Jeff Pearlman

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The 25 best players in USFL history: No. 19—Richard Johnson

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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 Buck is 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. 19: Richard Johnson

Wide receiver

Denver Gold (1983)

Houston Gamblers (1984-85)

Wide receivers with (ultimately) bigger names played in the United States Football League. Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark went on to win a Super Bowl with the Redskins. Anthony Carter was a star with the Vikings.

But nobody was more electrifying than Richard Johnson.

An undersized (5-foot-7), pear-shaped (175 pounds), little-known running back at the University of Colorado, Johnson went underrated by the NFL, but was signed by the Denver Gold (as a halfback) for the 1983 season. He was brought in by the expansion Gamblers a year later, and—during a team meeting—noticed he was listed as a receiver.

This confused Johnson, until he was told that small, fast guys would catch many balls in the Jim Kelly-led Run ‘n Shoot offense. OK, Johnson thought. I’m a receiver.

That year, playing a new position, Johnson caught 115 balls for 1,455 yards and 15 touchdowns. In 1985, he was nearly as productive, compiling 103 receptions for 1,384 yards and 14 scores.

When the league died Johnson bounced around. He was signed, then dumped, by the Jets. Played as a replacement guy for a single game with the 1987 Redskins, then two more by the replacement Bills. Johnson was working as a computer programer in 1989 when the Detroit Lions (whose offensive coordinator, Mouse Davis, held the same gig with the Gamblers) reached out with a job offer.

Johnson caught 70 passes for 1,091 yards with the ’89 Lions, and 64 more a season later.

Oh, the best part: He smoked a joint before every game.

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

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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