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Daryl “Moose” Johnston knew the vision was catching on when his phone started ringing.
The NFL draft was over, and college players who were part of one of the largest - if not the largest - draft-eligible class in the history of the NFL knew whether they were going to get a shot at playing at the highest level of professional football.
Those that didn’t get drafted, didn’t get offered free-agent contracts, or had gone through NFL mini-camps and been let go were looking for another way to impress the NFL General Managers.
That’s when Johnston, the Executive Vice President of the United States Football League, found out just how popular he and this new league had become.
“Even after Week One, the phone started ringing because of how well the product came across,’’ Johnston said. “But those guys who wanted to go through the NFL Draft in 2022 – that’s something we respect. [As a college player] you wait for that opportunity, and we didn’t want to deny anyone that opportunity. … And we had basically a double college pool [of eligible players] because of the pandemic [where so many college players got an extra year of eligibility]. Yet there was still the same number of roster spots available in the NFL, even with twice as many players coming out [of college].
“We wanted to have something in place, for them to come to us after that point. We’ve always looked at our league as a non-traditional route to the NFL. If you weren’t drafted, if you didn’t make an NFL roster, what do you do? … A lot of guys wanted to wait for the NFL. Now, after the draft and mini camps, you get a great idea of players who are available and guys who said, ‘Yep, I’m ready to go to the USFL. Let me come to you guys and see if I can get some film and still get to the NFL.’’’
The USFL expanded its roster this week from 45 players to 50 and increased the number of players who can be active on game day from 38 to 40. Six teams added a total of 16 players to their rosters in Thursday morning transactions, and more are expected.
The 2022 United States Football League action continues this weekend with four games at Protective Stadium. On Saturday, the Tampa Bay Bandits (3-2) take on the Philadelphia Stars (2-3) at Noon, followed by the Michigan Panthers (1-4) vs the Birmingham Stallions (5-0) at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, the Pittsburgh Maulers (1-4) will go head-to-head with the New Orleans Breakers (3-2) at 11 am, followed by the Houston Gamblers (1-4) against the New Jersey Generals (4-1).
It didn’t hurt that the expansion came just as the temperatures rose for a typical Alabama summer.
“We let every team add five more players,’’ Johnston said. “And you could notice the difference immediately. The morning practice teams have a big advantage over the afternoon practice teams because it’s much warmer in the afternoon. We felt, heading into the hot part of the season, everyone could use some fresh legs on the roster.”
With such a short preparation time to put teams together, the USFL didn’t want to see teams running players in and out of the league for the first few weeks of the season.
“We had a limited number of moves you could make in training camp and the first half of the regular season,’’ Johnston said. “We wanted teams to try and create a good foundation. We wanted to build some continuity. I think our teams have done a great job with that, but there was always conversation about adding more players, particularly with injuries and the heat, and that happened this week.”
In addition, the league finally was able to implement a “Recovery Room’’ at the team hotel.
“We had a group reach out to us at the beginning of the season, Eleve Health, that had some supply chain issues,’’ Johnston said. “They got it up and running this week – hyperbaric chambers, red light therapy, acoustic vibration tables – high tech in recovery. With smaller rosters, we knew we had to be proactive in the training room, keeping players healthy. This has really helped.”
After the first five weeks of the season, Johnston is pleased with a number of things he has seen that he admits he was worried about. With eight teams competing in a very physical sport, would those on-field battles carry over to shared training rooms and the hotel where most of the league’s players live?
“We talked about keeping the competition between the white lines and not carrying it off the field,’’ Johnston said. “The guys have done a great job of that. I can’t say enough about their professionalism in an unusual environment.”
He has also been happy with the improving quality of play.
“I think the opening game [the Birmingham Stallions vs the New Jersey Generals] was fantastic,’’ Johnston said. “You couldn’t script it any better. And if any team was going to pull out a comeback win like that, you want it to be the home team [the Stallions].
“But for me, last week – week five – was a really, really good week. We finished the first half of the season with some of the cleanest football we’ve played, the most competitive we’ve played, and that’s what we hope continues in the second half [of the season]. I was really happy with last week. Those four games were the best we put up all season.
Attendance has not been what the league hoped for, except for Stallions’ games.
“But then we had Easter, Mother’s Day, and last week the Birmingham game was early on a Sunday, and we know how important church is to the community here,’’ Johnston said. “We knew there would be challenges. It’s been what we anticipated for Birmingham [Stallions]. I hope we see more growth in attendance. We’re trying some new things in marketing. And we’re starting to see some teams – like the Michigan Panthers and Houston Gamblers – that are starting to get fan groups and attendance to their games is picking up. That’s what we hoped, that some fans would adopt teams outside of the Stallions.
“We’ve really had only two games that have gotten away [lop-sided scores]. Everything has been competitive. What helped Birmingham is they are the one team that has gotten together, really in sync, and not losing games. There is a big difference in getting beat and losing, and we’ve had some teams that have lost games on things that were in their control. But Birmingham is a team that has trailed at some point in the second half of every game but finds a knack to win games. That’s a tremendous skill.
“New Jersey is getting that feel as well. They are teams that don’t seem fazed by adversity and has a confidence, and that’s been fun to watch. It’s certainly great that it happened with the Stallions, as the true home team.”
Among those who are starting to show up to watch are NFL scouts.
“We’ve had a couple NFL teams come down to scout,’’ Johnston said. “We had the [New York] Jets here last week. We’ve got a few more coming this week. We’ve done a film exchange with the NFL, where they see our games and they provide us with theirs so we can see players that might become available.
“That’s the reward for me – take a young man who, for whatever reason didn’t get his NFL shot (who) comes down to us, and it can change the trajectory of a young man’s life. Not just football, but professionalism, punctuality, how he carries himself … I’ve seen that happen with a couple guys on teams that I’ve been involved with in the past. I know it will happen here."
(This story has been edited to correct the name to Eleve Health. 1819 News regrets the error).
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