The gaze is certainly fixed on what's ahead for USFL vice president of operations Daryl Johnston. USFL's second year kicks off this weekend in Birmingham and Memphis. That is his focus right now.
However, on Monday night, he took a moment to look back.
"One of the things that we were most proud of on this journey, up until this point, was last night here in Birmingham, we hosted the Birmingham Stallions and passed out their championship rings," Johnston said of a ceremony at Protective Stadium. "It was really kind of a full circle moment for us because the room we hosted the event in was actually the room we did our inaugural draft back in February of 2021. Just a great moment for all our guys that were there. Believe it or not, we actually had Skip Holtz for a loss of words, which is a hard thing to do. It was a great evening, which gives us a lot of momentum in the Birmingham hub going into our opening weekend."
It won't be hard to notice the biggest change in the second season of the USFL. Birmingham is no longer hosting the entire league. Instead, Birmingham is home for the Stallions and the New Orleans Breakers. The other six teams will be spread out amongst hubs in Memphis, Canton, Ohio and Detroit. Memphis and Houston play home games in Memphis, Pittsburgh and New Jersey play home games in Canton and Michigan and Philadelphia play in Detroit.
It was a step, Johnston said, that the league, after hearing feedback from fans, needed to make.
"One of the things they wanted to do was see those full stadiums when their team was playing," Johnston said. "It was hard to do that, with Birmingham basically having a home game every weekend. Our other teams, when they played, didn't have that same support. One of the things we wanted to do was get our teams into their home markets or as close to their home markets as we can and give them that opportunity that Birmingham had last season."
There is no doubt that home-field advantage helped the Stallions a year ago. They finished 9-1 in a regular season played at Protective Stadium and Legion Field before moving on to Canton, Ohio, for the playoffs. But, the Birmingham players embrace the opportunity to play on the road.
"Growing up, I loved playing in road games for a reason," said Stallions quarterback J'Mar Smith. "This year won't be any different in what we have in front of us and what everybody is going to give us."
Smith was asked if he looked forward to a particular destination.
"All of them, especially Memphis, because we get to play Houston," Smith said, mentioning the lone team to beat the Stallions last season.
Birmingham will be at home the first three weeks, beginning with a Protective Stadium visit from the New Jersey Generals on Saturday night at 6:30. The USFL comes earlier on Saturday when Philadelphia visits Memphis for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff. On Sunday, Michigan and Houston play in Memphis at 11 a.m., and New Orleans plays host to Pittsburgh at Protective Stadium.
That starts a chase for a championship ring. It also starts a familiar quest for the USFL players.
"Our goal is to provide the opportunity for our players to have a chance to go back to the NFL," Johnston said. "This time, have an opportunity to stay. We had several players throughout our league accomplish that. Obviously, our biggest ambassador in (last season's) USFL is KaVontae Turpin and everything he accomplished with the Dallas Cowboys. But we had multiple other players be on a 53-man roster throughout the league. That's the game-changing element that we're trying to create for these young men. To change the trajectory of their life by giving them the opportunity to be on one of those 53-man rosters."
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