March 6, 2014

1983: Bandits Pull Out Win Over Breakers in USFL Debut

March 6, 1983 marked the debut of the United States Football League with the first game starting in Tampa between the Tampa Bay Bandits and Boston Breakers, just ahead of four other Sunday afternoon contests.

The Bandits were owned by John Bassett, a Canadian businessman who had once operated the Memphis Southmen in the World Football League. The head coach was Steve Spurrier, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at the University of Florida who played in the NFL with the 49ers and Buccaneers and had most recently been offensive coordinator at Duke. 33-year-old John Reaves (pictured above) was the starting quarterback and, like his coach, had also starred at Florida but had little success as a pro and had been dogged by drug and alcohol problems off the field. Reaves had last played for Houston in 1981 and was selling real estate in that city when the opportunity to play in the new league came along.

Boston also had a veteran quarterback in John Walton, a 35-year-old who had last played as a backup with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1979 before becoming head coach at Elizabeth City State for three years. Walton was also a veteran of the Continental and World Football Leagues along the way and had demonstrated a strong passing arm. Head Coach Dick Coury was an experienced NFL assistant who had also been head coach with the WFL’s Portland Storm.

There was plenty of hoopla surrounding the opening game at Tampa Stadium with a good crowd of 42,447 fans in attendance on a sunny, 80-degree afternoon. The Bandits came out fast, running their first eight plays without a huddle, but it was Boston’s Tim Mazzetti who put the first points on the board a minute before the end of the first quarter with a 30-yard field goal.

In the second quarter, the Bandits put together a 75-yard drive in six plays that culminated in Reaves throwing to RB Ricky Williams for a five-yard touchdown with six minutes remaining in the first half. Zenon Andrusyshyn added the extra point. Boston responded with an eight-play, 80-yard series that also led to a TD on a pass from John Walton to RB Anthony Steels. Mazzetti successfully added the PAT to give the Breakers a three-point lead at 10-7.

In their first possession of the third quarter, the Bandits drove 83 yards to score again. Reaves completed all four of his passes, the last one for a six-yard touchdown to WR Eric Truvillion. Moving the ball effectively later in the period and ahead by 14-10, it seemed as though the Bandits were on the verge of taking control of the game as they faced third-and-goal at the Boston three yard line. However, Reaves fired a pass into the end zone that was tipped twice before being intercepted by CB Terry Love five yards deep in the end zone. Love proceeded to run 102 yards before being brought down at the Tampa Bay three by Truvillion. Three plays later, the Breakers re-took the lead on a one-yard carry by FB Tony Davis and Mazzetti added the point after.

The momentum had shifted and Tampa Bay’s next possession also ended with an interception, but the Breakers were unable to add points. With 10:17 left in the game, Reaves went long to WR Willie Gillespie for a 33-yard touchdown that put the Bandits back in front to stay, Andrusyshyn capping the score with his third extra point of the contest.

That was it for the scoring. Holding a four-point lead and with 1:35 left in the contest, the Bandits were in possession at their own 29 and Coach Spurrier gambled by seeking to convert a fourth-and-one situation. The Breakers stopped the ensuing running play by RB Greg Boone but were flagged for being offsides. Tampa Bay was able to run out the clock and win by a final score of 21-17. 

The Bandits easily outpaced Boston in total yards (470 to 225) and first downs (26 to 14). However, the Breakers led in time of possession (31:02 to 28:58) and Tampa Bay turned the ball over twice, to one turnover suffered by the visitors.

John Reaves had a fine performance, completing 28 of 39 passes for 358 yards and three touchdowns, along with two interceptions. Ricky Williams, who played collegiately at Florida State, got the starting nod at running back due to a foot injury suffered by RB George Ragsdale on the opening kickoff and rushed for 97 yards on 25 carries and also had 6 catches for 49 more yards that included a TD (his only production of the season, as he went down with a knee injury the following week). WR Danny Buggs led the club with 7 pass receptions for 112 yards and Eric Truvillion contributed 6 catches for 88 yards and a score.

For the Breakers, John Walton was successful on 17 of 28 throws for 163 yards and a TD along with one interception. Tony Davis rushed for 29 yards and a touchdown on 12 attempts while RB Anthony Steels gained 23 yards on 6 carries and added 4 receptions for 35 yards. Veteran WR Charlie Smith, a former teammate of Walton’s in Philadelphia, gained a team-leading 48 yards on his two catches.

“I was very much pleased with what I saw,” said former Steelers RB Rocky Bleier, who was on hand to cover the game for a Pittsburgh television station. “It was wide open, there was a good selection of plays and there wasn’t the kind of sloppy play you might expect for a game like this.”

The opening-week win was the first of four straight for the Bandits, but they stumbled during the second half of the season and the resulting 11-7 record left them third in the Central Division and just short of the playoffs. The loss of John Reaves with a broken wrist was a factor, although backup Jimmy Jordan performed well until also going down with an injury.

Boston recovered to go 11-7 as well, good enough for second in the Atlantic Division although also on the outside looking in for the postseason.