It took six months of difficult negotiations before the Chargers signed wide receiver Trumaine Johnson to five one-year contracts Friday. It took owner Alex Spanos only a matter of seconds to say he wanted to dismiss Johnson’s recent past.
Johnson had just been asked why he sat out the 1985 USFL season instead of playing for the Arizona Outlaws.
“It got to be a contract dispute, you might call it,” Johnson answered.
Spanos quickly interjected.
“Trumaine is here today with the San Diego Chargers,” Spanos said. “Let’s forget about the past. Trumaine would much prefer that, and so would I.”
So the future of Johnson will be in a Charger uniform, but he may not be the only USFL player headed toward the Chargers.
Future Chargers may also include running backs Gary Anderson of Tampa Bay and Tim Spencer of Memphis. San Diego has the NFL rights to both players.
Anderson’s status may be directly related to the future of the Tampa Bay franchise. John Bassett, former managing partner of Tampa Bay, told the St. Petersburg Times he has initiated preliminary talks with Spanos concerning Anderson.
Spencer may seek employment with the Chargers when he becomes a free agent Aug. 15.
“I spoke with Spencer once last week,” Johnson said. “He’s definitely interested in coming to the Chargers. He wants to get out of the USFL, too.”
The Chargers, who have been tight-lipped about future negotiations with Anderson or Spencer, are definitely in the market for new blood. They cut nine veterans earlier this week.
“We’ve had some good talent,” Spanos said. “We’re looking forward to getting some young blood in the next few years and being able to get to the Super Bowl.”
The Chargers’ recent trend has been to get rid of older players to make room for younger ones.
“You have that pegged right,” said Johnny Sanders, club general manager.
It took fragile negotiations among the Chargers, Arizona Outlaws, NFL office and USFL office before Johnson, 24, became a Charger.
Johnson had left Arizona’s training camp in January and was suspended. The Chargers were close to signing him twice in the last four months, but the deals fell through.
Finally, Johnson agreed to buy his contract from Arizona for an estimated $500,000. He said Friday that he had a playing contract with Arizona through 1996 worth $20 million with much of the money deferred. He said that while the Chargers are paying him more per season than Arizona, his total Charger contract is not worth as much as was his Arizona contract. The Chargers have a sixth-year option on Johnson’s contract.
In retrospect, Johnson said he did not have second thoughts about signing with the USFL.
“Money is the bottom line,” he said. “Football is football wherever you play. I had a good contract with Chicago, then, the next thing I knew, we had moved to Arizona. Nobody wanted to give you endorsements because you were not in a stable league. I must say I’m not the only player frustrated with what’s taking place in the USFL. I’m one of the fortunate ones now to be playing with a more respected league and a more respected team.”
Johnson was among the USFL’s most respected players, finishing fourth in receptions in 1984.
“He has a good football sense of what to do,” Charger Coach Don Coryell said. “He’s very capable running on quick screens or out of the backfield. He’s very versatile and smart enough to handle all of these assignments. He’s a fine punt returner, too.”
And Johnson is now a Charger, which is exactly what he wanted.