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Short-time Gunslingers have long-time memories
By Kevin O'Keefe
San Antonio Express-News
Wilson Whitney Taylor, backup quarterback for the 1985 San Antonio Gunslingers, borrowed a line Graig Nettles once said about the Yankees and George Steinbrenner when recalling the experience of playing for the USFL team here.
"When I was a little kid," Taylor began, "I wanted to be in the circus. Then, as I got older and started to play sports, I wanted to be a pro football player.
"With the Gunslingers . . . I got to do both."
There was no more important commodity than a sense of humor for the members of the Gunslingers, who existed for two seasons.
I believe they were the last group of professional athletes who truly played for the love of the game.
They certainly weren't playing for the money, which none of them received the last five or six games of the '85 season as owner Clinton Manges opted not to pay the men and blamed the Express-News for making it an issue.
You see, we broke the first story on Manges' money problems.
As others called our exclusive "the bogus story of the year," we led the way in coverage . . . and in incurring Manges' wrath.
Once, Express-News assistant sports editor David Flores, who was the Gunslingers' beat man, and I were in a heated exchange with Manges on the matter of him not paying his players.
"Now, Keith" (that's what he called me), Manges began, his leisure suit wrinkling as he fumed.
"Now Keith, God (expletive), I've got money. I can buy and sell you and Flores. I can buy your newspaper."
Turns out, Manges couldn't have bought a newspaper.
Manges even kicked David and me out of the Alamo Stadium press box. So, we bought tickets and sat in the stands to cover the last few games of '85.
The USFL folded following the 1985 season . . . but the Gunslingers lived on in everyone's memory here.
Thus, it's great so many of them are here this weekend for the first reunion of a team that was long on good guys.
Why, only the wills of Marcus Bonner, Danny Buggs, Putt Choate, Rick D'Amico, Rich Garza, Joey Hackett, Nick Mike-Mayer, Vic Minor, Jim Bob Mirris, Rick Neuheisel, Reggie Oliver, Peter Raeford, Don Roberts, Joe Silipo, Mike Ulmer, et all permitted the team to finish its final season.
And let us not forget the perseverance of coaches Jim Bates, David Knaus, Tim Marcum and Tommy Roberts.
"In a way, us not getting paid probably made us stronger," noted QB Neuheisel, now head coach at the University of Colorado.
In the wake of not being paid, knowing there was no prospect of being paid, the Gunslingers still won two of their last three games in the '85 season.
Is there any better testament to the strength of spirit of these men?
That so many have returned for the reunion suggests even after 13 years the feelings for each other remain strong.
"Jim Bob (Morris) and Rick (D'Amico) are going to wish they had been able to make it," Choate said Saturday.
"It's great that so many guys (51) are here," he continued. "This reunion has been about as good as you could have hoped it would be."
And while fans here may not have passed through the turnstiles of Alamo Stadium in record numbers because of their hatred for Manges, the support for this team was strong.
"The people here," Choate said, "were always great."
One who isn't here, of course, is Manges, who currently is in prison.
"A lot of water has passed under the bridge in 13 years, but I don't think it would have been appropriate for him to have been here," said Choate, who has his promissory note for $26,000 from Manges framed and hanging in his home.
Manges' presence certainly would have cut down on the stories being told.
My highlight memory?
When Herman Barnett, a protege of Manges' who was listed as a public relations man, was cleaning his nails with a huge hunting knife and reminded me it was time for me to leave the locker room.
"Old Herman," Choate said, laughing. "His name has come up a few times."
The reunion ends with a chapel service this morning at 10 in the Holiday Inn-Select near the airport. Garza will lead the service.
While none of Gunslingers will have their Nikes sent to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, certainly each of their hearts belongs there.
Memories great for Gunslingers
Neuheisel: adversity drew team together
By David Flores
For a few hours in San Antonio this weekend, it was as though nothing had changed over the past 13 years.
Former players and coaches recalled their days with the San Antonio Gunslingers, laughing and joking as they did so often during the tough times they endured on and off the field.
Ex-head coach Jim Bates, whose upbeat personality and enthusiasm fueled the team, captured the former players' attention during a reception Friday night at the Holiday Inn-Select hotel.
"Men, it's all about discipline," he said. "You've got to have discipline."
Then, laughing at himself, he said, "Men, I'm getting goose bumps all over."
Bates, 52, is now assistant head coach and defensive line coach with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Gunslingers played in the United States Football League in 1984 and 1985 and ceased operations when the spring-summer league folded in '86. They played only 36 games -- finishing 7-11 in '84 and 5-13 in '85 -- but a strong bond remains among the players and coaches.
"We were a bunch of guys who weren't making much money, so there were very few egos that needed to be stroked," former quarterback Rick Neuheisel said. "The adversity, plus the common denominator that we were the ugly ducklings of the league, made this team the greatest collection of people I've ever been around.
"We had more fun than should have been allowed. It was a great experience. I'll never forget these guys."
Neuheisel, now head football coach at Colorado, was among 51 former players, coaches and staff members who attended the Gunslingers' first reunion since the team disbanded.
The group had a reception with fans Friday night, autographing such memorabilia as Gunslingers helmets, pennants and game programs, and sharing anecdotes. The former Gunslingers had a banquet Saturday night, and a prayer service from 10 a.m. to noon today was the last organized activity for the reunion.
Neuheisel, who emerged as one of the country's most efficient quarterbacks as a senior at UCLA, was San Antonio's No. 1 pick in the 1984 USFL draft, He was the team's highest-paid player at about $70,000 a year, way below the megabucks such stars as Reggie White, Doug Flutie, Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker and Kelvin Bryant made during their USFL careers.
Neuheisel is among some 50 former Gunslingers players still owed back wages by the team's controversial owner, Clinton Manges. The players sued Manges in an effort to get their money, but the issue became moot when the owner went bankrupt.
The lessons he learned while playing with the Gunslingers never are far from Neuheisel's memory.
"I talk to my players about those days, just because I don't want them to think it's (playing football) all about money," he said. "It's about relationships, people. The people in this room never won more than seven games in one season, but the relationships and the memories and the fun are as good as any team that won a championship."
Now 37, Neuheisel is preparing for his fourth season as head coach and`fifth overall at Colorado. He coached quarterbacks and receivers for one season before succeeding Bill McCartney in 1995.
Neuheisel is 25-10 in three seasons, but is coming off a 5-6 year.
"Bobby Bowden told me that the key to coaching is to survive the bad years," Neuheisel said. "I feel confident that we have. Our kids have worked hard to improve and I'm excited about getting back at it again."
Jeremy Weisinger, a junior from Uvalde, will start preseason workouts as the Buffaloes' No. 1 quarterback, Neuheisel said.
"Jeremy can do it all," Neuheisel said. "He's 6-2 and 215 pounds, and runs a 4.4 40. All he needs now is confidence."
Quarterback Zac Colvin, a '98 Lee graduate, is considered one of the top freshmen on the Colorado roster.
"Zac's going to be a good one," Neuheisel said. "We're expecting big things from him."