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A Review of Jeff Perlman’s Latest Book: Football for a Buck

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The NFL wasn’t always the 365 day a year juggernaut it is today. For those old enough to remember, there was also the USFL a rival league that exploded onto the scene in 1983 and, for a very brief time, legitimately went toe-to-toe with the NFL. The idea behind it was simple: 

Satisfy the craving felt by fans for football after the Super Bowl. 

The USFL attempted to provide fans a more exciting game with a talent level comparable to the NFL. Excessive touchdown and first down celebrations were encouraged. Games would be played in the spring to avoid having to compete with the NFL for fans and viewers. Remember, the NCAA basketball tournament was just starting to gain mainstream popularity in the early 1980s, and the NBA and NHL were still seen as something of a niche audience. In other words, it was easy to picture the landscape being right for all-year-round football.

The USFL would focus on a few smaller cities combined with several big markets and provide another opportunity for glory to local collegiate athletes who couldn’t quite find a roster spot in the NFL. Start small and use minor league baseball-style marketing techniques to gain a fan base, building from there.

As fast as the USFL rose to prominence however, after three years it was all over. It was done in by everything from con men to stadium rights issues,  bizarre uniform designs, questionable expansion plans, monsoons and blistering summer heat.

Then there was the coup de grâce … a disastrous plan helmed by owner of the New Jersey Generals (and the sitting President of the United States), Donald Trump, to move the fledging league from the spring to the fall and directly compete with the NFL

It’s all chronicled in ‘Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL.’ In telling it’s story, Jeff Pearlman has assembled easily the most riveting sports book I’ve read in years!

The book is loaded with stories of rampant drug use and fights on airline flights. Tales abound of players running to the bank to cash their paychecks before the money backing them ran out. Once an entire roster was traded for an entire roster because an owner didn’t feel like traveling to the home games. Seriously, that doesn’t even happen in fantasy football let alone a professional league!

Given the mayhem, it’s unbelievable how many Hall of Fame and All Pro caliber players came through the USFL. Legends such as Steve Young, Jim Kelly, and ‘The Minister of Defense’ Reggie White, all started their careers playing spring football. At one point NFL greats Walter Payton and Lawrence Taylor signed a futures contracts with USFL teams. I didn’t even mention Hershel Walker or Doug Flutie. Executives such as Carl Peterson and Bill Polian went on to become major players in NFL front offices. The USFL’s influence can still be felt in today’s NFL game. It helped push the NFL toward rule changes such as instant replay, challenges, and the two-point conversion.

Not only is this ‘Football for a Buck’ still amazingly relevant, it also serves as a fascinating retrospective even a generation after it imploded. As the NFL’s ratings and popularity dip and player salaries skyrocket, secondary football organizations such as the XFL and Alliance of American Football are about to reemerge. This book offers a fascinating cautionary tale to those young organizations.

Pearlman’s handling and pacing of the USFL’s chaotic three years is conveyed almost perfectly. There are so many anecdotes that it would have been easy for him to lose track of his narrative, but that trap was skillfully avoided. The book is a page turner that weaves together countless interesting personalities, football history, and just for good measure an anti-trust lawsuit to boot. That’s a tall order for any author. Thankfully Pearlman was up to the task.

This book will appeal to any sports fan, not just those familiar with the USFL’s history. For myself, taking a nostalgic trip down memory lane remembering my beloved Philadelphia Stars Championship was just a bonus. 

‘Football for a Buck’ presents an engrossing story that I just couldn’t put down.

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