As the USFL restarts, a look back at the Washington Federals’ wild ride

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Before the Washington Federals even played a game, the writing was on the wall.

DC’s United States Football League franchise returned home from its first training camp in Jacksonville, Fla., still needing to overcome numerous barriers, including the fence around its practice field outside RFK Stadium.

“We had a padlock on it, and we had to hop over the fence, climb the fence to get onto the practice field,” former running back Craig James recalled. “We should have known.”

Almost four decades after the USFL made its debut, the league returns this weekend with a full slate of games. Headlined by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, the first USFL also played a spring schedule and was the last league to give the NFL a run for its money. The new league features many of the original teams — the New Jersey Generals, Birmingham Stallions, Philadelphia Stars — but not the Federals, a hapless franchise both on and off the field, the kind of squad no league would want to revive or replicate.

“That team was just a s—show,” said Jeff Pearlman, author of the 2018 book “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL.” “It was just a total s—show. They were poorly organized, poorly run, poorly managed. Fans didn’t care.”

The franchise had hoped to catch on in a football-crazed region and build on the popularity of the burgeoning Washington Redskins dynasty. The Federals, debuting in green, black and white with an eagle logo, failed to interest local fans, stumbling every step of the way to become the league’s worst team in their unique two-year run.

“They were just a very, very, very bad football team made out of a draft choice here and a spare part there, kind of one of those taxi cabs you see that’s made of 16 different other cars,” said David Remnick, the present -day editor of the New Yorker who covered the Federals for The Washington Post.

USFL rosters were mainly composed of NFL castoffs with some promising rookies sprinkled in. For the Federals, that meant some players lived on the fringe of the NFL while others were tiptoeing on the fringe of society. James, one half of SMU’s “Pony Express” backfield tandem that also included future Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson, would have been a first-round pick in the NFL. With the Federals, he shared a locker room with dreamers and misfits alike, including a fellow running back named Buddy Hardeman who was arrested and charged with assaulting a DC police officer just three days after the team’s first game.

“Sometimes I said, you know, half my teammates just got out of prison and the other half were heading toward prison,” James joked in a recent interview.

Perhaps pairing a strait-laced 22-year-old star with a 32-year-old barhopping quarterback three years removed from the NFL as roommates was not the best decision. But that’s exactly what Federals Coach Ray Jauch did with James and Kim McQuilken.

James recalled meeting McQuilken for the first time during training camp at the team’s Jacksonville hotel.

“He walks in late at night, and he opens the door,” James said. “I turn the light on, and I meet him for the first time. And he’s an old man. He’s 32 years old. I’m like, ‘This is an old man I’m with here.’ I should’ve known. I did quickly come to understand that it was a very poor strategy on [the Federals’] part because all McQuilken taught me to do was how to break curfew. He was really good at that. This old veteran, he had partying on his mind about him and I was trying to play football.

Billy [Kilmer] introduced me to all the bartenders in Georgetown,” McQuilken said, “and I introduced Craig James to all the same bartenders in Georgetown.”

Jauch, who made the jump to the USFL as the fourth-winningest coach in Canadian Football League history, had a rather cavalier approach to coaching, according to McQuilken.

“He would show up for practice, and he would have his golf clubs in the back of his car,” McQuilken said. “Every once in a while he’d pull out a golf club and swing a golf club. I vividly remember times when practice was over… where Ray would say he was going to play golf. And he left the assistant coaches like [offensive coordinator] Dick Bielski to conduct the meetings. That, to me, set the bar in terms of respect.”

Five weeks after Joe Gibbs helped bring the District its first professional football championship in 40 years, the Federals would make their debut against the Chicago Blitz and George Allen, the legendary Redskins coach making his return to the stadium he called home from 1971 to 1977.

“Ray Jauch was looking for spies,” a March 1, 1983, Washington Post article began. “In search of George Allen’s agents of terror and espionage at the Federals’ first workout here yesterday, I pointed to a dark tower looming above the RFK Stadium practice field.”

“’I thought I saw someone climb up there,’ ” the Washington coach said. “The tower, though, was free of human presence.”

Jauch should have trusted his instincts. The week of their season opener, Allen sent two Blitz employees to Washington, according to Pearlman’s book. The men, wearing yellow USFL staff windbreakers, said they were league film crew personnel and were given free rein to record the Federals’ practice.

“We knew every play they were running,” a Blitz assistant coach later told Pearlman. “There were no surprises.”

The Federals lost their inaugural game, 28-7, in front of a national television audience and more than 38,000 curious souls who made the trip to RFK. It was another sign of things to come.

“That first Federals game was a huge deal,” Pearlman said. “…And then they just got their asses kicked, and that was it. They never recovered from that first game. Never.”

Beset by a 10-game losing streak, the Federals finished the 1983 season 4-14. Nothing seemed to go right, on or off the field.

James recalled one particularly low moment when the team bus broke down and the players were stranded on the side of the road, struggling to hail cabs in full uniform.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, what in the world are we doing here?’ James said.

The Federals’ colorful cast of characters proved to be unconventional and unpredictable — and it wasn’t just the players. Trying to get his team’s attention, Jauch turned to motivational techniques not found in most coaching manuals.

Guard Myke Horton and defensive back Don Burrell routinely took out their frustrations on each other throughout the 1983 season, disrupting practice with their scuffling and jawing. Jauch saw an opportunity. In the middle of one practice, as Burrell and Horton went at it again, the coach put himself between them. Reaching into the right pocket of his green jacket, he pulled out a gun and barked, “I’ve had enough of this!”

“And he pulls out the blanks, and he shoots both of them,” former wide receiver Joey Walters recalled. “And then you just freeze then, like, ‘What in the world did he do?!’ … They carried it on well. Maybe they should have gone into [acting] or something. I can remember that like that was yesterday.”

Jauch, Burrell and Horton were in cahoots. The feuding players remained on the ground for a few seconds before getting up with the entire team bursting out in laughter. The tension was officially broken.

And as it turned out, Horton’s future was in front of a camera. Years later, the hulking lineman morphed into “Gemini” on the hit TV game show “American Gladiators.”

‘A group of untrained gerbils’

Despite entering 1984 with hopes of improving on a disastrous first season, Washington’s sophomore campaign somehow turned out even worse, as the Federals finished 3-15.

The team’s 1984 opener against the expansion Jacksonville Bulls was even more humiliating than its 1983 debut and set the tone for what became its final season in DC After a 53-14 loss, the Federals’ primary owner, Berl Bernhard, compared his team to “a group of untrained gerbils.”

Jauch was fired three days later and replaced by Bielski, his offensive coordinator, who had played and coached in the NFL.

“I wanted that job like I wanted a disease,” Bielski told Pearlman. “F—, the team couldn’t put out for a decent pair of sweat socks. I’d been in the NFL for 21 years, and now I was in the minors. It was horses—.”

The Federals were tasked with charting their own path in the shadows of a new NFL dynasty but failed to meet those expectations in spectacular fashion. Over the first two USFL seasons, the Federals managed a league-worst 7-29 record, while their fellow RFK Stadium tenants went 22-3 in the preceding seasons.

Fan interest had peaked with the Federals’ 1983 season opener. Enthusiasm quickly dwindled as pouring rain spoiled almost every 1983 home game and the bumbling play failed to rouse many repeat customers.

“Being in Washington with the Redskins, that’s a tough environment to come in there and try to steal some fans,” former quarterback Mike Hohensee said. “We needed to have more success than we did. Maybe if we had more success early on, maybe we would have put a lot more people out in the stands because it is a good football town.”

“There was really nothing set up that would have said we were going to have success,” James said. “We could have had the Redskins’ coaching staff come over and coach us — I don’t think we were going to win football games.”

Late in the season, Bernhard agreed to sell the Federals to South Florida real estate developer Sherwood “Woody” Weiser, who planned to play in the Orange Bowl as the Spirit of Miami with Howard Schnellenberger as coach. However, the sale fell through when the league announced — at the behest of then-Generals owner Donald Trump — that it would compete directly with the NFL and stage its season in the fall. The Federals were eventually sold to businessman Don Dizney that October and rebranded as the Orlando Renegades. The Renegades carried on the Federals’ losing tradition, managing a 5-13 record in 1985, which would be the final season of USFL 1.0.

What the Federals lacked in talent, they made up for in personality. Looking back almost 40 years later, the players who experienced the wild ride say getting to play the game they love with teammates they appreciated they helped mask the on-field failures and off-field drama.

“It was a lot of fun,” McQuilken said. “We got paid. We played in the Redskins’ stadium. It was big time. It felt like the NFL. I know not all the USFL teams had that experience, but it felt like the NFL. We were just a poorly stocked team. We didn’t have a great, deep roster. We didn’t have some of the talent other teams had. But it was a great experience.”

“My experience was good,” Walters said. “The only bad experience I had: We didn’t win. We didn’t win. That overshadows everything else.”

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