Charlie Grandjean walked through his modern yet rustic farm house before winding downstairs into the basement.
Continuing past appliances and through storage areas, the former Hoover High School football star of the 1970s stopped at the farthest corner, where mementos were displayed.
Among them were footballs, keepsakes and awards from his college career at Navy and Kent State University. Family photos also lined shelves, and his wife's artwork covered a wall.
But most eye-catching were the red-and-gold artifacts of the USFL's Birmingham Stallions, including a team photo, game program, bumper sticker, jacket and sweater. Grandjean, 64, played for the Stallions in 1983 — his only stint as a professional football player.
"This is almost 40 years ago," he said while recalling a tryout for the Stallions arranged with the help of North Canton native Ron Blackledge, who had served as Kent State University’s head coach and worked as an NFL assistant.
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Grandjean's memories of the USFL resonate more vividly these days after a 2022 version of the spring football league was formed.
Following last weekend’s semifinal playoffs, the USFL is holding its inaugural championship game at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
The Philadelphia Stars will face the rebooted version of Grandjean’s old franchise, the Birmingham Stallions.
Grandjean, who lives in North Canton, started seven games at strong safety for a Birmingham team that finished 9-9. He also played special teams.
Season highlights included facing the New Jersey Generals and prized rookie Herschel Walker.
"Everybody's going, man, he does a thousand push-ups, a thousand pull-ups every day," Grandjean recalled. "This guy is a stud, a Heisman Trophy winner. 'How are you going to tackle this guy?'"
But when the former University of Georgia sensation caught a short pass over the middle, Grandjean took Walker to the ground.
"I can say I brought him down as a solo tackler," he reminisced while smiling broadly. "Now granted, he never saw me coming, or it would have been different. I would have been holding onto his shirt, and he would have dragged me 20 yards."
Grandjean, who is now president of the Stark County-based RTM Tech marketing and printing company, laughed heartily. "That's my claim to fame."
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For a 23-year-old player who had just missed making the Ottawa Rough Riders of the CFL, the upstart league was football salvation.
The Stallions were first class, Grandjean recounted. Flights, hotels, everything. Games drew between 40,000 and 60,000 fans.
"I got paid the minimum, which to me was a lot of money," he said. "The big hoopla with Joe Cribbs when he came to camp was that they paid him a million bucks."
Cribbs had made the Pro Bowl as a running back with the Buffalo Bills.
"His lateral movement was phenomenal," Grandjean said. "And his field vision was just unbelievable. He glided. He was effortless when he ran up the field."
Notable teammates also included quarterback Cliff Stoudt.
"He had a rocket arm, man," the 1976 Hoover graduate said. "Some of the smaller receivers had trouble catching his passes."
Canton South athlete was on USFL champion Michigan Panthers
Grandjean isn't the only Stark County connection to the glory days of the original USFL.
Mark Miller played for the Michigan Panthers when the franchise won the first USFL championship in 1983.
The league was one stop in the 1974 Canton South High School graduate's football career. Miller played for the Cleveland Browns after being drafted in the third round out of Bowling Green State University.
Miller, 65, cherishes his time in the USFL. Souvenirs include a championship ring and hat, along with two No. 15 jerseys — one road, one away.
Miller served as backup quarterback to hotshot gunslinger Bobby Hebert.
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"We all knew sooner or later Bobby was going to be the guy," he said. "And he got better and better every week, and by golly, what a great career he had, both with the USFL and also in the NFL.
"He kind of latched onto me," recounted Miller, who worked as an administrator until 2018 at Elida Local Schools and now serves as a part-time supervisor at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "I signaled the plays, and it was kind of fun, and winning was a whole lot of fun."
Hebert led the Panthers to a semifinal playoff victory over the Oakland Invaders in front of more than 60,000 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome. A championship win at Mile High Stadium over the Philadelphia Stars followed.
Miller also witnessed the greatness of wide receiver Anthony Carter.
"He could run like nobody, and effortlessly, and he had a lot better hands than he ever got credit for," Miller said of the former University of Michigan phenom. "He made us an offense. He was the missing link."
Fans embraced the Michigan Panthers
Starved for a winner, Detroit Lions fans embraced the Michigan Panthers.
"We went on about an eight-game winning streak, and every time we played, there was a bigger crowd," Miller said.
"It was a bunch of guys who ended up in a strange city," he said. "We are learning new plays, we don't know what our uniforms are going to look like, and our training camp was in Daytona Beach — that was pretty cool.
"That was my last year in football, and a lot of guys were in a similar situation," he said. "It was do or die; they were not going back to the NFL, and they played their hearts out."
Ranking his USFL experience
Miller treasures his USFL days, but it didn't rival playing for the team he rooted for as a child.
"Winning is fun, and to say you're the champions, that's pretty cool, but the NFL is unparalleled," the Perry Township resident said. "Just the excitement, the coverage from the media, the fans, the cities, the stadium, the players."
Playing for the Browns in 1978 and briefly in 1979 before being traded ranked supreme.
"The beams (at Municipal Stadium) ran from the upper deck ... and they ran right through the middle of our locker room, so any time they would vibrate on the upper deck, you could sort of feel it and hear it," said Miller, who also spent time with the Green Bay Packers.
"We could sense that something special was going on in the stadium. And when we ran out into the field, there were 80,000 people going crazy, and it was the wildest thing."
Could a USFL team have beaten an NFL team?
Miller didn't flinch when asked whether the USFL champion Panthers could have defeated the NFL's best team at the time.
"They were not at the NFL caliber," he said. "But unlike most startup leagues, they did go out and get some of those superstars, so that obviously increased the talent pool of each team."
Filling out the rosters were "the last cuts of the NFL," Miller explained. NFL players at the end of their careers also landed in the USFL.
Combined, the players were "the making of a pretty darn good team," he said.
'It was time to start life.'
Grandjean is at peace with a football career that also includes anecdotes about chasing down Joe Montana in a college game and defeating a Brigham Young University team led by quarterback Jim McMahon in the 1978 Holiday Bowl.
After his year in the USFL, Grandjean could have stayed in the league with the Jacksonville Bulls or given the CFL another shot. Playing in the NFL was another possibility. A wrist injury altered his plans.
"And it was time to move on," he said.
Miller also said goodbye to pro ball after his USFL experience. He would go on to join the football coaching staff at Bowling Green, including overseeing the quarterbacks and wide receivers, as well as serving as offensive coordinator.
"We were one and done after the USFL no matter what," he said of the decision he made with his wife. "Michigan offered me another contract. I turned that down. I don't regret that; it was time to start life."
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If you go
What: Inaugural USFL championship
Where: Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, 1835 Harrison Ave NW in Canton (next to the Pro Football Hall of Fame)
When: 7:30 p.m. July 3
Who: Winners of the semifinal playoffs (North and South champions)
Tickets: Adults, $20 general admission and $40 reserved club seating with club access; and $10 general admission and $20 reserved club seating for children under age 15. Tickets available at www.hofvillage.com/p/events/united-states-football-league.
On TV: Game is on Fox.
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Charlie Grandjean, Mark Miller recall playing in USFL