Herschel Walker, New Jersey Generals, New York Hitmen
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images, AP Photo

As the New York Guardians prepare to kickoff, ESNY looks back at East Rutherford’s prior attempts at non-NFL football.

Geoff Magliocchetti

The Meadowlands will host another attempt at alternative football, as the XFL’s New York Guardians will make their gridiron debut against the Tampa Bay Vipers on Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. ET, Fox). They’re the first non-Giants/Jets team to call MetLife Stadium home.

Alternative football, however, is no stranger to The Meadowlands…

New Jersey Generals (USFL, 1983-85)

The Generals are perhaps the most-renowned non-NFL team the New York area ever produced. New Jersey made an instant splash for the United States Football League by signing underclassman Herschel Walker. The Heisman Trophy winner would become one of several prominent names to play for the Generals. Such a list would go on to include Brian Sipe, Doug Flutie, and Maurice Carthon.

After a 6-12 debut, the Generals made the USFL playoffs in back-to-back seasons. The latter trip in 1985 was spurred on by the contributions of professional rookie Flutie and Walker (the latter earning a pro football record 2,411 rushing yards).

The Generals’ biggest claim to fame was perhaps their status as a Donald Trump property. The billionaire and future President of the United States caused a stir not just in Jersey (seeking to move the team to a Manhattan-based “Trump Stadium”) but on the national USFL scale. Trump eventually persuaded league owners to pursue a fall schedule to compete with the NFL. The goal of such a challenge was said to be an eventual merger.

An ensuing antitrust against the NFL led to the demise of both the Generals and the USFL. A revamped New Jersey squad, which brought in several names from the folded Houston Gamblers (including Jim Kelly and Ricky Sanders), never took the field.

New York/New Jersey Knights (1991-92, WLAF)

Before going full European, the Meadowlands hosted the World League of American Football squad for two seasons.

The team went 11-9 over their two seasons, winning their division with a 5-5 mark in 1991. They would lose their next five games (including a 1991 playoff semifinal to the London Monarchs) but won their final six games of existence to close out the 1992 campaign. Current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was a backup quarterback with the latter team before re-joining the Miami Dolphins.

The NFL shut down its WLAF property after the 1992 season. All of the American teams, including the Knights, were shut down upon the league’s resurrection in 1995. It would later be branded as NFL Europe.

New Jersey Red Dogs/Gladiators (AFL, 1997-2002)

Armed with an ownership group featuring ex-Giants Joe Morris, Carl Banks, and Harry Carson, the Red Dogs won eight of their first nine games. They would reach the playoffs in each of their first two seasons. NFL first-round pick Tommy Maddox served as the team’s quarterback in their final days as the Red Dogs. The team was sold in 2001 and later adopted the Gladiators nickname.

The Gladiators would play two seasons in the Meadowlands before moving to Las Vegas in 2003. One more move awaited in 2008 as they would go on to spend a decade in Cleveland before eventually folding.

New York/New Jersey Hitmen (XFL, 2001)

The Hitmen moniker was a perfect example of the original XFL’s brand of camp and the influence of The Sopranos at the height of its power. Former Dallas Cowboys great Drew Pearson served as the general manager of the team, which was coached by former Washington Redskins star Rusty Tillman.

In the XFL’s opening week, millions of viewers watched the Hitmen slog through a 19-0 loss in Las Vegas. With the team sitting at 0-3, NYC native Charley Puleri was benched for Wally Richardson at quarterback. The Hitmen won four of their final seven games but still missed the lone edition of the XFL playoffs.

Tillman was a notable critic of the original league’s gimmicks and debauchery, and later drew the ire of NBC commentator Jesse Ventura for playing too conservatively. Despite NBC and the XFL hyping up a war of words between he and Ventura, Tillman remained stoic and coached with little regard for the former Minnesota governor’s goading.

Despite their losing record, the Hitmen ranked second in attendance with 28,309 fans per game. Only the league runner-up San Francisco Demons at Pac Bell Park drew more (34,954).

New York Sentinels (UFL, 2009)

Despite their name, this United Football League team played only a single game at The Meadowlands. Their other home games were held at the University of Connecticut’s Rentschler Field and Hofstra University’s stadium in Hempstead. The latter game was originally proposed to take place at Citi Field, but plans fell through.

In their lone New York season, the Sentinels failed to register a single win, despite the services of notable NFL players like defensive end Simeon Rice, punter Scott Player, and receiver Koren Robinson. Their lone East Rutherford appearance was a 20-13 loss to the California Redwoods.

The team later moved to Hartford, spending a single season as the Colonials before folding.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490

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