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L.A. EXPRESS: THE VALLEY EXPERIMENT : Players Expect Same ‘Fun Crowd’ at Pierce

Times Staff Writer

Riding out the wreckage of its lost season, the Los Angeles Express has suddenly found a ray of hope.

The shifting of Saturday’s home finale with the Arizona Outlaws from the Coliseum to Pierce College in Woodland Hills has given what remains of the limping Express at least a chance at survival.

That’s about all that’s left in a 3-13 season that would equal the worst record in the 3-year history of the United States Football League if the Express loses to Arizona this week and the Orlando Renegades in Florida next week.

“The players are excited from the standpoint that it could mean something for them in the future,” coach John Hadl said at a luncheon Tuesday. “It’s more of a hope thing than anything else. It could be a chance for the Express to get its own following and its own territory.

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“If (the Express) can get a new owner and a stadium to play in, I’m sure it can work (in the Valley),” said Hadl, who along with the rest of his coaching staff has been fired, effective at the end of the season. “I think that’s the way to go right now. I think they can draw 30,000 to 35,000 a game out there if they keep the best players from this team and start over.”

Whether that is false hope or a trumped-up way to get the Express interested in its final two games of the season doesn’t seem to matter to the players.

In a season that started with Los Angeles being picked to win the Pacific Division title but is threatening to tie the 3-15 records of Pittsburgh and Washington last season, the players are tired of losing--especially before Coliseum crowds you can almost count by hand.

“It’s almost like starting a new season,” said placekicker Tony Zendejas, one of the few constants for the Express this season. “The atmosphere should be completely different from playing in the dead Coliseum.

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“Hopefully, it’s going to be good for us and the fans.”

That seemed to be the consensus when the Express beat the Portland Breakers, 38-17, in a scrimmage before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 6,000 at Pierce on Feb. 16.

It’s still one of the high points of the season for the Express players.

“It was a fun crowd, one of the best of the year,” quarterback Steve Young said. “I wish there were better conditions, but it’s fine with me if they think this will help.

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“I’m not thinking anything special about it except I hope we get some people out to see the game. I wanted to play in Los Angeles and I want to stay.”

The Express has added temporary seats at Pierce that have swelled the capacity of John Shepard Stadium to 15,000.

Public relations director Herb Vincent says the Express does not expect a large advance sale because there is no reserved seating except for season ticket holders, who will sit in sections on the 50-yard line. Vincent said the team expects a large walk-up sale.

Among the crowd, according to the Express, will be three prospective buyers who are interested in purchasing the team and transplanting it permanently in the Valley if impressed on Saturday.

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That’s what the players are banking on.

“We hope to make a good showing and get a win,” defensive end Fletcher Jenkins said. “I’m a free agent at the end of the season, but I wouldn’t be against coming back with the Express if the situation is right.

“It sounds like the people are enthusiastic about us playing in the Valley. It will be fun to have an enthusiastic crowd behind us. Maybe we can salvage something.”

The Express, considered one of the best young teams in football not long ago, also has a few veterans who have seen the other side of professional football.

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Howard Carson left the Rams to sign with the Express last season and says he would do it over again, while Mike Rae played for the Raiders as a backup quarterback to Kenny Stabler in the 1977 Super Bowl victory over the Minnesota Vikings at the Rose Bowl.

“I’ve been at the bottom, gone to the top and come back down again,” Rae said. “I started in the Canadian Football League and that’s as crazy as any league. You just have to roll with the punches.

“I think I know where Pierce is. It’s still L.A., isn’t it? How many people do they expect? It sounds like it could be fun.”

Added Carson, “The San Fernando Valley could be the future of this team. I’d like to see the Express make a go of it. It will be a change of pace for us to play in front of a crowd. Maybe it will give us a shot in the arm.

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“I have no regrets about coming here. I was playing mostly special teams with the Rams and the Express gave me a chance to play middle linebacker. It was a good move for me and I’m definitely a better player for it.

“I don’t know if an owner can be found, but maybe they can still work this thing out.”

Running back Tony Boddie is another player who will be a free agent at the end of the season and is hoping an NFL team will pick him up even though he would have to play back-to-back seasons.

But he wouldn’t mind staying with the Express if the Valley move works out.

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“It would be tough leaving the sun,” Boddie said.

Notes

As if the Express did not have problems, after their loss Sunday in San Antonio a cargo truck backed into one of the engines on the team charter jet and destroyed its casing. Mel Gray, Mike Ruther and David Howard got off the plane and flew home on a commercial flight. . . . Running backs Kirby Warren (strained knee) and Gray (sprained ankle) were injured in San Antonio and probably won’t play against Arizona. That leaves Tony Boddie as the only healthy tailback, and Hadl plans to use him often in a one-back offense against the Outlaws (7-9). . . . Wide receiver JoJo Townsell tore a rib off his sternum in San Antonio and also will miss the last two games of the season.


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