REMEMBER Sam Mills?
Built like a fireplug, hit like a fire truck, played middle linebacker for the Philadelphia Stars. Moved over to the NFL when the USFL vanished in a puff of Donald Trump's hairspray. Made All-Pro five times. Died young, pancreatic cancer.
Ken Dunek remembers.
"What was he, 5-8-and-a-half, 225 pounds?" Dunek asks. "Pound-for-pound, he was the best player I've ever seen. And certainly the hardest hitter.
"We're playing the Generals in '84, playoff game at Franklin Field. Herschel Walker works up a head of steam at the goal line and Mills hits him so hard it sounded like thunder.
"Next play, they call the same play and Herschel is tip-toeing in there. He wanted no more parts of Sam Mills."
Dunek played tight end for the Eagles in 1980, that NFC championship season. Played tight end for the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars. Went to the championship game all 3 years. Won it twice. Which makes him the answer to a tough "name the player in a pro title game 4-for-4" trivia question.
"I tried to market myself as a good luck charm," Dunek joked the other day, "but the general managers weren't buying it."
So he walked away from a game he picked up late, as a junior on a basketball scholarship at Memphis State. Now, he'd like to make a movie about Mills, he'd like to make a documentary about the Stars, he'd like to make a success of his new magazine, Jersey Man. He'd like to cash just one of those longshot tickets he's always holding.
"I've been bucking the odds for years," he said, his silvery hair and his jutting jaw making him look more like Bill Clinton than ever. "I never played football in high school. When I started playing, people said I'd never make it."
Undrafted, he walked into that cattle stampede of an Eagles camp Dick Vermeil always ran in his early years.
"I had offers from the Rams and the Saints," Dunek recalled. "I picked the Eagles because I thought it would look best to get cut from the best team.
"I didn't think I had a snowball's chance in hell of making the team. Vermeil brought me into his office. I thought he was gonna give me the old 5 minutes, we-want-you-here bit. He must have talked to me for 45 minutes, one-on-one.
"He said, 'We know you're raw, but we think you have the potential or we wouldn't have you here.' I walked away from the meeting thinking if this guy is going to spend this much time with me, I might have a shot."
The shot got deflected by injuries. He was on injured reserve when the Eagles and 412 of Leonard Tose's closest friends made the trip to New Orleans for the Super Bowl.
"We were kept like church mice," is the way Dunek recalls it. "I roomed with Randy Logan and he was in bed by 8:30 every night. The Super Bowl gives a car to every room.
"Vermeil nixed that, gave the cars to Tose for his friends. The Raiders are out every night, getting drunk, breaking curfew. We thought we were gonna kill 'em."
Got killed instead.
"They had been there before," Dunek said, softly. "They could handle the stuff that went on. It is an overwhelming thing."
It probably helped him prepare for the stuff that went on with the Stars.
"That first year," he said, "three weeks before the season, the coach, George Perles, quits. They hire Jim Mora and he has 3 weeks to assemble a staff."
They went 15-3, playing at the Vet, and lost to the Michigan Panthers, 24-22, in the title game. Next year, they're shuttled to Franklin Field and they go 16-2 and wallop the Arizona Wranglers, 23-3.
"They threw us a parade, right down Broad Street," Dunek said. "And then Trump decides he wants the league to play in the fall. We couldn't compete with the Eagles. But now, looking back, if we'd played them, I'm not sure who would have won."
They moved to Maryland, sort of.
"We continued to live here, to practice here," Dunek said. "Every game was a road game. I'd have to drive more than 3 hours to a home game. It was easier to fly to an away game.
"We got off to a bad start and had to run the table to get in the playoffs. We did and we won it all again. No parade in Baltimore. I'm not sure why."
That was 1985, the last game in the USFL's hectic history that included a $1 award in an anti-trust suit against the NFL.
"It was trebled to three bucks," Dunek said, sadly. "The jury knew that was ridiculous, but they wanted the judge to set the penalty. By law, he couldn't."
And now, 25 years later, Dunek wants to make a documentary about that team and those times.
"It's a good story," he said firmly. "And good stories remain good stories." *
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