Charles Anthony Fusina is the kind of guy the USFL was made for. A year ago he was employed by the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a clipboard-carrying substitute quarterback who could only fantasize about leading his team on heroic comebacks. For three years Fusina had seen nothing beyond the broad back of Doug Williams, the Tampa Bay starter. Then, in September, Fusina was traded to the San Francisco 49ers and a week later waived out of the league. "They told me I was caught in a numbers game," he says. By the time of the NFL strike, he was back in Tampa, working as a high school teacher. He was even a substitute at that.
Then along came spring football. Fusina signed with the Philadelphia Stars and quarterbacked them to a 15-3 record and an Atlantic Division title. Last Saturday at Philly's Veterans Stadium in a wildly improbable—if poorly attended (15,684)—first playoff game ever for the USFL, he rallied the Stars from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit to a thrilling 44-38 overtime victory over the Chicago Blitz.
Afterward he stood nonchalantly at his locker, just out of his droopy football pants, being one sweetheart of a guy to everyone who passed by. Many did. Suddenly the 26-year-old former Penn State star had become a poor man's Norm Van Brocklin. These were his numbers. He had completed 22 of 33 passes for 254 yards and three scores, caught a pass for a touchdown and rushed for 66 yards. "I just wanted to get as much out of myself as I could," Fusina said. "There's not much there, I guess. I'm not a prototype. I just wanted to keep going after that football."
Fantasies can be wonderful, especially if they come to pass. Saturday Fusina found himself the substitute for a near miracle as the Stars won their way to this Sunday's USFL championship game in Denver. The Stars' fourth-quarter comeback was a landslide of no small proportions. "I've never seen anything like this in my 12 years of playing football," roared Stars Linebacker John Bunting, a former Philadelphia Eagle. "Never in a million years," muttered Blitz Wide Receiver Trumaine Johnson.
Coach George Allen's Blitz intercepted the first two passes Fusina threw on Saturday and four overall. Philadelphia turned the ball over seven times in the game. The Blitz, gladhanding opportunity, led by 21 points early in the fourth quarter. Sure, Philadelphia had overcome a 24-10 fourth-quarter deficit to beat Chicago 31-24 in the regular season, but this was a money game, a George Allen Blue Plate Special. Yet, when Fusina and the Stars suddenly came charging back in the final minutes, Chicago turned conservative and was DOA in overtime after attempting but two passes in the fourth period. You don't play the game that way, at least not in the USFL. "There's hardly a cornerback in this league," said Boston Breakers Coach Dick Coury, an onlooker Saturday. "If you're trying to win here, you want your offense on the field."
By following that philosophy the Stars had run up the league's best record in the regular season, during which Philadelphia's offense consisted mainly of Fusina handing off to the redoubtable Kelvin Bryant. Bryant had rushed for 1,442 yards, second in the league to Herschel Walker, and been named USFL Player of the Year by the AP. Fusina, meanwhile, had thrown only 10 interceptions all year, but after his three in the first half Saturday, a fan roamed the aisles playing Taps on a fl√ºgelhorn.
The game had begun with Bryant gaining ground over the right side, behind the drive blocking of Irv Eatman, the 280-pound rookie tackle from UCLA. But then came the miscues, and Eatman became frustrated. He was called for a personal foul after sticking his helmet in Linebacker Ed Smith's back and for holding. "We weren't very composed at first," said Eatman.
With 1:55 left before halftime, Chicago's Johnson ran a four-cut corner pattern and took a teardrop pass—the ball came down almost vertically—from Quarterback Bobby Scott for a 12-yard touchdown. That made the score 21-7, and the Stars needed a quick complement to Bryant's running. They resorted to a little razzle-dazzle. Running Back Allen Harvin took a handoff from Fusina at the Blitz 12, and ran—fled, actually—back and to his right before sidearming a curve some 30 yards across the field to a kneeling Fusina, who got up and scored. "That play really didn't come off," said Harvin, a rookie from Cincinnati. "I was swallowed. I just threw it. I couldn't believe it worked."
Harvin is a short (5'9") back with cuboid physique and two diamonds in his left earlobe. His tree-stump legs are the real gems. Throughout the game he mixed phantom and bruising steps, finishing with 87 yards on 20 carries. "We were just as wary of Harvin as we were of Bryant—if not more wary," said Blitz Linebacker Stan White afterward.
"By halftime, we could feel their weariness," said Eatman. "We said, 'They're tired.' We knew we had to pound them, make them feel their age." Indeed, Chicago was more than a year and a half older per man, but the Stars had trouble taking advantage of that. Turnovers continued to plague them, and with 12:04 remaining in the game the score reached 38-17 when Chicago's Tim Spencer ran one yard for a touchdown following Fusina's fourth interception.
Fusina refused to buckle to the Blitz. On Philly's next possession, facing first-and-10 from his own 46, he looked to Scott Fitzkee, a former Penn State teammate, and hit him for a 37-yard gain. "I felt the game change right then," Fusina would say. Two plays later he found Fitzkee over the middle with a floater for a TD. "An area throw," said Fusina. "I never saw it." Score: 38-24, Chicago. Time of drive: 2:35. Time remaining: 9:29.
The Blitz went into a huddle—and might as well have stayed there. Two trips into the line set up third-and-Trumaine. Scott sent Johnson on the fly but left the ball short. Another teardrop, but this time Philadelphia Cornerback Jonathan Sutton was at the Stars' 32 to intercept.
Fusina was now on a run of 10 straight completions. He hit three for 29 yards and then ran for 22 to the Blitz 12. Harvin slashed to the two in two carries before Fusina rolled right and flipped to Fullback Jeff Rodenberger. Touchdown. Score: 38-31, Chicago. Time of drive: 2:47. Time remaining: 4:59.
The Blitz offense trotted out aimlessly. Three inside tries by Kevin Long. Nothing doing. Punt. The sequence creaked with antiquity. "Oh yes! Great! Big NFL George Allen, he couldn't bite the bullet!" shouted Vince Papale, the former Philadelphia Eagle wide receiver, now a diehard Star supporter. Later, Allen admitted, "Our problem was conservatism on offense and not being able to stop them. When that happens, you lose."
Fusina completed four of his next six and ran for 17 more yards to move Philly to Chicago's 11. One completion was to Tom Donovan, another Penn Stater and a relative wisp at 6'0" and 183 pounds. On second-and-10 from the 11, Donovan lined up as a flexed tight end, lost in Eatman's shadow. He delayed, crossed, and Fusina found him with a soft pass he released off his back foot. Donovan gingerly stepped away from prone Safety Don Schwartz and scored. Then he did a full somersault. The fans went into paroxysms. Score: 38-38. Time of drive: 1:56. Time remaining: 0:50.
Chicago couldn't respond. Scott threw a tentative pass that was slapped away. Doug Dennison carried twice. The Blitz offense looked up at the clock. Bang.
Overtime was Star time. Philly took the kickoff and went on a classic ground sortie, led by Eatman, Left Tackle Brad Oates and his younger brother, Bart, the center. Harvin got 22 yards in three carries, Fullback David Riley nine in two, but it was Bryant's game now. For the day he would carry 24 times for 142 yards, and 25 of them came on this drive. Bryant got the last yard in a dive over Philly's right side. "They've got a lot of old guys on their team, and we just kept coming and coming," he said.
"To paraphrase the Sixers, we believed we were a team of destiny," said Bart Oates. Allen has had his share of destiny's teams. In the locker room afterward, he called the Stars "a good club," but he also spoke of the days when he built the Redskins and Rams. When gently reminded that this was a new day and a new league, Allen quieted. And when he left, he wore the pained look of an older man who is suddenly reminded that destiny isn't particular.
Bryant went over the top in overtime for the most important of Philadelphia's 556 yards.
Donovan and the fans flipped when he got past the fallen Schwartz to tie the game.
Fitzkee gave the Blitz fits, catching this TD pass to start the Stars' late comeback.
Quarterback Fusina ran for 66 yards and caught a TD pass.
Chicago turned a sure win into a long afternoon by grounding its game plan.