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A History Of Elite Football Players Found Outside The NFL

Steve Young scans the field with the LA Express in the USFL (Photo: USATSI)

As we gear up for the XFL Draft from October 15th-16th, many are wondering who will end up in the league. Commissioner Oliver Luck has sent out 800 invites to players and there’s been a lot of speculation as to who will end up where.

Apparently, the “vast majority” of these players have spent time playing professional football in the NFL, AAF or CFL. Critics might say there isn’t enough talent to field, but history has proven them wrong time and time again.

The XFL is not the first league that will be vying for player interest . Since the pre-merger days of the AFL plucking old school greats like Lance Alworth and Billy Cannon away from the NFL, the football world has seen plenty of quality players taking the field elsewhere.

The United States Football League

Herschel Walker picks up yards for the New Jersey Generals<br> Sports Illustrated

The United States Football League ran from 1982 to 1986. In its 5 years, it fielded some of the most recognizable NFL Stars of the 80’s and 90’s.

Steve Young. Jim Kelly. Herschel Walker. Reggie White. Gary Zimmerman. Three First-ballot Hall of Famers, a transcendent athlete and one of the greatest tackles in football history all got started outside of the nation’s most recognizable league.

Steve Young passed for 5,037 yards and 19 TD’s for the Los Angeles Express, Jim Kelly passed for 9,482 yards and 83 TD’s with the Houston Gamblers, while Herschel Walker ran for 5,562 yards and 55 TD’s in New Jersey. Reggie White had 23.5 sacks with the Memphis Showboats.

These players were not just taking a detour en route to NFL stardom, they were invested, playing ball, and playing well.

Why’d they choose to forgo starting their careers in the NFL? Steve Young didn’t want to be a backup, Jim Kelly ironically didn’t want to play in the cold and Herschel Walker wanted to go pro after his Junior year before he was eligible for the NFL.

This upstart league presented more opportunities for playing time, more control of their careers and a chance to prove themselves at the next level The XFL offers all of these.

The Canadian Football League

Warren Moon sending the ball downfield for the Edmonton Eskimos <br>Brian GavriloffEdmonton Journal

Our northern neighbors have played their version of the game for decades, and the Canadian Football League has been a springboard for some incredible players.

First Ballot Hall of Famer Warren Moon is best remembered for his historic 17 year run in the NFL in which he passed for 49,325 yards and 291 TD’s, but scouts told him he should switch positions before the 1978 Draft.

He wanted to throw the ball. After being passed over in the Draft, he signed with the Edmonton Eskimos. In six seasons up north, he led his team to 5 consecutive Grey Cup victories to the tune of 21,228 yards and 144 TD’s. He could have stayed in the CFL, but when his coach Hugh Campbell moved from Edmonton to lead the Houston Oilers, Moon followed suit. The rest is history.

Many all-time greats known in the US also took part in the CFL at some point in their careers. Pro Bowl Quarterback Doug Flutie (who got started in the USFL) played nearly half of his career in Canada, and unarguably experienced the most success there. With the Calgary Stampeders and Toronto Argonauts, he won 3 Grey Cups and was the game’s MVP Each time.

A 6x league MVP, he passed for 41,355 yards and 270 TD’s as opposed to 14,715/86 in the NFL. The more wide-open air attacks of the Canadian League better suited his style of play and earned him a spot in the CFL Hall of Fame.

Other players like Joe Theismann, Cameron Wake and Joe Horn experienced success in Canada, and the give and take between these two leagues proves that giving players diverse opportunities is good for football.

Players who may or may not have gotten a chance in the NFL get to showcase their skills there, make a living and play ball, and the XFL aims to do the same.

Developmental Leagues

Kurt Warner on the field for the Amsterdam Admirals 1998<br>Sports Illustrated

Conventional football wisdom says that players needing development should sit as 2nd, or even 3rd stringers and learn before making their first start.

While we’ve seen this work, the best teacher is experience and it’s hard for young, raw players to develop their skill sets with limited practice reps and preseason play.

Most recently, we’ve seen the AAF experience a burst of attention as viewers proved hungry for springtime football. While short-lived, the AAF proved that spring ball is a viable market and showcased the wealth of untapped football talent available.

17 players from the AAF are currently in the NFL this season, with 8 on active rosters. Devante Bausby (CB-Broncos) and D’Ernest Johnson (RB-Browns) are seeing significant snaps.

While the NFL currently relies just on the NCAA to develop talent, there have been other avenues for players in the past. NFL Europe (aka the World League) experienced a successful run with Oliver Luck as president.

Players like Defensive MVP James Harrison, Pro Bowler Jake Delhomme, and most famously, Super Bowl Champion and 2x MVP Kurt Warner all whet their teeth in Europe.

While the XFL is not aiming to become a feeder league to the NFL, the fact is that players wishing to develop their skills on the field and chase their dreams are going to be attracted to the idea of spring ball.

Since the XFL does not require players to be three years removed from high school to be eligible like the NFL, college players looking to play pro ball and make money could jump ship.

The XFL (2001)

XFL MVP and Million Dollar Game Champ Tommy Maddox steps up in the pocket for the Los Angeles Xtreme Tom HauckALLSPORT

In its one season run, the original XFL saw 42 future and former NFL players take the field, with 7 Super Bowl Champs among those. Among these, Tommy Maddox by far had the most successful football career.

Maddox was taken in the first round of the 1992 Draft to succeed John Elway with the Denver Broncos, but Elway was far from done. Maddox spent time with a few other teams around the NFL, and eventually moved to the Arena Football League, where he put up 62 TD’s for the New Jersey Red Dogs in 2000.

The next year, he signed with the Los Angeles Xtreme, and won both the XFL MVP and the Million Dollar Game. In 10 games, he led the league in both passing yards (2186) and TD’s (18).

Since the League folded he was unable to continue his success in Los Angeles, but his football career was far from over.

The NFL had noticed his dominant performance in the XFL, and in 2001 he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The dynamic Kordell Stewart was the starting QB with the Steelers at the time, but inconsistent play led to Maddox taking the reins.

In 2002, he started 12 games, passing for 2,836 yards and 20 TD’s. He was name the Comeback Player of the Year for his efforts leading the team to the playoffs.

Maddox started all 16 games in 2003, breaking the team’s all time completions record. While the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger the next year, Maddox remained a key figure in the locker room, contributing to their Super Bowl runs in 2004 and 2005.

Football Talent Runs Deep

In a football landscape where 32 teams are constantly scrapping for top players, its easy to see why some might think there’s not enough to go around. It’s not enough to be a top-50 passer in a country of 300+ million, quarterbacks have to be in the top-15, or even top-10 discussions to be considered relevant.

Yet as we’ve seen time and time again in football, proclaimed saviors can flop while unlikely heroes take the game by storm. The question now is: who’s next?

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Matt Nagashima has been covering the XFL since before the 2019 Draft, and has witnessed history being made as a Credentialed Reporter for the Dallas Renegades. While he is engrossed with the X's and O's, the roster building and more, it has always been his goal to keep the players first in mind in coverage, showing the human aspect of this sport behind all the action on the field. With Dany Garcia and Dwayne The Rock Johnson now at the helm, he's excited to see all the opportunities that this league will create for players to showcase their talent and make their dreams come true.

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