The crazy story behind Steve Young's crazy 43-year USFL contract

Steve Young, left, with his agent Leigh Steinberg after signing with the USFL's Los Angeles Express (AP)
Steve Young, left, with his agent Leigh Steinberg after signing with the USFL's Los Angeles Express (AP)

This offseason, Shutdown Corner will travel down memory lane with a series of stories presenting some interesting and sometimes forgotten stories from the NFL's past. Join us as we relive some of the greatest and craziest moments in the sport's history.

A $42 million pro football contract barely causes a ripple anymore. In 1984? Steve Young's deal that brought him to the USFL was a tsunami.

Oh, and the deal was for 43 years. Yeah, it was a memorable one.

The historic contract and the story behind how it got signed, from Young’s agent Leigh Steinberg, sum up the USFL’s existence in general: fun, different and a little insane.

First things first: Young’s contract with the Los Angeles Express never came close to paying $42 million or spanning 43 years. There are conflicting reports on how much the contract was supposed to be worth; most say the deal was $40 million though Steinberg remembers it being about $42 million in total. The numbers in the deal weren’t necessarily exaggerated, but it wasn't exactly all guaranteed money either (this is apparently a never-ending theme with football contracts). The many years and millions tacked on the end were in the form of an annuity. But when it came time for Young to fund the annuity, he decided to get whatever money he could out of the failing league before it disappeared.

So no, Young won’t still be getting paid on that contract in 2026. He made a reported $4.8 million total from the deal.

Even though the contract was a fraction of what it was supposed to be, it still lives on in football lore. So does the story of how it got signed.

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Young was a star at BYU but didn’t want to play in the USFL. It’s not like he grew up rooting for the Express or the Philadelphia Stars or Chicago Blitz.

“Steve grew up with a poster of Roger Staubach over his bed,” Steinberg said. “He wanted to play in the NFL.”

But the USFL wasn’t shy about bidding against the NFL for star college talent. And Express general manager Don Klosterman also tried selling Young on how he'd develop as a player with the Express. The Express had John Hadl, a former Pro Bowl quarterback, as their new coach. Legendary offensive guru Sid Gillman was working as a consultant with the team. The Express was signing other talented players on offense, including future Hall-of-Fame left tackle Gary Zimmerman.

The Express also knew Young had interest in law school. Klosterman played at Loyola and said he could help get Young into law school there. The Express went all out to convince Young to come to the USFL.

Steve Young with the Los Angeles Express (AP)
Steve Young with the Los Angeles Express (AP)

Then there was the money. Steinberg went to Klosterman’s home overlooking Los Angeles to negotiate. At that time Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, the first pick in the 1983 NFL draft, was making a little less than a million a year. The Express offered Young more than Elway was getting. And they just kept offering more.

“They kept increasing the offer,” Steinberg said. “So it was easy enough to just say no.”

When the offer got to a certain point and it was going to cost a fortune in taxes for Young, Steinberg wanted to get creative. Did they ever.

Steinberg said the deal was for $5 million over the first four years, with a $37 million annuity bringing the total value to about $42 million in total. The Cincinnati Bengals had the top pick in the NFL draft. They were reportedly offering about $3.5 million. Steinberg called Mike Brown, then the Bengals assistant general manager, and told him about the Express’ offer.

“I said, ‘Here’s where we’re at financially, would you have any interest in matching this?’” Steinberg said. “He said, ‘Yes, if I discover an oil field under our practice facility.’”

The Bengals were out. And in the early morning hours Klosterman and Steinberg agreed to the basic framework of a historic deal.

And that was just the start of the madness.

Steinberg flew up to San Francisco to meet with Express owner J. William Oldenburg at his offices and execute the deal. As you can imagine, it takes time to actually put together a 43-year, $42 million contract. As you can imagine, if you know much about the USFL’s sometimes laughable history, the Express’ executives hadn’t prepared any of it before Steinberg arrived.

Oldenburg is a colorful figure in USFL history. He was known to fly off the handle. He was seen, for lack of a better term, as a crazy man.

"He was," said Chris Dufresne, who covered the Express for the Los Angeles Times. "We were kept at arm's length from him most of the time. He was this short guy with a bulbous nose and a red face, and we'd hear him during games pounding his fist and yelling. He'd be running around like Yosemite Sam, with smoke coming out of his ears."

By the time Young had finished his rookie season with the Express, Oldenburg was outed as a fraud who didn’t have nearly as much money as he said. He went under federal investigation for alleged business irregularities and the USFL took over the team. The Epxpress didn’t have an owner the entire 1985 season, the last season before the USFL folded.

But in early March of 1984, Oldenburg was in charge of the Express. And as Young's massive contract was written up, it wasn’t getting done quick enough for Oldenburg.

“He got progressively angrier,” Steinberg said. “And he had more adult beverages.”

At one point Oldenburg started yelling at Young, asking if the holdup was over guarantees.

“’He says, ‘Here’s all the effing guarantees you need,’ and he started throwing $100 bills on the floor,’” Steinberg said.

“He points at me, ‘Is it more money you want? Money’s the problem?’ And he takes a wad of $100s out of his pocket and throws them at me,” Young said in the ESPN documentary “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” “And I’m like, ‘Well, it doesn’t hurt, I have nothing right now.’ So I’m kind of quietly picking it up.”

The hours passed. Oldenburg kept having drinks in his private office, Steinberg said, while the lawyers wrote up the contract.

“It’s 2 a.m. He’s now really furious,” Steinberg said. “He says ‘I want to see Steve and Leigh in my office now.’

“We go up to his private office. And he’s yelling at Steve. And poking Steve.”

Oldenburg punctuated all of the things he was giving Young in the deal with a poke to the chest.

“Poke, poke, poke,” Steinberg said. “Steve finally says, ‘Mr. Oldenburg, I’ve never done this, but if you poke me one more time in the chest, I’ll deck you.'"

Young with Express owner J. William Oldenburg (AP)
Young with Express owner J. William Oldenburg (AP)

That didn’t exactly calm Oldenburg down. Steinberg said Oldenburg stepped away, still enraged, and grabbed a chair like he was going to throw it out the window.

“We’re up 40 floors. Steve grabbed his arm and stopped him,” Steinberg said. “I’m like, wow, is this really happening?”

That was the scene as one of the most famous contracts in sports history was signed.

Meanwhile, Dufresne was reporting on the story for the L.A. Times. The USFL being what it was, Dufresne was a young reporter asked to cover the Express and UC-Irvine basketball, because the Times didn't want to put an older reporter on an Express beat they didn't really want to cover. So in between filing a UC-Irvine basketball story, Dufresne was in the sports information office at Irvine reporting on Young's historic deal. And his editors weren't excited about the story.

"They almost laughed in my face, for good reason. They were skeptical to say the least," Dufresne said. "There was a sense we were getting played for publicity, and you know what? It was formulated to announce a huge number. A lot of it was smoke and mirrors. But the actual dollar amount was still big money."

After Oldenburg's blowup in his office, everyone broke to get some sleep. Oldenburg apologized to Young. And in this time, Steinberg said, Young started getting phone calls as word started getting out that Young was close to signing with the USFL. Howard Cosell called to lobby him to come to the NFL. The next call was from NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Joe Namath and Staubach called.

“It goes on and on and on,” Steinberg said.

But the deal got done. Young became a member of the Express. The contract was officially announced at a fancy Beverly Hills hotel. To get attention in Los Angeles you need to make a big splash, and this was a huge one for the fledgling league. Steinberg said it was the biggest press conference he had ever seen.

"Take the money part of it away, and it was still a huge signing," Dufresne said. "No matter how illegitimate the operation was, these were legit people they were signing."

Unfortunately, signing the contract might have been the highlight of Young’s Express career. Young played on a mediocre Express team for two years. In the second he played for a team without an owner, for a league that was clearly struggling.

[Click here to read about Young's classic battle against Jim Kelly in the USFL, as the Express and Houston Gamblers squared off in the greatest game nobody saw.]

When it came time for Young to fund the annuity at $900,000 or take about a million in cash, he opted for the cash payout.

“Nobody could be sure if the league would be there,” Steinberg said.

The league wasn't around for long. The USFL folded after the 1985 season. It made the ill-fated decision to sue the NFL as part of a plan to move its games from the spring to the fall. The owner who pushed the lawsuit hardest was the New Jersey Generals’ Donald Trump (whatever happened to that guy?). The USFL won in court but received only about $3 in damages. The USFL was done.

Young went to the NFL, first with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then with the San Francisco 49ers, where he became a Pro Football Hall of Famer.

While the Express contract ended up being worth nowhere near $42 million, it was still historic. Because of the USFL bidding war, big-name players finally had options and leverage. There was no free agency in the NFL at that point.

“The USFL was the Oklahoma Land Rush for players and agents,” Steinberg said.“It was a golden age for player compensation. A liberating experience.”

Maybe NFL free agency, the incredible boom in rookie contracts (which has since been quelled with the 2011 collective-bargaining agreement) and a major increase in all NFL contracts would have happened with or without the USFL. But there’s no question some of the most famous USFL deals started to change the landscape.

And no deal, maybe in football history, is more famous than Young’s USFL contract.

"They were starving for attention," Dufresne said. "And this was certainly an attention-getting deal."

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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