generally a step down when you went to the USFL. If you were coming from a Delaware, Bucknell, it was either comparable or a step up. But a lot of these guys, from the big colleges, were sort of walking into much shoddier facilities than they were used to.”
But it didn’t bother Johnson.
“We probably had better facilities at Fostoria, to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “But you know what? When you love the game, that stuff really doesn’t matter.”
What mattered to Johnson was going up against the LA Express’ Young or the Houston Gamblers’ Kelly. Or to be teammates with players like Sipe, lineman Keith Millard and another Heisman Trophy winner, Mike Rozier. He also was a teammate with wide receiver Gary Clark, who went on to win a pair of Super Bowls with the Redskins.
The Bulls were run by former Dolphins star Larry Csonka, and unlike much of the rest of the league, run well. Pearlman called the Bulls a “perfectly run USFL team.”
“And they weren’t a great team, but they were a fun team, and they were action-packed,” he said. “They really built the team wisely. Larry Csonka was the GM, really smart, knew the pro football landscape. … They weren’t doing what Trump did, which was make all these big splashes to get attention. They just wanted to build a decent organization.”
Trump’s Generals signed Sipe, and later, quarterback Doug Flutie. They got some attention.
Meanwhile, Johnson said his organization built a fan base.
“The big thing was, in my experience, were the fans,” he said. “The fans, again, wanted to see you win, but they were just happy to have a team. … We had a very good, strong following.”
But many franchises didn’t. And before Johnson had even set foot on a USFL field, the USFL owners — led by Trump — had decided to take on the NFL in the fall of 1986.
The league also filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. So, the league Johnson walked into in 1985 was unstable.
“It wasn’t really in a good place, because … the one thing … Trump had this idea, but he didn’t have a plan,” Pearlman said. “So, the idea was, ‘We’ll challenge the NFL and we’ll sue ’em and blah, blah, blah,’ but there was never any planning about how this would go down.”
And because of that, teams located in places such as Houston, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay were in trouble. They were left with nowhere to play — NFL teams owned the fall. A number of franchises chose to fold. Others merged.
That’s what happened to the Bulls. After Johnson helped the team to a 9-9 record, it was set to merge with the Denver Gold.
The Gold’s coach, Mouse Davis, was set to take over the Bulls. Johnson, meanwhile, was hurt. And tired.
“But (the franchise) had said, if you want to stay with the team, (during) the lawsuit, we’ll still pay you. So I took that option, because I needed to let my body rest,” Johnson said. “I could not have jumped into the NFL, that would have been another 14-15 games, and I just couldn’t have done it.”
And with that, Johnson’s pro football career ended.
There was no 1986 USFL season. The league won its lawsuit, but was awarded just $3 in damages. Soon after, the league closed its doors.
It’s tempting to believe that had the USFL stayed in the spring, it would have survived. Teams such as the Bulls and Tampa Bay Bandits had fan bases. The level of play was high — a number of Johnson’s teammates went on to successful NFL careers.
But Pearlman said he thinks its unlikely the league would have survived. In 1987, the NFL went on strike, which could have provided an opportunity for the USFL, but probably not to exist in its old form.
“I think it’s a longshot that it would still be here because, I think, ultimately the NFL would have absorbed a lot of teams,” Pearlman said. “Because, I think ’87, when you had the NFL strike with all the replacement players, that would have been complete football anarchy. It’s hard for me to imagine that if that happened — the USFL started signing NFL players and the NFL just stands there and lets it happen.”
As it was, some players got a shot at the NFL. Some became replacement players in the ’87 strike. And some, like Johnson, just moved on.
He went into financial services, finding success. He said his football career was a key to that.
“I think that my Notre Dame experience, my USFL experience, helped me develop a skill set that was very transferrable into corporate,” he said. “And, so, for me the transition, unlike some other athletes maybe, the transition wasn’t that difficult.”
Johnson was in wealth management for 22 years, rising all the way to a vice president for wealth management in the Washington market.
But he still had a fondness for Fostoria. In 2014, he and a group of friends opened ConnexionsInk, a custom apparel shop in the city.
“What we decided — me and a few of my high school friends — is, we decided to purchase this business just to keep some jobs in Fostoria,” he said. “For, me, that’s something that I kinda wanted to give back to Fostoria. The other side of it is I just enjoy coming back. I enjoy coming back to the small town, seeing my friends. It’s a little bit slower than DC or Atlanta. You can be at a stop sign and not hear a horn beep because the light turned green.”
Meanwhile, the USFL’s story faded away. But there’s been some renewed interest in it. There was an ESPN documentary in 2009 called “Small Potatoes” that was about the league. Pearlman’s book is a best-seller. And, of course, one of the former team owners — and the man many hold responsible for killing the league — now is president.
Also, there are new winter/spring leagues popping up. There’s the American Football Alliance, which starts this winter. And then, there’s the second attempt at the XFL by WWE head Vince McMahon. It is set to kick off in 2020, 19 years after the league’s disastrous one-year run in 2001.
Pearlman said those leagues are different than the USFL.
“I find it annoying when people are like, ‘Oh, like that was like the XFL.’ I’m like, ‘yeah, no,'” Pearlman said, “‘that was not like the XFL.’ Or they’ll be like, ‘It’s kind of like the new Alliance League that’s coming out.’ People don’t get it.
“The thing you say about the USFL initially, that gets people, is … they signed three straight Heisman Trophy winners right out of college,” Pearlman said. “And it’s the birthplace of Steve Young, Herschel Walker Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Sam Mills. You start naming the names, and it’s like, ‘Whoa.’ I like that people at least understand that this league was more than just an XFL before the XFL.”
For his part, Johnson insists the talent level in the USFL was — at least — comparable to the NFL.
“This is my opinion, obviously, but when you look at the NFL, or you look at, say, the USFL, I would probably say 80 percent, if not more, of the players in the USFL could have played in the NFL,” he said.
Like Herschel Walker. And Johnson left his mark on him.