Forty years ago today, one of the only true threats to the the National Football League ended its inaugural season with it’s initial championship game.
And a Mississippi Gulf Coast native was a big part of that historic affair.
Pascagoula’s Chuck Commiskey was a starting offensive guard for the Philadelphia Stars on July 17, 1983 in Denver at legendary Mile High Stadium when the Michigan Panthers won the first title tilt of the United States Football League 24-22.
Commiskey actually played in all three USFL championship games, winning the final two with the Stars under the guidance of head coach Jim Mora. Mora would move to the NFL as head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 1986, and bring Commiskey with him as well as Stars teammate Sam Mills and Bobby Hebert who led the Panthers to that USFL title 40 years ago as Michigan’s quarterback by throwing for three touchdown passes against the Stars.
“It’s always been pretty neat to look back on it and realize that we were a part of professional sports history in this country,” Commiskey, who started several seasons at guard for the Saints after coming over from the USFL said. He spoke in an exclusive interview with 228Sports over the weekend from his home in New Orleans.
The NFL has long been one of the most dominant brands in sports in the entire civilized world.
So much so, that in the movie “Concussion”, which focuses on a forensic pathologist who fights takes on the NFL for trying to suppress his research on brain injuries suffered by professional football players, Will Smith is warned by Albert Brooks “The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it’s theirs.”
Serious challengers to the monolith have been few and far between, and none other were as serious of a threat as was the original USFL in 1983 since the merger of the AfL and NFL in 1966.
Even though the USFL was played in the Spring, it challenged the NFL in the 1980s because it was able to sign top players from the college game. The biggest of those names was Heisman Trophy winner Hershel Walker, with others being Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Gary Zimmerman, Mike Rozier and Doug Flutie, the latter of those two also won Heisman Trophies.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that the USL was a major threat to the NFL and one like none other perhaps there has ever been,” Commiskey, who started on the offensive line at Ole Miss after finishing up at Pascagoula Highand was originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL, added. “It was a league full of young stars and veteran players that the league had brought over from the NFL. Throughout those three years, there was some real quality football played.”
Kelly, White, Young Zimmerman and Mills all went on to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Well over 500 players that either started their playing careers in the USFL or finished in that league also played in the NFL.
Many in the business credit the USFL for spiking the salaries for future players in the NFL, including Irv Eatman who was one of Commiskey’s fellow offensive linemen with the Stars who went on to play over a decade in the NFL.
“Every NFL player that’s getting paid right now ought to thank the USFL,” Eatman said, in a 2003 interview with ESPN concerning the 20th anniversary of the start of the USFL. “That’s where it started to proliferate.”
In the same interview, yet another standout Stars offensive lineman agreed.
“Track the league’s average salary and see what happens in 1984,” Bart Oates, who became a Pro Bowl center for the New York Giants, said. “Put it on a chart and watch it spike.”
Also, many coaches and team executives that were a part of the USFL also were vital in the NFL as well such as Mora, George Allen, Steve Spurrier, Marv Levy, Bill Polian and Sid Gillman, just to name a few.
Mora, Commisey and Mills all went on to lead the Saints to the franchise’s first-ever berth in the NFL playoffs in 1987.
“It was an exciting time, and that league certainly helped open doors for me in continuing to go on and play in the NFL,” Commiskey concluded. “I think it definitely made it’s mark in the history of pro football. And even though it was around for just a short period of time, that doesn’t take away from the talent and leadership that evolved from it.”