Jeff Pearlman

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The 25 best players in USFL history: No. 1—Sam Mills

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I am counting down the top 25 players in USFL history, concluding with the announcement of the No. 1 guy on Sept. 10—the eve of the release date for Football for a Buck.

The list comes after years of writing and researching my book, as well as a lifetime of loving the long, lost spring football league.

There have been books throughout my career that were written because the moment was right. There have been books throughout my career that felt like pure labor (sorry, Roger Clemens). But Football for a Buckis pure passion. Everything about the USFL spoke to me. The colors. The uniforms. The nicknames. The stars. The scrubs. It felt real and gritty and authentic.

Hence, the book.

Hence, the list.

Also, a quick point: This has 0 to do with what the players later became. NFL accomplishments are insignificant here. It’s all about the USFL.

So, with no further ado …

No. 1: Sam Mills

Linebacker

Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars (1983-85)

Even though probably no more than 23 1/2 people have been following these rankings, this was not an easy decision.

The way I see it, five other guys could have filled this slot. Herschel Walker (the most important player in USFL history), Kelvin Bryant (the best all-around offensive weapon), Bobby Hebert (best quarterback over the USFL’s three seasons), Jim Kelly (most explosive quarterback for two years) and Chuck Fusina (the Joe Montana-esque winner).

I went with Sam Mills.

Why? Mainly because every USFL player (teammates and opponents) speaks of Mills in reverential tones. He was, at 5-foot-9, far too short to be a professional linebacker. He was, out of Division III Montclair State, too obscure to be anyone’s star. He was cut by Toronto of the Canadian Football League, then by the NFL’s Browns. In fact, it was Sam Rutigliano, Cleveland’s head coach, who called the Stars to tell them about this guy they needed to sign. “You’ll see him in street clothes and have no interest,” Rutigliano told Carl Peterson, Philadelphia’s general manager. “Just promise me you’ll watch him in pads.”

Peterson agreed—and BAM! POP! POW! Mills was a 150-mph tank, storming toward oncoming ballcarriers with a force unrivaled in the league. Part of it was talent. Mills was, factually, a gifted and instinctive player. But a bigger part was hunger. The man desperately wanted to play football, and behaved as if each play were his last. There are endless video clips of Mills drilling quarterbacks, receivers, halfbacks into the ground. He was Walker’s worst enemy—a small school counter to the gilded University of Georgia-produced thoroughbred. Mills led the Stars to two USFL championships, was named to three All-USFL teams and is a member of the USFL’s All-Time Team. He was the leader of the league’s best defense. Always coming. Always charging. Always moving.

“He’s the best I ever saw,” Ken Dunek, a Stars tight end, told me. “Not just defense. Ever.”

This clip sort of says it all …

When the USFL died, Mills was signed by the New Orleans Saints and Jim Mora, the head coach who also came from the USFL’s Stars. A five-time Pro Bowler, he is a member of the Saints’ Hall of Fame, and his number 51 was retired by the Panthers.

He died of cancer in 2005.

He was the greatest.

From Football for a Buck …

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Player No. 25: Tim Spencer

Player No. 24: Chuck Clanton

Player No. 23: Maurice Carthon

Player No. 22: Marcus Marek

Player No. 21: Jimmy Smith

Player No. 20: John Reaves

Player No. 19: Richard Johnson

Player No. 18: Irv Eatman

Player No. 17: Peter Raeford

Player No. 16: Trumaine Johnson

Player No. 15: David Greenwood

Player No. 14: Joey Walters

Player No. 13: Gary Zimmerman

Player No. 12: Reggie White

Player No. 11: John Corker

Player No. 10: Luther Bradley

Player No. 9: Anthony Carter

Player No. 8: Gary Anderson

Player No. 7: Chuck Fusina

Player No. 6: Kit Lathrop

Player No. 5: Jim Kelly

Player No. 4: Bobby Hebert

Player No. 3: Herschel Walker

Player No. 2: Kelvin Bryant

Player No. 1: Sam Mills

  • Paul

    Great choice. Can’t wait to get my copy of the book delivered tomorrow and dive in.

  • nrwillick

    Same as Paul, tomorrow will be a good day to read.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life