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A Brief History of the Houston Gamblers

by Paul Reeths
December 2, 2021 - United States Football League (USFL) - Houston Gamblers


Original Houston Gamblers logo
Original Houston Gamblers logo
(Houston Gamblers)

On November 22, the FOX television network unveiled the teams which will comprise the new United States Football League when the circuit hits the field in 2022. Though FOX's USFL is a completely new entity, all its team names were initially used in the original USFL which played from 1983 to 1985.

Below is a brief history of the first Houston Gamblers franchise.

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With the NFL's Houston Oilers having won just three games combined between the 1982 and 1983 seasons, the Houston Gamblers joined the USFL in 1984 as one of six new franchises that swelled the league's membership to 18 teams. Prominent player agent Jerry Argovitz and his ownership group bought the team directly from USFL founder David Dixon. The "Founder's Franchise" proved to be Dixon's payment for organizing the original USFL.

Gamblers ownership stumbled out of the gate. An ill-advised contract with Detroit Lions star running back Billy Sims, an Argovitz client who had just re-signed with the Lions, was struck down in court. A protracted argument with the Astrodome over the team's lease caused uncertainty heading into the 1984 season. Fortunately, coach Jack Pardee held an ace up his sleeve that would electrify the city.

Most football fans had not heard the term "Run and Shoot" before quarterback Jim Kelly and the Houston Gamblers took the field in 1984. The pass-heavy offense had been confined to high school and college play. Under offensive coordinator Mouse Davis, Houston provided its first test in the pros, and the Gamblers amassed 1,162 points in two seasons. Kelly was the triggerman, throwing for an unbelievable 5,219 yards and 44 touchdowns in his rookie season.

Kelly wasn't the only offensive weapon the Gamblers had, though, as his "Mouseketeer" receivers included Gerald McNeil, Clarence Verdin, Richard Johnson and Ricky Sanders, all of whom would later play in the NFL. With most opposing defenses playing the pass, Todd Fowler and Sam Harrell became dangerous runners out of the Gamblers' backfield. Linebacker Kiki DeAyala, cornerback Will Lewis, defensive end Pete Catan and nose tackle Tony Fitzpatrick anchored a very capable defense.

The Gamblers roared as an expansion team, going 13-5 and winning the Central Division title. The Arizona Wranglers ended Houston's dream year by scoring two touchdowns in the final 6:11 and beating the Gamblers, 17-16, in the first round of the playoffs.

Kelly followed his rookie performance with 4,623 yards and 39 TDs in 1985 despite missing several games with an injury. The USFL's announced move to the fall beginning in 1986 had a decidedly negative effect on the fans of Houston, though, as attendance dropped more than 9,000 per game in 1985. Still, a 10-8 record boosted Houston into the playoffs where another one-point loss, 22-21, followed as Jim Miller kicked five field goals for the Birmingham Stallions and Houston kicker Tony Fritsch missed a last-second chance.

By the end of the 1985 season, Houston's ownership group had run out of money with Kelly among the team's creditors. With the Oilers already playing fall football in Houston, the team merged with Donald Trump's New Jersey Generals, resulting in a star-studded roster that would have paired Kelly and company with Herschel Walker and a host of former NFL players in the New York market had the league played in 1986.

Their finest hour: Later dubbed "The Greatest Game No One Saw" by Sports Illustrated, the Gamblers opened the 1985 season with high hopes of contending for the Western Conference crown, but the Steve Young-led Los Angeles Express had other ideas. L.A. jumped out to a commanding 33-13 lead with under ten minutes left in the game before Kelly brought the Gamblers back on lighting-fast scoring tosses of 52, 40 and 39 yards. Kelly finished the game with a pro-football-record 574 yards passing and five touchdowns. Few members of the intimate crowd at the Los Angeles Coliseum would ever forget Kelly's sterling performance.

Years of existence: 1984-1985
Owner: Jerry Argovitz, Alvin Lubetkin, Bernard Lerner, Jay Roulier
Stadium: Astrodome (50,495)
Colors: Black, Gambler red, gray, white and yellow gold
Overall Regular Season Record: 23-13 (.639)
Overall Playoff Record: 0-2

Yearly Standings and Average Home Attendances
1984: 13-5 (28,152)
1985: 10-8 (19,120)

Adapted from USFLsite.com.

Interested in learning more about the United States Football League? Buy The United States Football League, 1982-1986.





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Original Houston Gamblers logo
Original Houston Gamblers logo

  

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