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Life flourishes in the waste places, on the peripheries, in ecosystems created without intent. The ant colony beside the discarded picnic basket. The microbe metropolis astride the deep-water volcanic jet. In September 1987, when members of the NFL Players Union walked off the job, their goal was to bring pressure on the franchise owners. When those owners, behaving in the traditional way of the factory boss, brought in scabs to break the strike, their goal was to counter that pressure. The strange, chaotic, bumbling season of replacement football that followed was the intent of neither. As nihilists say about life, it was a rounding error, an accident, a cosmic comedy, fleeting yet utterly important, as the games played by the scab teams—the Chicago Spare Bears, the New Orleans Saint Elsewheres, the San Francisco Phony-Niners—counted. And in several cases those games would determine, when the strike finally ended, who was up and who was down. The story of the 1987 Redskins, the winners of Super Bowl XXII, is in large part the story of the Scabskins.
It was a perfect test of coaching ability. Imagine: You’ve prepared for a certain kind of season, stocked the roster with a certain kind of pro—raw-boned rookies, but veterans too; men with five or 10 years in the league, men who knew everything about the game, who dreamt in check-down progressions and coughed up playbook motions—and then suddenly all that gets up and walks out the door, trades gridiron and jersey for sidewalk and a sandwich-board emblazoned with slogans about free agency. You scramble, in the aftermath, for rejects and toss-offs, has-beens and misfit cranks, anyone who can hit and stand being hit, who can get through a game without succumbing to heat, cold, pain, humiliation. What had been a slick display becomes a sandlot affair, back to old-time factory league football—Go out and I’ll look for ya! For a coach and his staff, it was a test of patience, wit. Do you get the joke or do you resist? Do you put your feet up on the bench and read the newspaper, refusing to participate, as Buddy Ryan did in Philadelphia? Or do you adjust?
The Redskins’ Joe Gibbs was one of the few NFL coaches to register this key fact: No matter what happens with the strike—how nasty, how long—these improvisational games would count. “You knew your everyday guys were coming back [eventually] and you didn’t want to upset them—you’d be coaching them again soon,” Gibbs told me. “At the same time, we really wanted to win those games.”
Washington’s staff, led by general manager Bobby Beathard and his assistant, Charley Casserly, had been on the lookout for replacement players ever since that summer, when word of the impending strike first came down during training camp. In September they kept tabs on the last players cut across the league—guys who were a step too slow, a biscuit too light—and when the strike was announced after Week 2 this amounted to a handful of players as several franchises chased the same few prospects to fill their rosters.
“I think we had five guys at the start,” Casserly explains. “From there it was, ‘Go and get whoever you can, anywhere you can.’ ” Scabskins center and long snapper John Cowne had been teaching high school in Virginia. Skip Lane, a defensive back who previously played for the Chiefs and the Jets, was working in finance in Connecticut. Slot receiver Craig McEwen was living with his parents in Northport, N.Y., trying to figure out what to do with his life. “Willard Scissum, our right tackle, had played at Alabama but was out of the game when we called,” Casserly recalls. “He was working as a security guard at a 7-Eleven in southeast D.C. Now, D.C. in the ‘80s was a rough town, and the southeast was the roughest part. So, yes, this guy was out of shape, but we knew he was tough in the truest way.”
Ed Rubbert, the Scabskins’ first quarterback (before he got hurt), was teaching gym. His backup, Tony Robinson, did not arrive straight from prison, as was later reported, but he did come from a halfway house where he’d been serving the remainder of a sentence on a drug conviction. In October 1985, after he led Tennessee to an upset of No. 1 Auburn, Robinson had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was busted the following January for trying to sell crack to an undercover cop, and he was on parole, digging holes for fire hydrants, when Beathard convinced state officials to furlough him straight to the 20-yard line.
“I swear he came out in one of those orange suits, in shackles,” says Lane. “We had another guy, a safety, pro caliber. Ran like the wind, hit like lightning. But stupid? My God! He gave an interview and spoke about being grateful and about God. Then he said, ‘I’m just honored to represent the great state of Washington.’ The guys busted on him for it. He said, ‘You a--holes, at least I’ve got something to fall back on!’ ‘Yeah, what kind of job?’ You know what he says? He says he’s gonna be teaching!”
Early on, a bus full of arriving replacement players was met in the team’s parking lot by strikers who were as infuriated at the scabs as striking coal miners in Harlan County. Eggs and insults. Redskins defensive tackle Darryl Grant blitzed the bus, pounding a side window until it shattered. “I look at these guys as guys who would steal shoes off a dead man,” Grant told a reporter at the time.
Asked if they felt guilty breaking the strike, responses from the replacements—middle-aged men now, some prospering, some lost—vary with temperament. “It was tough,” says Craig McEwen. “I felt like I was betraying the friends I’d made in training camp. But I also thought it might be my only chance to pursue my dream. In the end the dream wins out, but I did feel bad for those guys.”
“Bulls--,” says Lane. “This wasn’t the United Steelworkers. I wasn’t taking the job of some guy who was killing himself on an assembly line. I wanted to play in the NFL. It’s like wanting to be a movie star: If you get that chance, you take it.”
“It broke my heart when real union guys showed up and stood with the regular players,” says defensive end Ted Karras, who descends from football royalty—son of the Bears’ Ted Karras, nephew of the Lions’ Alex Karras. “I grew up in Gary, Ind., with real union guys. They worked in the steel mills and killed their bodies, and if they made it they might bring home $54,000 a year. That’s what [Redskins QB] Mark Rypien made every week.”
On the field, Gibbs pared everything down, schooling his scabs on just a handful of plays, as familiar as high school. Down and in. Down and out. Run. Run. Run. His replacements entered Week 4 (Week 3 having been abandoned) at 1-1, underdogs to the Cardinals mainly because St. Louis had 11 regulars suiting up. Throughout the league, regulars, usually claiming cash poverty, had crossed the picket line, resulting in divisions that would later haunt teams. Steve Largent in Seattle. Joe Montana in San Francisco. Lawrence Taylor in New York. In the end, 227 of 1,585 union members would cross. “I told our guys not to do that,” Gibbs says. “I preached it to our veterans: If you’re out, stay out together. Or come back together. A team has to function as a team or it’s finished.” The Redskins were, in fact, the only NFL franchise with no strike-breakers, which helps explain their success before and after the conflict. A bad team that stands as one will beat a half-bad team that stands divided.
“That was a different set of characters,” Gibbs goes on, laughing. “I’ll tell ya, you felt for ‘em! It was their one chance to play in the NFL. We’d have one last meeting before every game, then a snack. Players got a per diem for meals. The regular guys would skip the snack; they made good money. They’d go to the best restaurants, get steak and lobster. The snack room was always empty. It was one of the few times I could sit and relax, eat my hamburger. But during the strike my oasis was destroyed. Before that first replacement game I went into the snack room and it was jammed. [The replacement players] had all pocketed their per diems and they were loading up on everything. No one could locate me a hamburger—not even a French fry!”
The Scabskins were home against the Cardinals. RFK Stadium, depending on outlook, was either half full or half empty. St. Louis went up and down the field. Rubbert, a model for Keanu Reeves’s character in The Replacements, struggled. Gibbs was about to replace the replacement with the prisoner on furlough when, according to Casserly, “Rubbert either called or was given a play that was really backyard football, a post pattern—run, run, turn, get open.” That 88-yard pass to receiver Anthony Allen—you can see it on YouTube, the spiral slowly losing integrity—would go down as the longest completion of the 1987 season, replacement or real deal. Allen, who’d been a USFL journeymen (the names of his teams are as redolent of a lost era as the names of Germans principalities: the Los Angeles Express, the Michigan Panthers, the Oakland Invaders) caught seven passes for 255 yards that day, which remains a franchise record, albeit one with a tremendous asterisk.
“Coach Gibbs told us we were a team and could win and he said it so calmly that we believed him,” says Cowne, speaking from the teachers lounge at his suburban high school.
Final score: Scabskins 28, Cardinals 21.
“Near the end, the fans, knowing all those regular players were in a picket line in front of the stadium, started chanting, ‘Stay on strike! Stay on strike,' " says Ted Karras, who pauses, thinks a moment, then adds, “I have one NFL statistic and I got it that day. I beat the right guard and I sacked the quarterback. Look it up. It’s in the book.”
In Scab Week 2 the Skins played the Giants in a game that, as far as Washington’s fans were concerned, entirely justified the strike. In previous seasons the Redskins had not been able to get by Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor; in fact, they’d been thrashed by New York on a fairly regular basis. (Remember L.T. and Joe Theismann’s leg?) Standing between Gibbs and a title was a Giants squad he simply could not lick—but here was his golden chance.
Giants Stadium, rising from the murk and corpse-hiding cattails of the Meadowlands, was the saddest place in the world during the strike, vacant as a church in an age without faith, just a few thousand scattered diehards, most of them seemingly related to Skip Lane. A star quarterback in Westport before switching to defensive back at Ole Miss, Lane had friends, teachers and every relative in his family in attendance at that second Scabskins game—they all came to see the wizard of Staples High fulfill the ancient dream. Sometimes you get what you want, but it’s not the way you imagined.
It was not much of a contest. Whereas Gibbs and his staff had carefully scouted, recruited and guided their ragtag band, the Giants, led by Bill Parcells and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, walked through the exercise, focusing more on the future than this gray interregnum. New York, in fact, had trouble even fielding a full team. The players they did have kept dropping out—injury, fitness, nerves. “I don’t think we have time for even some of the basic things, not even a nickel- or short-yardage [package] at this point,” Belichick told reporters before the game. “And some of these guys are not exactly in top condition.”
Those shortcomings would be reflected in the box score. Washington’s Lionel Vital, a seventh-round pick, rushed for 128 yards. Rubbert threw a 64-yard touchdown to a guy named Ted Wilson. (That may have been Wilson’s last TD, but it wasn’t his last headline; in 2013 he was sentenced to 17 years in prison for operating a million-dollar crack-cocaine ring near Tampa.) By the time Wilson crossed the goal line the game was already a rout, a joke, a spit in the face of football. “The Giants didn’t take it seriously,” says Casserly. “A TV camera had a shot of their bench and there was a guy sleeping.”
Scabskins 38, Giants 12.
Meanwhile, the players—the real players, the stars—and their representatives were meeting in dark rooms with owners, screaming and cajoling. A deal was announced on Thursday, Oct. 15, half a week after the Skins’ win in New York. The strike had lasted 24 days, and now players who had been rich would be richer still. They began turning up in locker rooms in mid-October, and for a moment the scabs and the regulars stood side by side. “The air filled with tension, no doubt,” says McEwen. “I remember dropping my tape and it rolled under a bench, beneath this big [regular] lineman. He looked at me and I looked at him and we didn’t know what the hell to do. But Joe Gibbs dealt with it. It wasn’t like it was in places like Philly, where guys were getting beat up.”
So why were the scabs still around after the strike?
Because the majority of the regulars had missed a crucial deadline—by NFL rules, you had to report by Wednesday if you wanted to play that week—the scabs would get one more go-round, one more game. A strange interlude of mixed emotions ensued: On the one hand, the regulars hated the scabs; on the other hand, they needed them to beat the Cowboys, with whom they were tied atop the NFC East. (“Some of the regular guys actually wished us luck,” says Cowne.) Dallas was favored. Twenty-one of their players had already crossed, including six starters and two future Hall of Famers. In that day’s roster you recognized remnants of a once-great dynasty: Tony Dorsett, Ed (Too Tall) Jones, Danny White, Randy White. ...
For the scabs, the game, broadcast on Monday Night Football, was like the last meal of a condemned man. After this, only the cigarette and the rope. “Coach Gibbs knew what a strange position those players were in,” says Casserly. “And he knew how to motivate them. He said, ‘You guys came back to prove you can play in the NFL. Well, what better stage? On Monday Night Football, going against their great players. This is the chance you’ve been waiting for all your lives.’ ”
“This was our Super Bowl,” says McEwen. “It was electric, maybe the most exciting game of my life. We were nobody and nothing, but we were going to get to swing at the monster.”
“The difference in skill level between their regulars and our replacements—let’s just say it wasn’t small,” adds Gibbs. “But I think the advantage really went to us. Some of their guys had crossed, some had stayed out. It created rifts. Our guys were together. Here was their one chance to play against real NFL players, and boy did they go after it!”
That game ranks among the biggest upsets in league history. Dallas did not cross the 50-yard line in the first half. Dorsett fumbled twice in the first quarter. Danny White was intercepted once and sacked six times. “When you get out there and see Dorsett and Too Tall and [Mike] Renfro and Randy White, you think, Oh f---!," says Lane. “But we handled them. White was frustrated because he kept getting knocked on his ass. He couldn’t believe it.”
“ ‘Too Tall’ Jones might’ve thought he’d be walking all over some player who wasn’t good enough to make the league,” says Casserly. “In fact, he was dealing with Willard Scissum, who stood in the door of that 7-Eleven every night in southeast D.C. Willard was used to tough situations. He shut Too Tall down that night. It was something to see.”
Rubbert got hurt early, and in this way Robinson finally got his shot to play on the big stage. He operated like an old hand, dodging the rush, threading darts just over outstretched Hall of Fame hands. For the QB, it was a lifetime condensed into a moment—just as he’d dreamed it, as he knew it could be if he hadn’t torn his ACL, if he’d just identified that buyer as a cop. He’d been in prison before, and he’d be back in prison later, but for three quarters everything was almost perfect: 11 of 18, 152 yards passing. He was intercepted twice, but the pain and failure is forgotten and only the sensation of throwing a tight spiral remains.
Scabskins 20, Cowboys 17.
When the final whistle sounded the replacements hoisted Gibbs on their shoulders. They didn’t make much money, didn’t get much respect, didn’t last very long, but Gibbs had given them something invaluable, a parting gift: “Belief in ourselves,” says Cowne. “Belief that we could actually win, and that’s about more than football.”
The flight back to D.C. was a pandemonium of beer and sadness, the buzz giving way to the melancholy knowledge that it was all over. Allen and McEwen, tight end Joe Caravello and returnman Derrick Shepard comprised a handful of scabs that stuck on the regular roster. The rest returned to the far side of the television screen, where they watched the remainder of the season with the intensity of men with money on the line. When Washington finished 11-4, their services qualified them for playoff shares: If the Skins won it all, each scab would get $27,000 ($18,000 if they lost in the Super Bowl), serious money if you’re putting up drywall. “I watched the NFC Championship Game [against the Vikings] at the house of a fellow teacher,” says Cowne. “I was glued to the set at the end when we got that huge stop down near the goal line. I threw up my hands and shouted, ‘My God, I’m rich!’ ”
Of course, the path to Super Bowl XXII had been paved in part by the scabs, who’d left the regulars with a strong division lead. When I ask Lane if the organization was grateful, he laughs as a cynical man will laugh at a child. “Absolutely not,” he says. “They tried to ignore us. They tried to sweep us under the rug. I got into it with [then Redskins owner] Jack Kent Cooke. I mean, we made that season. We set them up. We beat teams they would have lost to. Because I’d been in the league, I knew we were entitled to certain things—that share, but also tickets to the Super Bowl. I called to ask for my tickets and they didn’t even call back. So I went to the press, told the story: Look what these jerks are doing! The next day, the phone rings at my office. I’m down on the trading floor. A voice comes over the loud speaker: ‘Jack Kent Cook for Skip Lane.’ I tell my secretary, ‘Ask him what company he’s calling from.’ I get on the phone and he’s going nuts. I said, ‘Look, you’re not treating us right. I put my body on the line for you, my career, my reputation.’ Finally he says, ‘You’re right, you’re right.’ ”
The Super Bowl was in San Diego that year and, like the other guys, Lane flew out commercial. Gone were the cases of beer. Gone were the boosters and the Redskins logo painted on their plane’s tail. Just like that, he’d been turned back into a bag-checking, coach-flying nobody. In this country, when your moment passes, you wink out like a light. He went with his brother-in-law, which is what you’d expect from a civilian with freebies. Several teammates were at the game, but Lane did not see them. The front office, perhaps fearing the power of numbers, scattered the scabs across the stadium, each in his own section.
At kickoff, Lane found himself in a state of conflict, at once rooting for his old employers and hating himself for rooting. “The team didn’t treat us exactly right,” he says, “but I had money on the Redskins, which goes a long away toward settling inner turmoil.”
It should’ve been a classic match-up. The Broncos, in their second straight Super Bowl, were led by a 27-year-old John Elway, who—well, if you don’t remember Elway in 1988, too bad. There really had been no more physically gifted quarterback in the history of the game. As big as a linebacker, with that hair and those teeth and that nearly mystical sense of pressure, not to mention the arm, the zip he could put on a ball thrown even off his back foot. The Skins’ Doug Williams was on the other side of the equation, nearing the end of his playing days. He was the first black QB to start a Super Bowl—a lot was made of that. And though he’d have a long career, ups and downs, all kinds of personal tragedy, he’s one of those players remembered for just a few sequences, a handful of unforgettable plays. The first of those would come when, trailing by 10 in the second quarter, he found Ricky Sanders on a play called Charlie-10 hitch for 80 yards and a touchdown. It was like the single blow that opens the piñata—the candy keeps coming and coming. Williams would throw four touchdown passes in less than 12 minutes, his team scoring 35 points in that second quarter alone. And it was mop-up time after that.
Real Redskins 42, Broncos 10.
Afterward, the scabs faded into their old lives. Back to the classroom, back to the junior high gym, back to the construction crew. Robinson tried to catch on with several NFL teams before returning to semi-pro ball in the South, where he was arrested by lawmen from Tennessee. Having violated his furlough he returned to prison, served out his sentence and was freed, got caught selling drugs again, was sent back to prison, freed again, arrested, freed—on and on. Lather, rinse, repeat. He spent his late 20s and 30s and early 40s behind bars, burning away his most vibrant years.
In 2008, he was released for (hopefully) the last time, a gaunt, gutted shell but, thank God, still alive. He does not talk to reporters about his years in prison or his great night in Dallas or his years as a college star. Past is past. Not long ago he moved back to the city of his glory, Knoxville, Tenn., where according to officials at his old school he has worked variously as a security guard and as a beer truck driver. He’s back in school, working for those last few credits to earn his college degree. He’s the middle-aged man you see crossing campus, books in hand, but the gait just as rolling as if he were still performing under the stadium lights.