Thirty years ago this week, a 24-day NFL strike began that made some heroes and zeros
Thirty years ago this week the NFL came to a grinding halt but that hasn’t slowed down Talk of Fame Network. Co-hosts Ron Borges, Rick Gosselin and Clark Judge decided to revisit the 24-day strike of 1987 this month through the eyes of those most deeply involved – the strikers, the players who replaced them and the coaches who worked uncomfortably on both sides of the line.
There were no games the first Sunday after the strike began three weeks into the season but for the three that followed the league took an unprecedented step. The owners decided to play with “replacement players.’’ Others called them strike breakers or worse. Many fans and critics called them frauds but Chicago Bears’ linebacker coach Dave McGinnis called them “the spare Bears.’’
From a coach’s perspective they were the real ones when they were on the field so he coached them like the real thing, although picket lines and empty stands made a difference it was difficult to ignore.
“A lot of those guys were living out a lifelong dream,’’ McGinnis recalled. “It wasn’t the spare Bears’ fault. The first practice they were so fired up we had about 30 fights. It wasn’t hard to take them seriously. It was just hard to believe.’’
Among the things hard to believe was finding himself sleeping with an air mattress wrapped around him on the floor of the visitors’ locker room at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia the morning of a strike game against the Eagles because the team had been awoken at 2:30 a.m. and bussed to the stadium for fear strikers might close the bridge leading to the field and thus prevent the game from happening.
“Okay, you wanted to be a big-time ball coach,’’ McGinnis recalled with a laugh. “Here you go.’’
For punter Kelly Goodburn, the experience was nerve wracking at first when he left a school teaching job for the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the strikes most militant participants.
“I’d tried two years unsuccessfully…so I was done,’’ Goodburn said. “But the Chiefs said they’d give me $5000 (a game) if there’s a strike. If not I could keep the money. It was a no-brainer.’’
It was until several striking Chiefs’ players showed up on the picket line standing in the back of a pickup truck carrying rifles.
“I did (fear for his life) that day,’’ recalled Goodburn. “Put on Sports channel and they’re showing these guys in Kansas City driving around with shotguns. We’re driving around in a Greyhound (bus used to transport the replacement players from a hotel to the practice field) and we stopped for 45 minutes. I was thinking ‘this can’t be good.’’’
It turned out good for Goodburn, who proved to be the best player on the winless Chiefs’ replacement team. Kansas City kept him on after the strike and he would end up punting for seven NFL seasons, the final three in Washington, where he won a Super Bowl ring in 1991. But that was not the norm.
Joe Dudek’s story was far more common among the replacement players. A three-time Division III All-American running back at Plymouth (N.H.) State, Dudek broke Walter Payton’s collegiate career rushing touchdown record with 79 and made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1985 below a picture of Bo Jackson as “the thinking man’s choice’’ for the Heisman Trophy. That made him a cult hero and he finished ninth in the voting with 12 first-place votes, then spent 1986 on the Denver Broncos’ injured list before being among the final cuts in August, 1987. Before he left, Dudek was asked an odd question.
“They asked me to sign a contract to play if there was a strike,’’ Dudek recalled. “I thought about my (former) teammates. I told them I couldn’t sign. They sent me packing.’’
When the Broncos called before the first strike game, “I gave them the same response,’’ Dudek said. But after Denver was hammered, 40-10, by the Replacement Oilers, the Broncos made another run at him with a new approach.
Dudek was working construction back in Massachusetts for his brother and knew this might be his final chance at living his dream. He was still reluctant until the Broncos informed him star players had begun to cross the line and their intention was to make him the focal point of their offense on Monday Night against the Los Angeles Raiders. Still want to swing that hammer, Joe?
“They asked me to reconsider and told me a lot of players were starting to cross,’’ said Dudek. When he learned among them were the Broncos’ Steve Watson and Bill Bryan, as well Raiders’ defensive linemen Howie Long and Bill Pickel, he changed his mind.
“It was one of those forks in the road in life,’’ said Dudek. “They sold me on a chance of a lifetime.’’
Seven days later, Joe Dudek rushed for 128 yards on Monday Night Football and still has a framed photograph of himself running by Long, a future Hall of Famer, the same way he ran by skinny kids playing for Keene State.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d start at Mile High Stadium on a Monday Night,’’ the 53-year-old Dudek remembered. “It was a dream come true.’’
The Broncos won both games Dudek started and then the strike, and his career, were over. He remained on the newly established practice squad for a time but was released before the playoffs began. Denver went on to reach the Super Bowl but Joe Dudek did not receive an AFC championship ring. The irony there was he’d gotten one in 1986 when he was on injured reserve and never played a down but in a season where he helped lead the Broncos to two important victories during the strike he only got one thing beside his jersey.
“For a minute I felt what it was like to be John Elway,’’ Dudek said. “I’m happy I did it. I’m able to say I could play at that level in a real game with starting NFL players on both sides. This kid from Plymouth State got a chance.’’
Striking San Diego linebacker Gary Plummer would have been just as happy if Dudek and the rest of the replacement players hadn’t gotten that chance. He was among those tossing eggs at the bus transporting replacement players and was threatened with permanent unemployment if he continued to disrupt practice by hollering at the coaches and his replacements with a bullhorn from a hill above the practice field.
“That was awesome,’’ Plummer says now. “There was a Rent-A-Center down the street and they had a guy who was probably 400 pounds (at center). I said they rented the wrong guy. I got a call from my linebacker coach after the first practice. He said I better put the bullhorn down or I might not have a job.’’
While the replacement players practiced in Charger gear, the real Chargers were practicing under the direction of their quarterback, Dan Fouts. As days became weeks and the strike wore on, emotions wore thin.
“It pissed us off every time someone crossed (the picket line),’’ Plummer said. “The owners beat us to the punch. It certainly wasn’t a victory, except in court. It sucked getting calls from your coaches saying ‘The sheriff is playing really well.’ Those coaches changed their alliances in a heartbeat. Family went out the window pretty quick.’’
Plummer and the majority of the strikers lost three game checks and never won either free agency or the guaranteed contracts they sought. Now 30 years later, today’s players have only limited free agency and still are fighting for fully guaranteed contracts and more liberalized neutral arbitration rights like those in major league baseball and other sports. So was it worth it to Gary Plummer to use his bullhorn?
Tune in to find out.
It’s not all strike talk this week though. Ron state’s the Hall of Fame case for first-year eligible Bears’ linebacker and former Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher while Rick, our resident Dr. Data, tells you who threw the first touchdown pass at Joe Robbie Stadium, which opened during the 1987 strike. Hint: if you think it was Dan Marino you’d be wrong.
The guys also visit with Victor Lopez, a taco salesman and restaurant owner in San Diego who is so angry at the Chargers moving to L.A. he’s offering free tacos after every Charger LOSS! So far they’re 0-2 and he’s out a lot of tacos but is enjoying the emotional release.
To hear the whole show or any portion of it you can find Talk of Fame Network on SB Nation radio affiliates around the country, by downloading our free podcast at iTunes or by using the TuneIn app. You can also find the show and all our past interviews and shows on our website, talkoffamenetwork.c