Remembering The Saints/USFL Connection
The old USFL played a part in the New Orleans Saints have their first winning season, playoff berth, and many successful seasons.
I'm talking about the Saints and the USFL (United States Football League), because the Pro Football Hall of Fame will now recognize the defunct league with an exhibit slated to open later this summer that will show off the USFL’s championship trophy.
Also on display will be other from the league, which played three seasons from 1983 to 1985.
That's a good thing, as many, like I, have fond memories of the old league.
Because of the recent news of the soon to be USFL exhibit at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I decided to go back in time and look back at not only the league, but how it affected the Saints.
I loved the USFL, who had three champions; the Michigan Panthers, the Philadelphia Stars, and then the Stars again, who had moved to Baltimore.
The Saints benefitted from the demise of the league, as Jim Mora, who coached the Stars to two championships, coached the Saints to their first winning season and playoff berth.
Middle linebacker Sam Mills played for Mora in the USFL, before being a fixture with the Saints. He was a member of the "Dome Patrol", who earned four Pro Bowl appearances with the Saints, and is a member of the Saints Hall of Fame.
The Saints also had success in the USFL supplemental draft, which helped them have an outstanding team in the late 80's/early 90's.
Let's take a look at what that draft was all about, and who the Saints drafted:
In 1984, in an attempt to head off a bidding war in the league for the services of players from the USFL and CFL, the NFL held a supplemental draft.
The three-round draft, consisting of 224 players, was for college seniors who would have been eligible for the 1984 NFL Draft, but had already signed with USFL or CFL teams.
84 players were selected, including 76 from the USFL, and 8 from the CFL.
With the top pick, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Los Angeles Express quarterback Steve Young, before the Houston Oilers selected Pittsburgh Maulers running back Mike Rozier with the second pick.
Young went on to have an NFL Hall of Fame career with the San Francisco 49ers, joining Express guard Gary Zimmerman, who was selected by the New York Giants with the third pick, and Memphis Showboats defensive end Reggie White, who was take fourth by the Philadelphia Eagles, as three future Hall of Famers selected with the top four picks of the draft.
The New Orleans Saints, like all 28 of the NFL teams at the time, had three picks in the supplemental draft, and wound up taking a linebacker who became part of one of the more successful units of all-time, a running back/return man who had a long career, and a linebacker who never played for the team.
In the first round of the supplemental draft, with the 15th-overall pick, the Saints selected Jacksonville Bulls linebacker Vaughn Johnson.
Johnson, who played his college football at North Carolina St,. became part of the "Dome Patrol" linebacking unit with the Saints, along with Pat Swilling, Rickey Jackson, and Sam Mills.
In eight seasons with New Orleans, Johnson was a four-time Pro Bowler, from 1989-1992, and accumulated 664 tackles from his middle linebacker spot.
In 2011, Johnson was selected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
In the second round of the supplemental draft, with the 42nd pick overall, the Saints selected Express running back Mel Gray.
Gray, who played his college football at Purdue, spent three years with the Saints, from 1986-1988, where he became a return specialist, averaging 13.4 yards per punt return, and 23.4 yards per kick-off return.
After leaving the Saints in 1989, Gray went on to have very productive years with the Detroit Lions, Houston Oilers, Tennessee Titans, and Philadelphia Eagles as a return man, compiling 2,753 punt return yards, and 10,250 kick return yards over 13 NFL seasons.
With their final pick of the supplemental draft, in the third round, with the 69th-overall pick, the Saints selected Showboats linebacker Steve Dearden.
Dearden, who played his college football at Vanderbilt, never played for the Saints.
What was interesting about the supplemental draft was that NFL teams refused to select to pick USFL players from the same city, meaning that the Saints would not take a player from the New Orleans Breakers, such as running back Buford Jordan, who actually did wind up playing for the Saints.
The Express had the most players selected from any USFL team, with 20, while the San Antonio Gunslingers were the only team not to have a single player taken.