Greg Fields, right, with Mike St. Clair
Image: San Antonio Gunslingers Archives

Excerpted from Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL. Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Pearlman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

On the morning of Wednesday, February 22, 1984, head coach John Hadl arrived at the Los Angeles Express’s Manhattan Beach facility and reviewed the list of players who would be dismissed. When he broached the name of defensive end Greg Fields, an executive with the team warned, “Paper isn’t going to take this very well.”

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“Really?” Hadl asked.

“Yup,” the employee replied. “I’d have someone in the office with you.”

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At six-foot-one and 230 pounds, Hadl was no shrinking violet. He’d absorbed many crippling hits over a 16-year quarterbacking run with the Chargers, Rams, Packers, and Oilers, and feared not a journeyman lineman. Plus, at 44 he was young enough to hold his own in a scuffle. “I told two guys to stand outside the door,” Hadl said. “Just in case anything happened and we needed to get him out.”

Hadl summoned for Fields, who sensed what was coming. A day earlier the Express had released Al Burleson, which enraged the lineman. “Al was my best friend on the team,” Fields said. “It was bullshit. I wasn’t in the best mood.” Moments before entering Hadl’s office, Fields spoke with Danny Rich, the linebacker. “If they dump me,” he told him, “they’re gonna have to get the National Guard to pull me out of here.”

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There is a robotic application to the typical player cut, one followed for decades by nearly all engaged parties in all professional team sports. The coach invites the soon-to-be departed to sit down. The soon-to-be departed gulps. The coach explains how impressed he was by the soon-to-be departed, but that it comes down to numbers. The soon-to-be departed thanks the coach for the opportunity, shakes his hand, leaves the room, packs his belongings, and (oftentimes) cries. “I’ve cut many players,” said Hadl. “You pretty much know how it goes.”

This time, Greg Fields entered scowling. He was wearing a gray Express T-shirt and blue shorts. “Have a seat,” Hadl said.

“I’d rather not,” Fields replied.

“OK,” the coach said. “Well, we’re letting you go. It’s nothing you did wrong. We just...”

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Fields turned toward the door and slammed it shut. He charged Hadl, drew back his right fist — bulky gold ring wrapped around the thumb — and swung it toward the coach’s face, connecting enough to open skin and draw blood. “He got me on the cheekbone—that’s all,” said Hadl. “It wasn’t so bad.” The two men stationed outside the door burst in at the same time Hadl was popping Fields in the mouth with a counter left. “It was craziness,” said Derek Kennard, the rookie offensive lineman. “That was my first day with the team, and security is everywhere, scrambling around. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, what have I walked into here?’”

“[Moments later] Hadl enters the room for the quarterbacks meeting and he has a rabbit-sized mark on his face,” said Express QB Tom Ramsey. “We were all shocked. He said, ‘I cut Fields, and Fields didn’t like it.’”

“It was,” said Ricky Ellis, the Express tight end, “the weirdest thing ever.”

Fields was escorted from the facility and ordered never to return. As he marched toward his car, he promised he would be back to “kill” Hadl and “beat down” Keith Gilbertson, the defensive line coach. Later that day GM Don Klosterman had someone in the organization reach out to Nelson Mercado, a well-known local security professional who, at the time, was working as a private bodyguard for Liberace, the flamboyant pianist. “They called and told me a disgruntled ex-player wanted to assassinate the head coach,” said Mercado. “I’d heard a lot of things in my career. But that was a new one.” Mercado said he advised the Express to contact the police, and that a team representative replied, “We did — but the cops won’t handle this the way you would.”

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Mercado requested a leave of absence from Liberace, who was living and performing in Las Vegas, then made the four-hour return drive to his Southern California home. Although Fields later denied the claim, Mercado said the former lineman called in a threat to come to the facility on a random day armed with a six-inch barreled Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver and end Hadl’s life. “It was no joke,” said Mercado. “We followed him. I would report to the Express every day on Greg Fields’s whereabouts. I had certain things put on his vehicle — tracers. He also had a beeper, and we put a tracer on his beeper. I had a crew of about six people working just to know his whereabouts. He would park his car two or three blocks away from the facility. He called me once and made the point of telling me he had a long rifle and was able to kill me and kill anybody on the practice field. He was not stable psychologically. The guy was definitely 5150.”

(Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code authorizes a qualified officer or clinician to involuntarily confine a person suspected to have a mental disorder that makes them a danger to themselves or to others.)

Greg Fields became Nelson Mercado’s 24-hour-a-day obsession. Wherever the ex-Express lineman went, the security guard followed. He couldn’t get his mind off of Fields, and came to the dark realization that this was his lot in life — to track and trace a pass-rushing whackjob with a gun fetish.

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Then, in a this-can-only-happen-in-the-USFL moment, Mercado was granted a gift from the football Gods.

On March 4, the San Antonio Gunslingers, desperate for warm bodies, signed Greg Fields to a free agent contract. When he flew to Texas and entered the team’s facility at Alamo Stadium, Fields was greeted by members of the coaching staff dressed in pads and helmets. On the wall was a newspaper clipping with the headline player punches express coach.

Fields grimaced. “Aw man, you got my shit on the wall,” he said. “That’s fucking cold.”

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Greg Fields lived to see another day.


On March 31, the Gunslingers flew to Detroit to play the defending-champion Panthers. Oil magnate Clinton Manges’s team stood at 1-4, and the owner was frustrated. Four weeks earlier, during a nationally televised Monday-night game against Houston, the stadium lights went out and play was suspended for 48 minutes. What was presumed to be merely an electrical failure was, in fact, a deliberate sabotage. “Clinton Manges had all kinds of business dealings around town and some were aboveboard and some I guess were not,” said [Gunslingers QB Rick] Neuheisel. “And in some way, shape, or form he had crossed the guy in charge of the power in San Antonio, and so the guy, to get even, shut it down while they were on national television.” At halftime the Gunslingers held an automobile raffle-ticket giveaway. Tom Allison, the stadium’s public address announcer, leaned into the microphone and said, “Tonight’s winner of the 1984 Dodge Charger is...oh, my God! It’s me!” Boos rained down, but the victory was legitimate. Allison had purchased a ticket.

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Manges had yet to fully recover from the Monday-night humiliation. Now, midway through the flight to Michigan, he stood and asked for attention. Players presumed they were in store for a lame motivational pep talk. Incorrect. “OK, here’s the deal,” he said in a thick Texas twang. “Anybody who knocks [quarterback Bobby] Hebert out of the game gets $500. Anybody who knocks [wide receiver] Anthony Carter out gets $500, too.”

The next afternoon, Carter caught a 22-yard pass in front of safety Larry James. “[Linebacker John] Barefield slams him out of bounds,” said Larry O’Roark, a San Antonio wide receiver, “and in the process pulls Carter’s left arm around his back. He had to leave the game ... it was broken. John got paid.”

The Panthers won 26–10, and the next week the in-desperate-need-of- a-spark Gunslingers traveled to Chicago to face the Blitz at Soldier Field. It was a warm day, with temperatures in the 40s, and midway through the third quarter San Antonio trailed, 7–3. Once again nothing was going right. The offense was stagnated. The play calling was boring. Then — magic. From somewhere among the 9,412 spectators, an empty whiskey bottle whizzed through the air and toward the San Antonio sideline. It soared closer and closer and closer and closer until — Pop! — the bottle nailed head trainer Bobby Oakley directly in the side of his skull. He dropped to the turf, in coach David Knaus’s words, “like a heavy sack of potatoes.”

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“He was out cold,” said Jim Bates, the defensive coordinator. “Flat on his back.”

Throughout the early part of the season, Oakley, an excitable 24-year-old, would respond to injuries by yelling, sans humor, “[fill in a player’s name] down! [fill in a player’s name] down!” Now, as Oakley lay unconscious, Greg Fields (the lineman who, two months earlier, punched his coach and threatened to kill him), stood over the body, grinned ear to ear, and hollered in his familiar baritone, “Oakley down! Oakley down!” Laughter erupted up and down the sideline.

“Holy cow, it was the funniest thing ever,” said QB Rick Neuheisel. “Are you supposed to laugh when your guy is hit in the head? No. But...man.”

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The Gunslingers lost in a 16–10 overtime nailbiter, but members of the team agree there was some unifying magic in “Oakley down!” They trounced Jacksonville, 20–0, the following week, then nearly beat the Stars before win- ning three of their next four. “We got on a roll,” said Neuheisel. “Nobody thought we had much of a team. But we got hot, and we played hard.”

The majority of USFL contracts stipulated that a player had to appear in three straight games to earn his full salary. It was deemed unimportant language until Manges came along. “They’d play us two games, then sit us,” said Gunslingers WR Larry O’Roark. “Unless you were marquee, you’d find yourself inactive every third game.”

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“The USFL teams had active and inactive rosters, and if you were on the inactive roster you got paid peanuts—but you couldn’t be stashed there if you were injured,” said Neuheisel. “Well, we had our quarterback meetings in the GM’s office because our space was so small. And one day I opened the drawer looking for a pen, and I saw a list of who Roger was planning on putting on the inactive list. I told those guys, ‘You have to get hurt today.’ For the next seven weeks in a row I’d look to see who was about to be inactive, and then those guys came up with the goofiest injuries. Head bruises, twisted sternums. You name it. The team never caught on. God, they were so cheap.”

One notable injury was correctly reported: though the man’s name was never released to the media, the league office learned that a Gunslinger— listed as “out, groin”—was, in fact, missing a game because he (according to the team) “slammed his cock in a trunk.” After much laughter, it was explained that the trunk was not attached to an automobile, but the trunk of a footlocker in the San Antonio clubhouse. Which was equally fantastical.

There was also the issue of a home field that beat and roasted the crap out of its players. The Astroturf at Alamo Stadium rested atop a concrete slab, and San Antonio’s players were always suffering leg injuries. “Your knees would be destroyed,” said Neuheisel. “And the bottom of your shoes would melt — literally melt — from the 130-degree temperature.”

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This was bad. But not nearly as bad as the paint injuries.

Yes, paint injuries.

In an effort to save some money, Manges had the midfield Gunslingers’ logo, as well as both end zones, designed with standard-grade industrial paint. “To be precise,” said Ken Gillen, a defensive end, “it was industrial crust.” Because the organization was too cheap to have the surface properly cleaned, multiple Gunslingers suffered pustules and skin infections related to their time at Alamo Stadium. “Everyone’s spitting on it, hocking loogies on it — and you combine that shit with 100 degrees, it’s nasty,” said O’Roarke. “I got the worst boil on the back of my knee from being exposed.”

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There was scabbing, too. The sorrowful paint, combined with the coarseness of the low-quality turf, led to some of the nastiest rashing anyone had ever seen. “They fucked up on that,” said safety Jim Bob Morris. “It was this really cheap paint, and if you hit a stripe or the logo, it was like hitting cement. People joke about leaving body parts on a football field. Well, in San Antonio you left your epidermis.”

“I’ve never played on a worse field than the one they had,” said Jo-Jo Townsell, the Express wide receiver. “It was nothing more than green concrete, with paint. Steve Young, bless his heart, he ended up getting the worst scab I’ve ever seen. He went for a scramble and he had to skid on that stuff. I swear, he had a scab from his ankle to his knee — three inches wide. It was the ugliest thing ever. I mean, it was serious ET-looking stuff. He kept trying to take a shower, but it was too much pain.”

“You’d hear screams from the shower,” said Neuheisel. “Hot water hitting skin burns.”

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The 1984 San Antonio Gunslingers failed to qualify for the playoffs. But the club’s 7-11 record — a byproduct of spunk and heart outweighing so-so talent and a seven-fingered senile coach—was a triumph. Only one player ranked in the USFL’s top 10 in any statistical category, and it was Mike Ulmer, who placed second by averaging 11.2 yards per punt return. The defense led the league in interceptions and shutouts, earning the nickname the Bounty Hunters.

“We didn’t have shit,” said Fields. “But we busted our asses like no other team I’d ever been on. The ‘84 Gunslingers ain’t legendary. But they should be.”


They also had fun. Manges had a thing for Taco Cabana, the city’s best Mexican restaurant, and Gunslinger flights would feature large crates of icy beer and boxes upon boxes of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas via Taco Cabana. “The food would make its way down the aisle,” said Knaus. “And we’d eat and drink like kings.”

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San Antonio was the perfect town to be a professional football player — big enough to support a team, small enough to be ubiquitous. Gunslingers players drank for free, ate for free, boasted their own cadre of groupies and an invisible all access pass to most anywhere. Multiple members of the Gunslingers snorted cocaine in the locker room before games—“Drugs were huge in the USFL,” said Jeff Gaylord, a Gunslingers lineman. “I once went to my coke dealer, got a $1,000 bag, tooted it, stayed up all night, and played. That’s just how it was in the 1980s in sports.”

“We had one wide receiver who would kneel down and do blow right there,” said Morris. “I’d never seen that before.

“A lot of times we’d go out, party until 4:00 a.m., then sleep in our cars in the stadium parking lot so we wouldn’t miss practice. San Antonio was an amazing party town. Amazing. We’d practice until noon, be in the pool by 1, maybe lift later in the day, then every night we’d wind up at Fizz [a popular dance club]. We were the only football team in San Antonio, so wherever we went it was, ‘Yo! It’s the Gunslingers!’”

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In 1984 Morris had an out-of-town girlfriend who visited on occasion from Kansas. He loved her, but also loved the massive amount of sex he was receiving from local women. “Some of us were fucking so many chicks, it was like we were running a brothel,” he said. “I didn’t want my girlfriend to know what was going on. Because, really, she was important to me. But I also didn’t want to miss the calls from other women when she was at my apartment.” Morris hatched a plan. He paid for a second phone line, then hired a maintenance man to drill a hole in his apartment and embed an answering machine within the wall. “So I had a regular phone line and I had a phone line for my bitches,” he said. “We’d be laying in bed, me and my girl, and you could hear the answering machine in the wall, beeping. I’d pile clothes against the wall so she couldn’t hear. The guys thought it was the funniest thing ever — ‘Jim Bob has developed a serious system.’ Man, we partied like we owned the Playboy Mansion.”


Excerpted from Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL. Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Pearlman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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