It was billed as the San Fernando Valley Experiment, but Steve Young saw it for what it really was: an act of desperation.
Twenty-five years ago this week, in an effort to attract fans and perhaps entice a potential buyer, Young and the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League vacated their cavernous Coliseum home to play their final home game of the 1985 season at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.
Another future Super Bowl most valuable player, Doug Williams, was quarterback of the opposition, the Arizona Outlaws, in what turned out to be the Express' final home game — period.
"I remember Doug was like, 'What have we gotten ourselves into here? '" Young says of the humbling experience, a clear indication the USFL was on its last legs. "I was used to it."
The rudderless Express, in its third season, was operating on a shoestring budget, its daily operations assumed by the league after the team burned through four owners in three years. Its innumerable creditors were owed millions of dollars.
Veteran personnel man Don Klosterman had gathered a group of players hailed as potentially the best young team ever assembled, future Pro Football Hall of Famers Young and offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman among them. The Express, however, had failed to secure a toehold in the competitive Southern California sports market, which still included the Rams and Raiders.
The team drew embarrassingly minuscule crowds at the Coliseum, then-Times columnist Scott Ostler noting that "playing before 1,000 fans in the Coliseum is like shooting craps by throwing the dice into an empty swimming pool."
To make matters worse, injuries ravaged the roster, but the league wouldn't allow for replacement players.
It was amid this uncertainty that professional football landed on a pockmarked field at a junior college in the Valley.
Young, though, says the Express almost didn't show. Their bus driver, he says, told Young and his teammates they'd be going nowhere unless they paid him on the spot — in cash.
Before reluctantly pooling their money, Young recalls, "Three-quarters of the guys were like, 'Let's not even go. '"
Upon arrival, they blanched anew.
"When we pulled up," Young notes, "we're like, 'What kind of crazy idea is this?' It was like, 'Who would choose to come up to what is basically a high school? That doesn't send the right message.' So it was weird. It was baffling."
Williams claims he was unmoved.
"At Grambling," he says, laughing, "we practiced on sand and dirt, you know what I mean? That's where I come from. You had more grass on that field than we had at Grambling."
In 90-degree heat, with no shade and no beer, the game drew an estimated crowd of about 8,200, well short of the capacity of 15,000 but nearly double what the Express had averaged in its previous three games at the Coliseum.
Because of injuries, only 37 players suited up for the home team, seven fewer than the standard league roster. Only one, Tony Boddie, was a running back.
Pregame entertainment, if you could call it that, was a field-goal kicking contest between sportswriters.
"None," Ostler noted, "was seriously injured."
The lighted stadium scoreboard was unreadable in the bright sun. For a locker room, the Express used a tiny, dusty shed that more closely resembled a greenhouse.
The Outlaws won, 21-10, on a field dotted with holes that had been filled with sand and painted green on top.
Williams, who had bolted for the USFL after a bitter contract dispute with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, told reporters afterward, "I thought I left all this behind when I left high school."
Young, holding his postgame news conference atop a mound of dirt, also referenced his high school days, saying he'd half-expected cheerleaders to decorate the team bus.
The left-hander, of course, recovered from the sobering sojourn to become a two-time most valuable player with the San Francisco 49ers, but the San Fernando Valley Experiment left an impression.
"There wasn't anybody who played in that game that didn't wonder, 'What have we done?'" Young says. "We'd all played at big colleges, we all knew the score. I think everybody was just disappointed that whoever was in charge had let it come to this. We had some pride in what the USFL had done, so it was sad … because it didn't have to turn out this way."
Express publicist Herb Vincent called it disconcerting.
"Everybody saw the handwriting on the wall," he says from Baton Rouge, La., where he's a senior associate athletic director at Louisiana State. "Everything was collapsing around us."
A week later, with Young lining up at running back for a handful of plays, the Express lost its season finale at Orlando, Fla., finishing with a 3-15 record. In September, Young bought out his contract and signed with the Buccaneers.
Meanwhile, no one stepped forward to buy the Express.
A year later, after the USFL collapsed, Williams signed with the Washington Redskins. In 1988, he was the Super Bowl MVP. Later, until last month, he was a Buccaneers executive.
Young is an ESPN broadcaster.
He and Williams never played against each other again.