Express Beats the Odds . . . Takes On Gamblers

Times Staff Writer

And they said it wouldn't last, they said the team never again would see the light of day.

Well, here's to the skeptics and the doubting Thomases and all the rest who thought the Los Angeles Express would be a trivia answer by now.

Here's to perseverance, to dodging bullets and creditors and owners with no money.

Here's to walking on tightropes and hanging from ledges by your fingernails.

Here's to the Express, which will meet the Houston Gamblers today at 1 p.m. at the Coliseum.

The Express enters the first game of its third United States Football League season with an assortment of problems, not the least of which is credibility.

As of Friday afternoon, the team, when it wasn't denying reports that it was heading for Hawaii, was frantically searching for a radio station to air today's game.

Without money for a marketing campaign, the Express has sold just 6,000 season tickets. And remember, it's the team with no owner, the one that's collectively owned by the USFL.

Star quarterback Steve Young, seeking the sympathy of the common man, already has dubbed his team the L.A. Orphans.

Through it all, Coach John Hadl, like the captain of a sinking ship, has done his best to buoy the spirits of his crew.

"We seem to do better with adversity," Hadl said.

Like a group of strangers suddenly thrown together on a stranded elevator, Express players have grown closer through crisis.

"A lot of close friendships have been built," offensive tackle Mark Adickes said. "The guys really lean on each other. We're really a close team. There's not a single member of this team that I don't get along with."

The funny thing about the Express is that it just might win the USFL championship.

Hadl can't wait to put his team on display to show the world that, on the field at least, there are no problems. Last season, Hadl played counselor to 31 talented (and highly paid)) rookies, many of whom joined the team in mid-season, and took the team to the Pacific Division championship and the Western Conference title game.

"Having the young guys together for a whole training camp will make a difference," Hadl said.

Hadl knows that this team has to win to insure any hope for survival in Los Angeles. He wants to show prospective buyers that this team, with all its problems, is too good to pass up.

And winning for the Express begins and ends with Steve Young.

He joined the Express for the seventh game last season, and passed for 2,361 yards and ran for 515 (a 6.5 yards-per-carry average). More impressive was Young's flair for the dramatic, best exemplified by his gutsy performance in the Express' triple-overtime win over the Michigan Panthers in the first round of the playoffs.

But that Steve Young was tired and battered. The effects of playing back-to-back seasons had taken its toll on his arm, which grew weary near the end of the season. Young was running an offense he really didn't know. Some of his best plays were ad-libs.

Hadl said Young will be even better this season.

"He was inconsistent throwing the ball last season," Hadl said. "He didn't get a chance to read coverages. He's doing that now. He runs a 4.5 40-yard dash, and could play running back, receiver or free safety on our team."

In short, Hadl believes Young is a good athlete.

"And his arm is stronger," Hadl said. "We've been working on throwing the ball deep. He was criticized for not doing that last year, but we really didn't have the time to work on that. We're working on that every day. He's throwing the ball very well."

A closer look at the team:

Quarterback: Young is the key to the Express' season. Quarterback Jim Kelly of Houston has a stronger arm, but no quarterback in the USFL is more versatile than Young. Last season, he became the first quarterback in pro football history to pass for more than 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in a single game. He did that against the Chicago Blitz. Hadl insists that Young will be more of a drop-back passer this season. For the good of Young's health and that of the franchise, Hadl doesn't want his quarterback to lead the team in rushing (or concussions). Backing up Young is Frank Seurer, in his second season from the University of Kansas.

Running back: The Express, in a move to trim its payroll, released the talented Kevin Mack to the Cleveland Browns earlier this year. But the Express remains strong at this position. Returning for his second season is Kevin Nelson, a versatile back who led the team in rushing (828 yards) and was the team's second-leading receiver last season with 34 catches for 344 yards. Mel Gray, in his second season from Purdue, has recovered from the broken left arm he suffered on the 24-yard touchdown run that ended pro football's longest game last season, the triple-overtime win over the Panthers. Gray rushed for 625 yards last season. Adding depth is veteran back Robert Alexander (Rams, Chargers), who made the team as a walk-on.

Receivers: Jojo Townsell, who returns for his third season, led the Express in receiving last season (58 catches, 889 yards, 7 touchdowns). He, along with second-year man Duane Gunn, will be the Express' deep threats this season. Two-time Brigham Young University All-American Gordon Hudson, who missed last season because of knee surgery, gives Young another option. Hudson, a tight end, was Young's favorite receiver at BYU. He was kept out of two-a-day practices in training camp to protect his knee, but reportedly is healthy. The halfback position will be shared by returners Tony Boddie and David Hersey.

Offensive line: As soon as the line gets healthy, it will likely be the strength of the team. Center Mike Ruether (6-4, 270)) and tackle Mark Adickes (6-5, 270), both projected to be first-round draft choices in the NFL, will not start today. Ruether had arthroscopic surgery Feb. 4 for cartilage damage in his right knee and remains questionable. Adickes is coming off major knee surgery last season and is being handled with care. Guard Gary Zimmerman, another first-round NFL projection, moved to tackle to replace Adickes last season and was named to the All-USFL team. The leader on the line is seven-year NFL veteran tackle Jeff Hart (6-5, 272). Filling out the line are steady guards Mike Durrette (6-4, 268) and Derek Kennard (6-3, 265).

Defensive line: In another move to trim some fat from the payroll, the Express released promising pass rushers Lee Williams and Dewey Forte in the off season. Los Angeles, though, did get some help by picking up Ben Rudolph (6-5, 271), formerly of the N.Y. Jets, in the USFL's allocation draft. Rudolph will start at right end. The line is led by two-time All-USFL tackle Eddie Weaver and tackle George Achica (39 tackles, 5 sacks in 1984). "Achica has become a very consistent, steady football player," Hadl said.

Linebackers: The Express needed some help here and picked up USFL veterans Carlton Rose (Michigan Panthers) and Andy Melontree (Arizona Wranglers). Returning is All-USFL middle linebacker Howard Carson, who led the team in tackles with 120 last season. He'll be flanked by returner David Howard (79 tackles) and Melontree.

Defensive backs: Hadl says boldly that Dwight Drane will be the best strong safety in professional football by the end of this season. That's pretty big talk for a player who is just entering his second year. In the Express' coup of top collegiate talent last season, it was Texas Christian University safety Allanda Smith, not Drane, who was drawing most of the attention. Smith had an off season, but has recovered to become the Express' starting free safety. Los Angeles still is looking for some depth at cornerback to back up starters Wymon Henderson and Ed Scott.

Kickers: As a rookie, Tony Zendejas did everything you could ask of a kicker. He made 21 of 30 field goals last season, including 15 of 16 inside 41 yards. He made 12 consecutive field goals to end the season and did not miss a clutch field goal all season. Jeff Partridge returns as the punter.

Express Notes

Today's game features the league's two top quarterbacks, Steve Young of Los Angeles and Houston's Jim Kelly. Kelly, who threw for 5,219 yards and 44 touchdowns last season, was the USFL's Most Valuable Player in 1984. . . . Assistant Coach Mouse Davis, who inserted the run-and-shoot offense at Houston last season, left to take the head job for the Denver Gold. But his offense will remain intact at Houston. The Gamblers are led by speedy receivers Richard Johnson (115 catches, 1,455 yards, 15 touchdowns) and Ricky Sanders (101 catches, 1,378 yards, 11 TDs). . . . If this one is anything like last year's game in the Astrodome, it'll be worth watching. The Express won that one, 27-24, on Tony Zendejas' 42-yard field goal in overtime. That night, Kelly completed 37 of 50 passes for 380 and two touchdowns. Young was 17 of 28 for 211 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed for 56 yards on 6 carries. . . . The first 10,000 fans today will receive a free poster of Young.

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