Kelvin Bryant rushed out of the gloom of a rainy New Jersey night and an uncertain league future to lead the Baltimore Stars to their second consecutive U.S. Football League title tonight.
Bryant ran for 103 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Stars to a 28-24 victory over the Oakland Invaders before an announced crowd of 49,263 at Giants Stadium.
Bryant's last touchdown, a seven-yard run that was arranged by a crunching lead block by fullback David Riley, erased a 24-21 Invaders lead with 8:15 to play.
The Stars' victory was all but assured when cornerback Jonathan Sutton batted away quarterback Bobby Hebert's fourth-down pass to wide receiver Gordon Banks, who was surrounded by defenders near the goal line, with two minutes to play.
"After 62 games," said Stars Coach Jim Mora in a locker room spilling over with champagne, "this team has never lost two games in a row. That's a tribute to these players."
The Invaders left the soggy field fuming at an official's call made on their final, fruitless drive. On a third-and-two play from the Baltimore five with less than three minutes to play, running back John Williams was held to no gain.
A fight broke out after the play and Oakland fullback Tom Newton was dealt a 15-yard personal foul penalty. So the Invaders faced fourth and 17 from the 20, instead of fourth and two from the five. That's a big difference, especially when you need a touchdown to win.
Hebert fired. Hebert missed. And Invaders Coach Charlie Sumner, his team's league-best 15-5-1 mark now irrelevant, groused, "It was the official's call down there on the sideline. It shouldn't decide a game of this magnitude."
Mora added: "We kept our cool a little better in the second half and I guess it paid off."
Surely, this victory provided the grandest possible conclusion to the Stars' nomadic season of stress. Forget the Stars' 5-6-1 start and their mid-season eviction from Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and the fact none of the players knew which way was home.
"This is the toughest team I've ever been around," said Mora, now 2-1 in USFL title games.
And Bryant, named the game's most valuable player after his sixth 100-yard performance in eight playoff games, said, "It's extra sweet . . . It's a great thrill to win the MVP trophy, but deep down I told myself that I was going after the trophy."
Now, the USFL poohbahs plan to hibernate until the fall of 1986 and hope the USFL's $1.32 billion antitrust suit against the National Football League, enjoining the NFL from appearing on all three networks, brings help.
New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, a press box visitor, looked out at the rain and said, "It's unbelievable. We've had a drought here for months and we get a rainstorm and lightning an hour before the game. And we still got more than 45,000 people here. That says something."
Long after the rain has subsided, the memory of tonight will be of how the Stars used the two elements that carried them throughout the second half of their turbulent season: the running of Bryant and a defiant defense.
Trace victory from the outset:
First, there was quarterback Chuck Fusina completing all five of his passes on the Stars' first drive, to five different receivers. The last completion was a 16-yard scoring strike to his old Penn State buddy, wide receiver Scott Fitzkee. Make it 7-0.
Next there was safety Scott Woerner intercepting two Hebert passes. Both were crucial. The first came in the second quarter, after the Invaders had tied the score at 7 on safety David Greenwood's 44-yard return of an interception.
Hebert overthrew receiver Derek Holloway, who was inside the right seam of a zone defense, and Woerner picked it off at the Oakland 22. Two plays later, Bryant went seven yards up the middle, untouched by all but a fleeing official, for a 14-7 lead with 14:06 left in the half.
Woerner's second interception was one of several key stands made by the Baltimore defense in the second half, which the Stars began with a 21-14 lead.
The defense gave Hebert a fit all night. The USFL's all-time leading passer completed less than half of his passes (14 of 30) for 187 yards tonight.
"We knew he could hurt us deep," Woerner said. "I was just lucky I was in the right place at the right time."
Hebert began zeroing in on the Stars' defense in the third quarter, though. He hit wide receiver Anthony Carter for gains of 18 and 17 yards and scrambled for 19 yards on the Invaders' first drive of the third quarter.
But the Stars' defense held Oakland to a field goal on the drive even after the Invaders reached first-and-goal from the Stars four. This is what followed: Newton ran for two yards and Hebert twice threw incompletions into the end zone.
So Novo Bojovic kicked a 19-yard field goal and Oakland was within 21-17 with 9:28 left in the third quarter.
Several minutes later, Hebert drove his Invaders back to the Baltimore 23, needing a touchdown for the lead. But his third-down pass to Carter, in a crowd near the goal line, was deflected into the end zone where Woerner intercepted.
If the Stars breathed a sigh of relief, it was premature. On the next play, Baltimore fullback Alan Harvin fumbled and linebacker David Shaw recovered at the Stars' 24.
At last, Hebert found gold. He did so by looking past onrushing defensive end Don Fielder and hitting Carter, the wiry, but devastating receiver. He beat cornerback Garcia Lane for a seven-yard touchdown and the Invaders led for the first time in the game, 24-21, with 46 seconds left in the third quarter.
For one last time this season, back came the Stars. And back came Bryant. He finished a nine-play, 49-yard drive with his seven-yard game-winning run, following Riley's block of safety Greenwood.
For the third straight scoring run, Bryant was not even touched by a defender.
And what next for the Philadelphia/College Park/Baltimore Stars, who finished 13-7-1? "Hey, we're the Baltimore Stars," said Mora, the glue to a sticky, sticky Stars season. "I hope (this win) kicks off a heck of a marriage between the Stars and Baltimore."