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David Hughes: Sycamores remember when USFL, Trump made sports headlines 40 years ago

May 11—Eric Robinson and I first met in the Indiana State Arena basement weightroom, affectionately nicknamed "The Dungeon," in the early 1980s.

That was when ISU's scholarship and chosen walk-on athletes often shared that poorly lit facility — and the indoor track surrounding it — with "everyday students" such as myself. Most of the real athletes, such as Eric, didn't mind our presence ... but the coaches would throw us commoners out when their workouts turned serious.

While being interviewed for this column a few days ago, Eric acknowledged that he — like myself — often climbed the steel cage to enter The Dungeon without permission during Christmas breaks and other times that the Arena was closed just to be able to lift weights. We shared horrifying stories of how we could have died bench-pressing 225 pounds for reps with no spotters and no cellphones (they didn't exist) inside a dark, padlocked weightroom encircled by a high fence.

Eric revealed that when he couldn't make his last rep with 225, he tipped the bar sideways — he didn't use tight-fitting collars to keep the plates in place — so the plates would fall to the floor on one end and then the other.

On the other hand, Clark Kent here did use collars. So when I failed on my last rep and all that weight remained pinned to my chest, I'd roll the 45-bar holding two 45-pound plates on each side (225 total) to my hips, then sit up real fast while hoisting the bar off my waist and onto the floor in one quick motion. It was scary as you-know-what! I'm not kidding!

But both of us, as stubborn as we were, somehow survived these twisted acts of determination without being injured or arrested. (Thank goodness current ISU athletes and everyday students have their own separate state-of-the-art facilities to use in the 2020s.)

Robinson, a four-year running back on the football team, wasn't the biggest athlete shoving around bars, plates and Universal machines in the infamous Dungeon. But at 5-feet-8, 188 pounds, he was tough to bring down to the Memorial Stadium turf. In 1981, he rushed for a team-high 861 yards before graduating with a bachelor's degree in environmental health sciences in 1982.

From that same era, ISU's Ed "Poncho" Martin was an All-American defensive end and four-year letterwinner (1980 to 1983). An All-Missouri Valley Conference selection in 1982 and 1983, he was named the MVC Defensive Player of the Week six times during his collegiate career.

According to gosycamores.com, Martin was the first Sycamore football player to be named to multiple first-team All-America squads, being chosen as a Kodak All-American (Division IAA), a Sporting News All-American (Division IAA) and an Associated Press All-American (Division IAA) in 1983. Jumping ahead a little, Martin ended up being inducted into the ISU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009.

I didn't know Poncho quite as well as I knew Eric from those early-1980s Dungeon days, but my young reporter eyes could see that the 6-4, 220-pound Martin was a force in the weightroom as well.

Although they carried different types of frames and played different positions, Robinson and Martin shared a common goal. Both wanted to play professional football and the then-fledgling United States Football League (USFL) provided their best opportunity.

Also, you may have heard of one of the USFL team owners at that time — Donald Trump (he's been in the news a couple times recently) — who took over the New Jersey Generals for the 1984 and 1985 spring/summer seasons. At the beginning, the league conducted its regular seasons from March through early July so it would not directly compete with the more established NFL for in-person customers and television viewers.

The original USFL lasted for three seasons — 1983, 1984 and 1985.

According to wikipedia.org, and I do vaguely remember this, "the 1986 season was canceled after the USFL won only a nominal one-dollar verdict in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL [which was trebled to three dollars due to it being an antitrust suit]; the league folded soon afterward."

Reminiscing about 40-year-old memories of Robinson's and Martin's USFL experiences, which they relayed through phone and email interviews, probably triggered an occasional smile, which both of them could use.

Robinson, 62, has endured three operations in the last five months, including open-heart surgery and a knee-replacement surgery. Meanwhile, the 61-year-old Martin started noticing symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS aka Lou Gehrig's disease) in August 2016 and he received the official diagnosis one year later.

According to radicava.com, here is a brief description of the disease: "ALS attacks nerve cells, called motor neurons, that control voluntary muscles [the muscles we are able to control]. When these cells die, voluntary muscle control and movement are lost. This leads to progressive weakness and disability. People living with ALS eventually lose their strength, ability to move their arms, legs and body, and the ability to breathe on their own. In most cases, their minds remain sharp and alert."

Judging by the quality of Martin's emailed responses to my USFL questions, he is definitely sharp and alert.

Another website, ALS.org, said: "ALS is an always fatal neurodegenerative disease in which a person's brain loses connection with the muscles. People with ALS lose their ability to walk, talk, eat and eventually breathe."

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The speedy Robinson played two seasons (1983-84) with the USFL's Washington Federals, having appeared in a total of 34 games and scored the league's only 1983 kickoff-return touchdown, a 94-yarder against the Tampa Bay Bandits at Washington's RFK Stadium. In those seasons, the Federals finished with records of 4-14 and 5-13 respectively.

Between the league's second and third seasons, in 1985, the franchise moved to Florida and became the Orlando Renegades.

That's when Robinson's USFL career went south as well, although he didn't understand why.

Robinson thought his roster spot was safe. After all, he had earned All-USFL honors in 1983 for kickoff returner while also serving as the Federals' third-down running back.

"I went into training camp thinking everything was fine," Robinson recalled. "But the coach cut me [before training camp started]. It was Lee Corso."

Yes, the same Lee Corso who guided Indiana University's football team (1973-82) and who has served as an ESPN "College GameDay" analyst since 1987. In fact, Corso's 1985 season with the Renegades turned out to be his last as a coach of any kind.

"They flew me to Orlando and they cut me," Robinson continued about his unexpected, unpleasant experience with Corso and his staff.

Even though smartphones, texts and emails didn't exist then, land-line phones did. Perhaps Corso didn't know how to use one and save Robinson an unnecessary trip from the Washington, D.C., area.

In 1985, Robinson persuaded the NFL's Minnesota Vikings into giving him a tryout in the preseason. He demonstrated flashes of brilliance, but he didn't make their regular-season roster.

"I did have a couple real good games with the Vikings [in the preseason]," he mentioned. "I hit the [Pittsburgh] Steelers for 278 kick-return yards [in one game]."

Currently living with his sister in Maryland after he had been a Florida resident — "I needed a nurse," Robinson said — he insists that he's feeling pretty good physically under the circumstances.

Despite his recent health issues, Robinson has increased his walking distance to 21/2 to 3 miles a day in the last few weeks. "That was not an option a month ago," he pointed out.

Back to the original USFL, Robinson believes it should not be thought of as an insignificant failure of a league because it lasted only three seasons.

"The one thing people don't remember now is that in 1983, the USFL signed virtually every top draft pick from the NFL," he emphasized. "They did not get Eric Dickerson, but they got Craig James [Robinson's teammate with the Federals], Bobby Hebert, Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Sam Mills, Herschel Walker, Kelvin Bryant. There were so many players that they took from the NFL.

"The main significance of the USFL was to drive the NFL's salaries up. My first contract in the USFL was like $91,000. Seven years later, my little brother [Mark] got $450,000 [with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers after previously playing safety for the Kansas City Chiefs]."

Eric also remembers the national hoopla generated by Trump purchasing the Generals in 1984.

"He was one of the main guys who wanted us to complete head-to-head with the NFL," the former Sycamore standout reflected. "That didn't work out too well."

Nowadays, Eric Robinson admits he watches a little bit of the second-year, newer version of the USFL, which has no connection to the 1980s USFL and is not pretending to compete with the NFL, on TV in the spring.

"I like watching them because it's football," he explained.

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Martin, who lives in McDonough, Ga. (a suburb of Atlanta), offered a few opinions that seem to jive with Robinson's about the 1980s USFL.

"Let's just say that the professional football climate back then was quite different from what it is today," he assessed. "There had been strife between the NFL owners and the players. The owners were not paying very much money to the players, regardless of what they had negotiated with the TV networks.

"In 1984, when I was drafted, the USFL really began trying to increase interest in its football brand by having certain team owners [such as Trump] outbid the NFL for players. So we had a large number of NFL-caliber players who signed with USFL teams. And not just your average NFL-type players, but this included future NFL Hall of Famers. In the USFL, I played with and against [future] Hall of Famers and NFL stars like Steve Young, Herschel Walker, Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Doug Williams, Doug Flutie, Mike Rozier and many, many more who went on to play in the NFL after the original USFL folded."

Martin, who was selected in the seventh round of the 1984 NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys, played a total of seven regular-season games with the USFL's Los Angeles Express in 1984 and 1985. In March 1986, he signed with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts but left in training camp because of a pre-existing knee injury that prevented him from being the impact player he desired to be. Somewhere in there, Martin returned to ISU and completed the academic requirements he needed to obtain his bachelor's degree in communications.

In addition to playing pro football, Martin accomplished plenty in life — working as a technical consultant and stunt utility actor in commercials, films and television shows that had a sports/football theme in Hollywood, working as a real-estate investor in the Atlanta area and fathering three children, to name a few — but he doesn't mind one bit reliving the old USFL for a few moments, even if it's only in his mind.

"For me, and most of the young guys in the league, it was exciting to be a part of the USFL," he said. "We understood that the NFL had the prestige, but this was a great alternative. And we were individually getting paid more than we were offered from the NFL teams. If I am not mistaken, before the USFL started outbidding the NFL, there had never been an NFL player with a multi-year, million-dollar contract. In the USFL, there were a number of players who got those types of contracts. I wasn't one, but a number of others did.

"Having some big names made our football games more interesting to watch. That's another difference between the original USFL and today's version. Because of some of the stars we had, our stadiums had more people in the seats. Never to the extent of an NFL game. But when you watched it on TV, there was enough fan support to say there were enthusiasm and support for the product."

Being young in L.A. at the time meant Martin got to be in situations where he interacted with celebrities such as Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle and Will Smith.

"But back to football," he insisted. "As for today's version of the USFL, I've watched three games. I believe that it having to compete with the XFL for players and viewership weakens the product. Less fans in the stands gives the impression that few people are interested in seeing how their team is progressing. This makes it hard to sell the league nationally when local enthusiasm is lacking. I think that today's USFL is a good product, with good to great players and coaches. I also think the USFL has a chance to survive as a spring league.

"The original USFL, along with the interest that's been demonstrated for today's college football spring intrasquad practice games, says there's an appetite for quality spring football. We'll see if the current iteration of the USFL will quench that hunger."

Tribune-Star sports reporter David Hughes can be reached after 4 p.m. by phone at (812) 231-4224; by email at david.hughes@tribstar.com; or by a prehistoric fax machine at (812) 231-4321.