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When Last Spotted, Valley Express Was Going Over the Hill

June 17, 1985|SCOTT OSTLER

You have to give the USFL credit. Unless you run a hotel, of course, in which case you insist on cash up front.

This is a league unafraid to use modern technology. The USFL not only uses instant replay to aid officials, but the commissioner's office also maintains radar tracking stations throughout the country to monitor the movement of its franchises.

The following exchange was lifted from a secret transcript of the day's log at USFL Radar Central Saturday.

Radar: Commissioner Usher! We've just lost the L.A. Express.

Harry Usher: Lost them indeed!

Radar: Yes sir. The team bus overshot the Coliseum and blipped off our screen somewhere in the vicinity of the Sherman Oaks Galleria.

Usher: We lost a team at an art museum?

Radar: No, sir, a mall. They passed it on the freeway, going about 80 m.p.h.

Usher: Who's in charge of that club?

Radar: Nobody, sir. You recalled the owner and you fired the coach.

Usher: Oh, yeah, John Hadl. But I let him stay on for the last three games. What do you think happened?

Radar: I don't know, sir. But according to our computer, the team bus seems to be headed into the Valley.

Usher: The Valley? Death Valley?

Radar: Not quite, sir. The San Fernando Valley. You know--home of Valley Girls.

Usher: Oh, fer shure.

I found the lost team late Saturday afternoon. It had wandered into Woodland Hills to play its final "home" game of the season at a place called Pierce College.

It was looking for an intimate atmosphere. Playing before 1,000 fans in the Coliseum is like shooting craps by throwing the dice into an empty swimming pool.

The Express was also looking for an owner. The Express is a puppy in a pet-store window, hoping to look cute so someone will buy it and take it home. All the players had their hair combed Saturday.

This was a desperation game for the team and the league.

It was also a tryout for Valley football fans. The league was giving Valfans a chance to demonstrate their love of professional football, to see if this remote area rates a franchise.

So the league gave the fans a stern test. It bussed in two dead-end teams for a meaningless end-of-season game at a rickety stadium with a gopher-hole field in 90-degree heat with no shade and no beer.

The Arizona Outlaws beat the Express, 21-10. Express officials estimated the crowd at 8,200. If the same person who estimated the crowd had estimated the final score, the Express would have won, 32-3.

Another Express estimate is that there are five legitimate prospective buyers for this orphan team. Presumably this means five separate prospective buyers, and not, say, the Jackson Five.

Supposedly, one or two of the prospective owners were in attendance Saturday. They had to like what they saw, this USFL-style extravaganza.

Pregame entertainment was a field-goal kicking contest between sportswriters. None was seriously injured. The American flag was marched onto the field by a color guard of Brownies and Girl Scouts. Halftime entertainment was some kids in a football-skills contest.

The game officials wore shorts. The Express Band didn't show up, having been fired about the time Hadl was. The lighted stadium scoreboard was unreadable in the bright sun.

The highlight of the afternoon was a major upset--the Express actually showed up for the opening kickoff.

With no owner, a lame-duck coach and funds cut off by league order, the team roster had dwindled to 31 semi-healthy players during the week. Last-minute scrambling beefed the squad up to 37, seven below the standard league roster.

This is a team that is re-writing "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."

Speaking of heart, the Express still has some. The players, working under conditions most high school players would find laughable, put up a decent fight.

Usher: Any sign of the Express yet, Radar?

Radar: No sir, but we think we've picked up the Portland Breakers.

Usher: Portland? Aren't the Breakers based in New Orleans?

Radar: No sir, that was last week. Anyway, we pinpoint their location to be on an iceberg drifting in the Bering Sea.

Usher: Make a note to send out a rescue ship a year from December. And keep looking for the Express.

Backup quarterback Mike Rae stood next to the team bus.

"We played our hearts out," Rae said. "We played our bleeps off."

Which suggests a team song, if the Express does move to Pierce College--"We Left Our Bleeps in San Fernando."

The last Express player boarded the charter bus. Bound for where? The destination sign on the front of the bus, seen from the inside, said "ACIREMA."

It was dark now as the bus pulled away. Express General Manager Don Klosterman stood in the gloom. No prospective owners had stepped forward to offer cash.

Still, Klosterman said of the Valley game, "It was a successful experiment. It indicates there is a market here."

The team-bus driver found that market and stopped so the players' beer coolers could be refilled.

Radar: Sir, we've just picked up the Express on the radar screen!

Usher: Good. Where are they headed?

Radar: It's hard to say, sir. The bus seems to be wandering, searching for something. The team seems to be, well, it seems to be going nowhere.

Usher: Remind me to send them a faster bus.

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