To get ahead of the story a lot, let's imagine it's January and Boomer Esiason is giving his left arm a day off after pitching Maryland to victory in Some Big Bowl Game.
When what happens?
And in come Ray Jauch and Berl Bernhard, the Washington Federals' brains and bankbook.
"Boomer," they say in one voice, so eager are they, "our training camp opens next week. How's about it?"
"Mr. Bernhard, Coach Jauch," Esiason says, "give me number 7 and a locker next to Dave Pacella and I'll be right down."
Real life is more complicated. There are, as Maryland learned last night, West Virginians anxious to take Esiason apart limb by precious limb. The Mountaineers' 31-21 victory left the Terrapins embarrassed before a full house of 54,715 at frenzied Byrd Stadium. Bounced off the ground so hard in the first half that his right shoulder was largely useless thereafter, the left-handed Esiason still completed 23 of 42 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns.
On a night full of assorted pains, real and psychic, Esiason looked to be the stuff the Federals need. But the complications of real life--million-dollar contracts, That Other League, shoulder injuries--remind us there are miles to go before the Federals can sleep with a deal giving them Maryland's best quarterback ever.
The news is, Esiason may be as eager to play for the Federals as they are to have him.
"It wouldn't bother me to play in a league that's only 2 years old," he said. "The NFL has a certain image, but I'm not locked into that image . . . I like to be part of something new. Like Maryland now. I'm one of the building blocks. Twenty years from now, guys will say, 'Remember 1982? When Bobby Ross took over as coach? His quarterback was Boomer Esiason.'
"It's a challenge. The Federals would be that way for me. I like the Washington-Baltimore area. I've had five fantastic years here. I'd love to play for the Colts, Redskins or Federals."
When Esiason's words were repeated to Bernhard, the Federals owner said, "That's wonderful. Clearly, Boomer is one of the people who would do us a great deal of good. The Federals will give Washington a first-rate team next year. Boomer . . . would be an attraction at the gate. But the bottom-line condition is that he is a top-quality player."
The United States Football League had a good rookie year. Ten million television viewers, and 46,535 nonpartisan locals watched the Michigan-Philadelphia championship game in Denver--and that in mid-July. The 12-team league grows to 18 next year.
A sure sign of the USFL's success is the anxiety apparent in the National Football League. The Chargers bollixed the Gary Anderson case. The Bengals will lose Cris Collinsworth and Dan Ross to the USFL next spring. The Michigan Panthers' key offensive linemen were stolen from the Steelers. If the Redskins need offensive line help, they may wish they had tried harder to keep Fred Dean from switching leagues.
The USFL helped itself again lately by signing two top quarterbacks. Jim Kelly of Miami, Buffalo's first-round pick, chose a $3.5-million deal with the USFL expansion team in Jacksonville. Tulsa guaranteed Doug Williams $3 million while the Buccaneers were unwilling, in their NFL arrogance, to guarantee anything.
Quarterbacks are stars. Stars sell tickets. Al Davis knew that when, as the piratical commissioner of the original AFL, he plotted to steal NFL quarterbacks. Rather than lose stars, the NFL caved in to a merger with Davis' league.
To build on a good rookie year, the USFL needs throwing stars. It's nice that Bobby Hebert, a quarterbacking anonymity from Northeast Louisiana, became the USFL's most valuable player at Michigan. But when a league's passing leaders are named Hebert, Besana, Landry and Jordan, that league is hurting.
That's why Kelly and Williams are important, and why Esiason, off a good year, would put warm bodies in RFK seats for the Federals. The USFL will have arrived when a young quarterback, asked to list his models, recites names such as Bobby Hebert and Boomer Esiason.
Esiason's list now runs to NFL names. He admired the recklessness of Bert Jones with the Colts. ("I wear No. 7 because Jones did. I loved the way he played like a maniac.") Terry Bradshaw is Boomer's kind of guy, too, along with Joe Theismann ("I like the way Joe moves around because I consider myself mobile and I'd like to be like him").
Near the top today, we mentioned an obscure name: Dave Pacella, a rookie from Maryland who is the Federals' best offensive lineman. As captain of the Terrapins and a bright guy, Pacella "was on a pedestal for me," Esiason said.
So it meant a lot to the young quarterback when Pacella sought him out after a tough loss to Penn State in the '82 season opener. Esiason hurt Maryland with a late turnover.
"I never told Dave how much it meant, because, you know, sometimes you don't say these things. But after that game, Dave said, 'Boomer, I know you're going to lead us, don't let this get you down, I have faith in you,' " Esiason said.
"When somebody of Dave Pacella's stature says that, you listen. I thought, 'If he thinks I'm good, I better be.' "
Now so good he might win the Heisman Trophy this year, Esiason has asked Pacella about the Federals. "I asked Dave if he had any reservations about going there. He said not at all, he's happy about it. If I went with the Feds, Dave would be a big reason why."