Things were going all too well for the Los Angeles Express, the we’ll-show-all-you-guys-we-belong-here football team.
OK, so the radio deal fell through at the last minute and the Express went on the field Sunday but not on the air.
And OK, this team has no owner, but who really needs someone cursing you from a luxury box atop the stadium anyway?
Casting minor inconveniences aside, the Express was leading the Houston Gamblers by 20 points with 9:47 left at the Coliseum.
The Express had just ordered chilled champagne for 18,828 fans at the Coliseum when disaster struck. No, it wasn’t another unpaid bill that made the Express cringe, but, rather, a quarterback named Jim Kelly.
Of all the times to pull off one of the better comebacks in recent memory. Of all the days to smash modern passing records.
That’s right, Houston beat the Express, 34-33, in a game the United States Football League can be proud of.
Kelly, the USFL’s MVP last season, threw three touchdown passes in the last 10 minutes, the last a 39-yarder to Ricky Sanders with 1:18 left to give the Gamblers the win.
Kelly, who passed for 44 touchdowns and 5,219 yards last season, completed 35 of 54 passes for 574 yards and 5 touchdowns Sunday. In this game, he passed for more yardage than any quarterback in U.S. professional football history. His 574 yards was 20 more than the NFL record of 554 set by the L.A. Rams’ Norm Van Brocklin in 1951. Only Sam Etcheverry of the Canadian Football League has passed for more yards. He threw for 586 yards while with Montreal in a game in 1954.
Express players have been forced to handle adversity; i.e., no owner, no marketing, no fans, no radio station.
But no way could they handle what Kelly was throwing at them Sunday.
Luckily for the Express, Kelly and his pass-happy run-and-shoot offense committed five turnovers. Otherwise, the score could have been in the 60s.
“Pulling out that win was the best feeling I ever had in my life,” Kelly said. “I’ve been in some comebacks before, but never anything like that. I pulled my linemen to the side on the sidelines and told them to hang in there, that we could do it.”
No, it really didn’t seem possible.
With 9:47 remaining in the season opener, Express safety Troy West returned an intercepted pass 42 yards for a touchdown. It gave the Express a 33-13 lead. It gave the assembled fans something to cling to for the future. The Express had rebounded from a 13-0 first-quarter deficit behind its quarterback, Steve Young. It was only perfect. Fans would go home and tell a friend about the Express, and they’d tell a friend, and so on.
“When we went up 33-13,” Young said, “I think mentally we just said ‘Let’s hurry up and get out of here.’ That’s not right.”
Not against the Gamblers.
For Houston, nine minutes is an eternity.
After West gave the Express the lead with 9:47 left, Houston got the ball back at its 26. Two plays later, Kelly threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to Richard Johnson. The drive took 53 seconds.
The Express, meanwhile, was content in running out the clock.
“I got too conservative in the fourth quarter,” Express Coach John Hadl said.
His quarterback, Steve Young (13 for 29, 255 yards) was throwing well deep, having hit JoJo Townsell on a 64-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
But in the fourth quarter, Hadl was going to try to play beat the clock with Kelly.
After Houston cut the lead to 33-20, it got the ball with 4:05 left at the Express 43 after Jeff Partridge’s 16-yard punt. Five plays later, Kelly threw 20 yards to Vince Courville for a touchdown to cut the lead to six.
The Express got the ball back and tried its best to run 2:58 off the clock and get out with the win. But one running play and two incomplete passes later, the Express punted.
Houston got the ball back with 1:58 left and it took the Gamblers just 40 seconds to score again. With 1:18 left, Kelly found Ricky Sanders alone over the middle. Sanders went 39 yards untouched into the end zone for the touchdown.
Toni Fritsch added the extra point for the Gamblers, completing an unlikely comeback, even for Houston.
On the game-winning touchdown, Sanders beat Troy West over the middle.
Up until then, it had been a great day for West. He intercepted two of Kelly’s passes for the day. One went for a touchdown, the other he returned for 39 yards.
“Maybe we relaxed,” West said. “I don’t know. I know when you score 33 points, you’re supposed to win. I’ve never lost a big lead like that late in a game. I know we won’t do that again.”
After the Gamblers had scored to take the lead, the Express still had 1:18 left to get in field goal position for Tony Zendejas, who was 4-for-4 in field-goal attempts Sunday.
But a Young pass to the sideline was intercepted by Mike Hawkins with a minute left.
“We just needed a field goal to win the game,” Young said. “I thought it was a piece of cake, but the guy made a good play. I want to go back out there and try it again. Is there still another quarter left?”