USFL 2022: The stories behind the league's best names

USFL 2022: The stories behind the league's best names

May 3

By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For many United States Football League players, seeing their names on roster flip cards and sharing with their families the joy of pursuing their football dreams is thrilling enough.

For players like Philadelphia Stars Maurice Alexander Jr., who caught eight passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns in his team's first win, it means making a name for himself. 

On the team and on Twitter, he’s "Hard Time." His grandmother, Sandra Terry,  gave him that nickname after her daughter, Kevia Morrison, was hospitalized for three days and spent eight hours in labor birthing him.

"When I was first born," Alexander told FOX Sports, "my mom had to have an emergency (Cesarean) section, and throughout that she was in labor for more than eight hours because my umbilical cord got wrapped around my neck. My grandmama was there through the whole time, and she named me ‘Hard Time.’"

Alexander is one of nearly 300 USFL players with a name and story worth unpacking.

Here is RJ Young’s Inaugural USFL All-Name Team:

Woody Brandom, TE, Generals, Sam Houston State

No, he is not named after the "Toy Story" character, though he is named for a fictional person — sort of.

His given first name is Woodman.

"My mom loved the character ‘Woody’ on the TV show ‘Cheers,'" Brandom told FOX Sports, "and my dad knew someone with the name Woodman. So, they named me Woodman and have always been called Woody."

Brandom bears a striking resemblance to Rob Gronkowski. He gets a real kick out of that, having been associated with Gronk and his position since high school.

Brandom was an All-Southland Conference First Team Selection in 2019, when he made 24 catches for 314 yards — 15 of those catches went for first downs.

For the Generals, he’s proved so vital to Mike Riley’s offense that Riley activated three tight ends on a roster of just 38 players in Week 2 because he couldn't risk losing a player like Brandom. His skill set means that much to the offense.

"When people call me Gronk, I find it accurate and pretty funny," Brandom said. "Usually, I laugh and make a joke about me partying in my college days or something."

For his part, Gronk sees the resemblance, too, engaging in some banter with Brandom on Instagram.

"A good-looking guy 88 is," said Gronk of Brandom.

"I gotta agree with you on that," Brandom said.

Scooby Wright, ILB, Stallions, Arizona

In addition to putting together one of the greatest seasons ever by a linebacker in college football history, Phillip "Scooby" Wright III has turned out to have one of the best nicknames in college football history.

See how Scooby Snacks sounds like Scooby Sacks?

Rather than go by Trey like many "thirds" — and Pittsburgh's Arnold Tarpley III prefers to be called Tre — Wright’s father, Phillip Wright II, gave his son the nickname Scooby.

"I didn't think about it until I got to college and people started saying, 'Your name is Scooby?'" Wright told AZCentral. "I was like, 'Yeah.' I never thought anything about it. I don't think I'd answer if somebody called me Phillip."

Joey Magnifico, TE, Panthers, Memphis

The Memphis standout has a name fit for a WWE superstar.

In four years as a Tiger, Magnifico appeared in 53 games (starting 35) and caught 71 passes for 1,064 yards with 12 touchdowns.

Unfortunately, Magnifico was released after suffering a season-ending injury. But before being selected by the Panthers, he was named head coach at his high school alma mater. So, at St. Benedict in Memphis, he’s known as Coach Magnifico.

Magnificent.

Bug Howard, TE, Stars, UNC

Jonathan "Bug" Howard was a standout tight end at North Carolina, where he accounted for 1,770 receiving yards and 14 TDs.

As a toddler, he was nicknamed Bug by his grandmother, who told him that he "was a bit of a pest." She called him Bug, and it stuck.

Pro Wells, TE, Stars, TCU

"My full name is Provonsha," Wells told FOX Sports. "My dad named me after his brother Provonjoe, but my teachers and others couldn’t say my name, and they thought I was a girl. So, everybody just started calling me ‘Pro’ Wells, and, for me, it’s like being named ‘Pro’ is a gift, a blessing and a curse, because I’ve always played sports and had to live up to my name. But I’ve embraced it and want to live up to it."

His son’s name is Cash Wells. 

Pro made Cash. 

You love to see it.

Madre London, RB, Maulers, Tennessee

His given name is, indeed, Madre. But rather than being named after the Spanish word for mother, he was named after an SEC running back — predicting his future.

"My mother named me," London said. "My mother came up with my name while she was in the hospital with me. She was watching the Arkansas Razorbacks football team play, and she saw the name Madre Hill, who was running back as well. So, she came up with my name, and my daddy’s name is Andre. Madre made perfect sense to keep the Dre going,"

He answers to Dre, too.

Boogie Roberts, DT, Maulers, San Jose State

Owen "Boogie" Roberts earned his nickname not just because he's a big man who is light on his feet, but because, as a five-year-old, his Pop Warner coach remarked that he scared the opposing team’s quarterback — like the Boogeyman. 

And that's how we've come to know Boogie (Man) Roberts.

Vinny Papale, WR, Bandits, Delaware

As Eddie Murphy taught us in "The Distinguished Gentleman," name recognition is paramount, and every football fan with a dream of walking out of a bar and onto an NFL team knows Vince Papale’s name.

Vinny Papale is Vince’s kid, and he's an outstanding pro in his own right. Through two games in the USFL, he’s caught three passes for 23 yards.

At Delaware — the same Delaware that produced Super Bowl champ Joe Flacco — he caught 36 passes for 618 yards six touchdowns. And, at just 25 years old, he’s got some years left to play if his father is any indication.

Papale’s father was 30 years old when he first suited up for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Justice Powers, WR, Stallions, New Mexico State

His name sounds like that of a superhero built to occupy the upper left corner of the Dungeons & Dragons moral axis chart. And while Justice Powers is his given name, he goes by "Tank."

"I originally received the name [Tank] from my babysitter when I was a toddler because I was bigger than all the other kids," he said. "But I used to hate it because it had no [other] meaning at the time.

"Then I started playing football at 14, and my coach nicknamed me Tank again not knowing it was an inside family name. I took it as a sign for my destiny, which is playing ball."

The USFL has its very own Justice Powers (League).

Michael Scott, DE, Bandits, Oklahoma State

Understandably, he goes by Mike. Perhaps this is a good time to point out not all jokes are understood.

Colleagues of mine at lunch needed to tell me why Scott needed to be on the All-Name Team because I had not seen the sainted "The Office." But the Bandits' defensive end has been up on the game for a while now.

While he was named after his father, he loves the character that Steve Carrell helped make iconic. He's watched the whole series twice and even has favorite quotes from the fictional Michael Scott.

In order:

3. "That's what she said."

2. "Hey Michael Scott, hey Michael Scott, what you gonna do, make our dreams come true."

1. "I would not miss it for the world but if something came up, I definitely wouldn’t go!"

Mazzi Wilkins, CB, Stars, USF

His father named him Mazzi. It's a variation on the Igbo word for "sir."

Mazzi’s name also harkens to a Black tradition of reclaiming our humanity, our story. Black folks took on surnames like Freeman and adopted names of royalty and distinction for our children so that they would have a measure of respect in the world.

"I was ashamed when I was young," Wilkins told FOX Sports. "But as I grew, I embraced it and I feel like that was my spark to my true inner confidence."

He shares that in common with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was born Michael King, Jr. After a trip around the world, pastor Michael King Sr. told his congregation and the Atlanta Daily World that he’d been inspired by what he’d learned of Martin Luther.

"Reverend King’s triumphant homecoming in late August 1934 was announced to Negro Atlanta in a banner headline in the Daily World: ‘Rev. King is Royally Welcomed on Return from Europe,’" according to Taylor Branch’s "Parting of the Waters: America in the King Years." 

"The story listed all the speakers who had paid tribute to him at the Ebenezer reception, as well as all the dishes [of food] served. This was King’s moment, the watershed of his life, and he honored the occasion by changing his name from Michael to Martin, becoming Martin Luther King. For consistency, he also changed the name of his older son to Martin Luther King, Jr."

The younger King didn’t immediately take to his new name, being 5 years old at the time, he’d come to like being called "Little Mike." He was a full adult before he began signing his name as the world would know it.

To claim kinship with Martin Luther was characteristically overbearing of the senior King. His son shrank from it, commenting publicly only once, after the Montgomery bus boycott, that "perhaps" he had "earned" his name. Reverend King supplied the wish and the preparation, but it remained for strangers in the world at large to impose Martin Luther King’s new name upon him.

But he eventually let us. 

"By the 1950s, the young King had become Martin in his letters, according to the King Institute," the Washington Post reported. "In a July 18, 1952, letter to Coretta, who would become his wife, King wrote: ‘Darling, I miss you so much … My life without you is like a year without a spring time which comes to give illumination and heat to the atmosphere saturated by the dark cold breeze of winter … Eternally Yours, Martin.’" 

And so it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who stood for Black folks; who sought an end to segregation; who helped push Presidents to pass Civil Rights legislation; wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," who spent the last years of his life campaigning for poor people and open housing, who became a leader for Black folks for generations.

Micah Abernathy, CB, Gamblers, Tennessee

His grandfather is Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, a friend and mentor to King Jr., the second-ever president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a native Alabaman born just two hours from Birmingham in Linden.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy was Dean of Men at Alabama State before giving his life to ministry and the fight for Civil Rights. As senior pastor at First Baptist Church, he oversaw the largest Black congregation in Montgomery from 1951 to 1961. It was Abernathy who became King Jr.’s confidant when King Jr. was still a young pastor, finding his way in 1954, helping prepare him for the last 14 years of his life.

Both Micah and his brother Ralph David Abernathy IV chose to play football at nearby Tennessee and have never strayed from who they are.

"It's not about recognition, but it's more about people knowing their history," Micah said in 2015. "Especially [B]lacks and where we came from and where we don't want to go back to."

"Because we play football, people can go to Google our names and he [Rev. Ralph David Abernathy] comes up," said Abernathy IV. "It only allows for more exposure to the work that he did for so many people."

There’s power in a name, your name.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.