“We got off that plane and it was heroes’ welcome that’s etched in my mind,” says Bentley. “They had a make-shift stage and some players thanked the fans – that was our parade.”
Ray Bentley came out of Central Michigan and chose to play with the Panthers to be close to his ailing father, Rahn.
Most collegiate players signed with USFL teams because the money was better, but Bentley wanted to remain in his native Michigan – a choice he never regretted.
Bentley remembers when 150 guys tried out for the Panthers in Daytona Beach, Fla., during February of 1983.
“It was probably the toughest week of my life,” he says. “We hit every play; it was Old School; coach Jim Stanley was one of those tough country-boys. The last man standing at the end of the week made the team.”
The city of Detroit hadn’t been a part of a pro football championship season since Bobby Layne in 1957. So when the Panthers started to roll, the fans did the same through the Silverdome gates.“Once we started winning the fans really bought into us,” recalls Bentley. “Detroit was so starved for a winner for football.”
Even with the team’s popularity among the fans and the media, no one could have expected the turnout the Panthers had in the playoffs.
Michigan’s 12 wins earned them a home-playoff game against the Oakland Invaders in the semi-finals. Owner Alfred Taubman lowered ticket prices, as more than 60,000 adoring fans rushed through the gates to watch the Panthers beat Invaders 37-21, and earn the right to play in the first USFL Championship. The exuberant fans stormed the field after the playoff victory.
“I’ll never forget the semi-final against Oakland,” says Bentley, with a reminiscent, yet excited voice. “I stayed out there just to feel it and to mingle with the fans. It was one of the most emotional and chaotic scenes I was ever a part of.”