The USFL is gone, but not forgotten in the eyes of Tom Hefner. The Pennsylvania resident has a big collectiion of memorabilia from the defunct football league, a website he’s building and the courage to overcome a disability while pursuing his passion.
by Jim Davidheiser/Boyertown Area(PA) Times and Sports Collectors Daily
Tom Hefner collects sports memorabilia. But it’s not nearly that plain and simple.
The 39-year-old Douglass (Montg.) Township resident prides himself on remembering "Philadelphia’s forgotten teams … those that started and eventually failed." But Hefner does not limit his searches to local "minor-league" squads.
His favorite memorabilia targets, so to speak, are teams that were affiliated with the defunct United States Football League of the 1980s.
He’s the owner of a seven-foot Reggie White poster, when White played for the Memphis Showboats. And he has a 1986 USFL football autographed by Jim Kelly. (Please take note that the USFL did not even have an ’86 season.)
Hefner’s USFL assortment includes stadium banners including an ABC Sports USFL banner, uniforms, programs, collectible mugs, programs and tickets. "I even have the stadium banner of the New Jersey Generals, a team owned by Donald Trump. And prior to computers, weekly informational sheets were sent out to all the media outlets. I have about 700 of those media sheets."
A former auto painter, Hefner has been disabled since 1988. Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) has taken a major toll over the years. "While Muscular Dystrophy affects the muscles, RSD deals with the nerves in the body. The receptors that signal pain are turned on constantly …so my left side always hurts," he said. "It’s been about 20 years … and it’s not getting better, but also not getting worse. It has only affected my left side. Some people have it all over their bodies. My physical therapy at home is important."
"I don’t have full use of my left side, and my driving is limited. I used to go out for physical therapy, but now I do the therapy at home. Some pain medications help."
Those are the bare-bones details of Hefner’s disability, in his own words. But he doesn’t dwell on it; rather, he exudes passion and excitement as he describes his nearly-fanatical avocation, this hobby of collecting sports-related mementos.
His litany of minor league knowledge is extensive and impressive. Hefner loves to talk about the USFL, including the Philadelphia Stars, who actually garnered a league title in 1983-84. (The USFL suspended all play in August, 1986.)
And that’s just the start.
"The Philadelphia Blazers played in the World Hockey Association … Bernie Parent played for them in ’72 and ’73. And the Philadelphia Bell was part of the World Football League in ’74 and half of ’75. "And there was indoor soccer … the Philadelphia Fever team folded in 1982 … the entire Major Indoor Soccer League shut down in ’92 … I have almost all of the Fever programs, but tickets are harder to find."
Hefner resides with his mother, Tama Hefner. His mom plays a part in all of this, as well. It’s not unusual for her to sew and repair old sports jerseys that her son adds to his vast collection. His father, Raymond Hefner, died in 1994 from emphysema-related factors. "It was a slow and painful death … I hate to see kids smoking these days …they don’t realize that smoking really takes a toll on their bodies."
Tom Hefner actually started collecting baseball cards when he was five years old. "And in the 1980s, I wrote to the USFL and started collecting those (minor league) items. "Sometimes I find things online … I’ve made a lot of good friends who know I collect … and once in awhile I go to sports collectibles shows." Three special items in his collection are actual USFL game balls presented originally to player David Trout and coach Jim Mora.
So why the extreme interest in the so-called "forgotten" teams? "For some reason, I used to watch the Philadelphia Bell games with my dad. That got me interested in the ‘other’ teams. "But I’m still an avid Flyers fan … hockey is my favorite sport. And I like the NFL, but not as much as the USFL."
The local collecting-aficionado mentions one of his best friends, Rick Smith, who is also a USFL fan. "Rick actually has a bigger collection than I do … people refer to him as ‘Mr. USFL,’ and they call me the ‘USFL Kid’. "
"Fortunately, this hobby helps to take my mind off of my disability. People know I have a real interest in this … and that keeps me going. Different league people from the USFL have been good enough to send me information … I have the ‘USFL library’ at my house."
He’s now focused on developing his own USFL on-line museum. "It’s not always easy, but I’m learning the computer functions and slowly developing the website. I’ve received so many requests from people about this (an extensive website)."
Tom Hefner continues to take his fascinating sports hobby to new heights.