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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ESPN's "30 For 30" series tackles rise and fall of USFL

I'm a sports buff. I'm a documentary buff. Combine the two and I'm more elated than Brett Favre after the Baltimore Ravens' weak-legged field goal kicker botches a 44-yard game winner.

So I'm particularly excited about tonight's ESPN presentation of "Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?" -- a new documentary about the fledgling football league that dared to challenge the almighty NFL in the early '80s.

Now, if you're not up to speed on ESPN's "30 For 30" series, the cable network is rolling out captivating documentaries throughout the rest of this year and next as part of its anniversary celebration. The brainchild of "Sports Guy" Bill Simmons, "30 For 30" gives award-winning filmmakers -- among them Barry Levinson, John Singleton, Barbara Kopple and Alex Gibney -- full creative control in detailing various sports-related storylines that dotted the landscape during the ESPN era of 1979 to 2009.

Tonight's USFL documentary, directed by filmmaker Mike Tollin, has several intriguing elements that make it among the more promising of the bunch launched forth by the Worldwide Leader.

One, though the USFL's three year run was a mere blip on the sports radar, it still carries an impressive, if slightly confusing, legacy as an American football league that dared to dream big while bleeding money left and right. Two, and perhaps most important to nostalgia buffs, the USFL wasn't filled with the kind of retreads or never-weres that made up both the World League (NFL Europe) or Vince McMahon's colossal tank job, the XFL.

Instead, the USFL plucked away three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners -- Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier and Doug Flutie -- and has an alumni roster that includes Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Anthony Carter, Gary Zimmerman and of course, Packers legend/NFL Hall of Famer, Reggie White. Not exactly He Hate Me.

Or put it this way: if you're following the United Football League right now, you can't be too encouraged by the star power of Simeon Rice and Brooks Bollinger. Better yet, how interested would you be if they managed to sign away Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy next year?

Three, the league had Donald Trump, who in 1983 was just another multimillionaire with a large building named after him. Today, he's also a pompous reality TV star with incredibly bad hair and a penchant for ugly feuds with the likes of Rosie O'Donnell.

Tonight's documentary appears to focus heavily on "The Donald" and how he "convinced his colleagues that the league should either move to a fall season and go head-to-head with the NFL, or fold its tents," Tollin writes on

Tollin also says: "I feel more firmly convinced now than ever that the USFL could have worked. It's one thing if an idea fails. It's another if it's just not given the chance to succeed. I think the latter of it is true in the USFL.

"Get a consensus of getting a dozen or more captains or kings of the industry to agree at one time. That's why Donald Trump's decision to move the USFL from spring to fall created an enormous rift in ownership and diminished the league's credibility in the eyes of the fans, which ultimately led to an erosion in attendance and TV ratings and left them with nothing but a lawsuit to cling to for survival."

You can feel the passion from Tollin, who worked for Halcyon Days Productions, or the group that landed the exclusive production rights for the upstart league. That kind of insider perspective should pay dividends for the film. As someone who was too young to enjoy the USFL -- or collect its awesome-looking trading cards, dang -- I'm looking forward to gaining some insight on what went right and what went horribly wrong (you know, like Trump's hair.)

Put on your dusty Memphis Showboats jersey and tune into ESPN tonight at 7 p.m.

As expected, Trump does not have kind things to say about the documentary. For more on the "30 For 30" project, go here.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,

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