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Printed June 13, 2010



When they were Gamblers

Houston’s USFL team was known for its high-flying offense, and the reunited player swear they could’ve taken the Oilers

Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle

June 13, 2010

Twenty-five years after their salad days as the wide-open, high-scoring, run-and-shoot scourges of the USFL, the 1984-85 Houston Gamblers returned Saturday afternoon to Richmond Avenue.

With old haunts like Confetti's and the Fizz having long ago bitten the dust, about three dozen former players, coaches and front office personnel convened at Dave & Buster's on the Richmond strip, a favorite years ago for team gatherings after practice at Bayland Park's Fun Stadium.

They returned as teachers, businessmen and coaches, joined by a genuine football Hall of Famer — quarterback Jim Kelly, who went to four Super Bowls in his post-Gamblers career with the Buffalo Bills — to recall the days when they, not the Oilers, arguably were the best pro football team in town.

"I offered (Oilers owner) Bud Adams a million dollars if they would play us," said Gamblers owner Jerry Argovitz. "He would pick his charity, and I would pick mine, and if he won, I would pay a million to his charity, and if we won he would pay a million to mine.

"I felt pretty good about our odds. After all, we were gamblers."

The game never came off, which probably was a good thing for the Oilers. As part of the USFL, which played in the spring of 1983 through 1985 before an ill-advised attempt to move to the fall led to its demise, the Gamblers were the state of the art in offensive football with assistant coach Mouse Davis' run-and-shoot, powered by Kelly and his receivers — the Mouseketeers, including future NFL star Ricky Sanders, Richard Johnson and Gerald McNeil.

'Filled a void'

Saturday's reunion was organized by Scott Boucher, an offensive lineman for the Gamblers who now works as a motivational speaker, and Anthony Nuñez, a Gamblers fan during his high school days who went on to become a police officer and three years ago launched HoustonGamblers.com to honor his favorite team.

"The Gamblers filled a void," Nuñez said. "They were winners right out of the gate. They brought a lot of excitement. As a 13-year-old kid, I really appreciated their style of football, with Jim Kelly throwing for 5,000 yards a season. It was exciting to watch that wide-open style of football."

Like some other USFL teams, the Gamblers had a strong regional flavor. The roster was filled with former Texas and Louisiana high school and college players, many of whom remained in Houston after their playing days, and coached by a genuine legend of Texas football, Jack Pardee.

Pardee, who drove in from his Central Texas ranch with his wife, Phyllis, for Saturday's event, was a stranger to the run-and-shoot but adapted it for his later coaching stops at the University of Houston and the early 1990s Oilers.

"Good players for us weren't necessarily the same guys the NFL was trying to get," he said. "We could get players for that. They weren't toe-to-toe, slug-it-out, blood on your face guys, but they were good at what they did.

"It was a great experience. We didn't have the spoiled players, the prima donnas. The guys we got were glad to be there and glad to have a chance. When I was coaching the Redskins, every once in awhile you'd have to take Maalox on the way to work and the way back. With the Gamblers, I didn't need it."

Proving them wrong

Kelly became the face of the franchise, but, as he recalled, he came to the Gamblers with some severe question marks about his ability to compete as a pro.

"You may recall that I didn't play my senior year in college because I blew my shoulder out, and they said I would never play again," Kelly said. "I missed almost two years of football, but the Gamblers gave me a chance to get back and learn to read defense and throw the football. I knew I could throw and wanted to throw, and what better opportunity than the run-and-shoot.

"We had a head coach in Jack Pardee who knew how to speak to us and to relate to us, and we had assistant coaches like Bob Young and Mouse Davis, who was almost like a father to me. Jerry Argovitz, our owner, was a bit of a gunslinger and a gambler himself, so it all worked out pretty well."

Kelly's post-football career has been dominated by his work with the Hunter's Hope Foundation, which he and his wife, Jill, established in honor of their late son, Hunter. Hunter Kelly was born with Krabbe disease, a degenerative disorder that affects the myelin sheath of the nervous system, and died at age 8.

Proceeds from a silent auction and an autograph session Saturday benefited Kelly's charity, which in recent years, he said, has involved working with groups around the country to increase the efficiency of medical screening for newborns.

"We have had legislation changed in so many states," he said. "When you have a young couple walk up holding their baby and say their baby is alive because of your foundation making sure our state upped the ante on screening, it's so rewarding."

The league's demise

While Kelly and a few other former players came in from other states Saturday, the trip to Dave and Buster's was a short drive for many, including some who hadn't seen each other for years even while living in Houston. They spent the day catching up on old times and answering questions about the two most common conversations about the USFL and the Gamblers: Who killed the USFL, and how would the Gamblers have fared against the Oilers?

On the first question, there was general consensus that Donald Trump, the owner of the New York Generals and the prime force behind the ill-fated decision to try to go head-to-head with the NFL, was the reason for the league's demise.

"One guy — Donald Trump," said former lineman Tony Fitzpatrick, who became an assistant coach after his playing days and today works in industrial sales in the Houston area. "If we had stayed in the spring, we could have kept growing, and maybe they would have brought a couple of teams into the NFL.

"We didn't make much money, but people in Houston loved the Gamblers because they played exciting football, and they won. We had guys like Todd Fowler, who wore a T-shirt that said, 'Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out.' He was a tough country boy."

Former linebacker Kiki DeAyala, who played for Memorial High School and the Texas Longhorns and played with the Bengals after the USFL, said the springtime league bred leaders and achievers.

"When you join an NFL team, you've got veterans there and you're basically a rookie," he said. "In the USFL, you were expected as a rookie not just to contribute but to play well, to start and to help lead the team. I think that's why a lot of USFL guys had good careers afterward, because from the start you were expected not only to play but excel."

Pardee, who coached in both leagues, said the top tier of the USFL would have fit in the middle range of the 1980s NFL, and the Gamblers certainly would have made short work of the Oilers.

"We would have won that one," said Sanders, who went from the Gamblers to star for the Washington Redskins. "We had the players."

For about 20 NFL veterans from the 1970s and early '80s, the USFL represented one last hurrah before life after football. A dozen saw limited action as replacement players during the 1987 NFL players strike.

Only a handful, including Fowler, who joined the Dallas Cowboys, receiver Gerald McNeil, who played for the Browns, receiver Richard Johnson, who had a 1,000-yard season for the Lions in 1989, and defensive back Clarence Verdin, who played through 1994, lasted into the 1990s, and only Kelly and Sanders, who had 6,477 receiving yards and 37 career TDs, had significant, long-term NFL success.

In most cases, two years at Fun Stadium represented the most fun the Gamblers would have as professional football players before moving into coaching, sales, real estate or motivational speaking.

Boucher, the motivational speaker in the group, said he hopes this first team reunion serves as, naturally, motivation for his former teammates.

"Three months ago, I thought this would be a couple of guys at a hamburger place. This has far exceeded that," he said. "Today was to be a day of hope and encouragement. These guys played football in the '80s, and this is halftime for a lot of players. They'll leave here with desire and encouragement that will carry over into the second half of life, and that's what I wanted from this."