Uniquely Detroit: the Michigan Panthers

By Alex Atwell - Photojournalist

DETROIT - Professional football in Detroit.

Oh, boy. Just ponder what that means to you.

For me, it equals losing and a lot of heartache. I'm a diehard Lions fan and I've given them everything. What have I gotten in return?

... (cue the crickets)

Exactly.

But what if I told you there was a time when that wasn't the case? There was a time in Detroit when we weren't the butt of every pro football joke.

There was a time we enjoyed a taste from victory's chalice -- and it went down smooth.

The magical year was 1983 and the United States Football League (USFL) had been recently born. It was a new professional football league that was formed after a strike-shortened NFL season. They would play their games in the spring. Michigan's team was the Panthers, and they would play at the Silverdome in Pontiac. 

Pete Spivak Jr. was a young boy at the time. His father had an entrepreneurial spirit and decided to leave the bench as a circuit court judge to pursue a football dream. He got involved with the ownership group of the Panthers and immediately earned league-wide respect.

"The fans here in Detroit were pining for a winning football team," Spivak Jr. said. 

So much so that the 12 USFL owners voted Pete's father, Peter Spivak Sr., the first interim commissioner of the USFL. He even had the honor of introducing the entire league.

VideoWhat remains of the Silverdome

And oh man, those uniforms! Royal Plum, Champagne silver, sky blue. Without a doubt, the best football uniforms ever. There's no argument.

They didn't just look good, they were good.

"When you're a little kid and there's A.C...Anthony Carter, your mouth just drops open. It's something that I'll never forget," Spivak Jr. said. 

For him, the memories of that glorious season are still as vivid as ever.

"The Michigan Panthers verus the Oakland Invaders game provided football fans with the glory that they had been searching for," he said. "It was a gift to Detroit football fans for all the wait, all the want and the Michigan Panthers delivered."

The Panthers beat the Oakland Invaders  37-21 in front of a USFL record 65,000 fans plus at the Silverdome.

After the playoff victory, the fans even rushed the field and tore down the goalposts in celebration.

"You'd never seen anything like it. I don't know how the Lions couldn't have won a championship after seeing something like that," Spivak Jr. said. 

Bobby Hebert, Anthony Carter and the Panthers went on to play the Philadelphia Stars at Mile High Stadium in Denver for the championship. The Panthers won 24-22.

"They were the Heroes, they were the champions," Spivak Jr. said. 

Tommy Hearns was even in attendance to watch the glorious victory. 

"I think this does a lot for the city of Detroit. Puts another champion in Detroit," Hearns said. 

Magic Johnson made the trip as well to cheer on the Panthers.

"What they say now, hey we have a winner. Everybody else gonna try to strive to be a winner too," Johnson said. 

One team that did strive to win was the "Bless You Boys" Tigers. They of course went on to win it all in 1984.

What comes with a championship? A ring.

"My father proudly wore his championship ring as his daily ring," Spivak Jr. said. 


I asked Pete what it meant to him to see that ring..

"Success."

What a success it was. Detroit ... pro football champions. Uncle Rico had 1982 ... we owned 1983.

Over the last 30 years, you would probably have guessed that the 1983 Michigan Panthers team would have been honored with an induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, but they haven't.

What do you think? Should the 1983 USFL Champion Michigan Panthers be inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame?

Use #MichPanthersHOF and tweet @MSHOF.

 

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