The Washington Federals' tragicomic season began in seemingly endless defeat and hard rain and finished five months later in surprising victory and relentless sunshine yesterday before 11,039 at RFK Stadium.
The Federals' 21-14 win over the Philadelphia Stars, the team most likely to win the U.S. Football League's championship, was an unerring display of spirit and skill that took the rawest edges off the team's final 4-14 record. After a season marred as much by misfortune as ineptitude, the Federals won three of their last four games.
There was blood on Coach Ray Jauch's sleeve afterward, an adequate symbol of the tumultuous year he has endured. "There was a point with us this year that I never knew what would happen," said Jauch. "To beat a team like Philadelphia -- even though the game meant nothing to them -- is great for us."
"It was perfect," said the team's owner, Berl Bernhard. "I couldn't be happier."
Before the game, everyone, including the Federals coaches, knew an outstanding performance would be required to win. Philadelphia's 15-3 record is the league's best. The Stars will face the Chicago Blitz in Philadelphia on next Saturday, and the Michigan Panthers will host the Oakland Invaders next Sunday in the league's two-round playoff series. The winners will play for the championship at Denver's Mile High Stadium on July 17.
Although the Stars played without their outstanding rookie running back, Kelvin Brynt, who decided at the last moment to miss the game with a minor ankle sprain, the Federals faced a balanced, quality competitor.
Philadelphia scored its first touchdown on an opportunity provided by the Federals. Washington punter Dana Moore thought he had no time to kick after a poor snap, ran in no discernible direction, and was sacked on Washington's 48.
Allen Harvin, who ran for 119 yards in Philadelphia's 34-3 victory over the Federals on Easter Sunday, carried for gains of nine and 11 yards before running for a 17-yard score with 1:12 left in the first period.
One drive later, quarterback Chuck Fusina put together a deft, 80-yard, 12 play drive, culminating in an 11-yard scoring pass to Willie Collier.
The Federals were hurting, especially at wide receiver. Both Joey Walters and Mike Holmes did not dress for the game and Mike Harris played only periodically. But quarterback Kim McQuilken used his substitute alternatives well, especially Stan Rome, who caught eight passes for 122 yards.
Washington scored its first touchdown when McQuilken hit Rome in the right corner of the end zone for a 19-yard scoring play. Sandro Vitiello, however, shanked the extra point try, and the half ended with the Federals trailing, 14-6.
But with the start of the third quarter, McQuilken artfully led the Federals against the league's strongest defense. McQuilken ignored a spate of penalties and hit nine straight passes on a 77-yard drive. Billy Taylor bulled his way six yards for the score. McQuilken then hit Mike Fisher on a timing pattern for the two-point conversion and a tied game with 7:32 left in the third period.
Of his string of completions, McQuilken said, "I think you get that feeling. It's intangible. I wasn't even aware of it out there. When everything's clicking like that, they come easy."
The Stars had the ball for only four plays in the third period, and the Federals again went on a long march that extended into the final period. McQuilken began using his running backs, Taylor, Craig James and Curtis Bledsoe more, and the result has a similarly fruitful end.
After Taylor carried 13 yards to the Philadelphia one-yard line, he failed twice to put the ball over. So McQuilken sent four running backs and lineman Vaughn-Harmon away from the ball with no one but the quarterback in the backfield.
"It was supposed to be a pass but it was a quick snap," Jauch said later.
McQuilken got his hands around the ball, ignored his receivers and dove over the line behind a block by 326-pound Tony Loia. The touchdown was McQuilken's first as a professional and it gave the Federals a surprising 21-14 lead with 12:49 left in the game.
Thereafter the Federals faded on offense, but so did the Stars. A series of crucial defensive plays sealed the win for Washington.
Gregg Butler broke up a third-down pass intended for Collier.
Mike Corvino, who missed practice all week with a sprained ankle, intercepted a pass intended for Jeff Rodenberger on Washington's 40.
A series later, Corvino and Bennie Smith each had sacks on Fusina and Mike Guess batted away a deap pass to end Philadelphia's final attempt to score.
Afterwards, the locker room was filled with the shouts of players who had endured everything from routs to ridicule. It is just a game, of course, but the Federals endless season of games had been more trying than anyone could ever have predicted.
McQuilken, who was 18 of 27 for 208 yards, no interceptions and a touchdown, said, "This was our championship game."
And Doug Greene, who finished the year with nine interceptions, said, "We played them. We did. Shoulda been this way all year. All year long shoulda been this way."