It was Pat Peppler, the Dolphins' director of scouting, who, in searching for perspective where there seemed to be none, recalled the plight of the civil engineer who was sent out to drain the swamp but kept forgetting his mission because he was always up to his eyebrows in alligators. The synopsis in Miami last week as the National Football League player strike passed into its third alligator-infested, fun-filled week was that there were no answers, only issues, and keeping the issues straight required, most of all, a straight face.
The detail of the world champions' camp was representative of the whole strike mural. To appreciate how complete—and completely ridiculous—the paralysis of thought and deed had become one had only to twirl the radio dial to his favorite Dolphin show (not all the Dolphins have their own radio shows in Miami, it just seems that way) and hear, say, Larry Seiple, the punter, debate himself on "whether I'll show up [in camp] tomorrow." After a short one-handed game of verbal pit-pat, Seiple reached the conclusion with Seiple that he did not know what he would do. "Tune in tomorrow, folks, and maybe you'll find out," he said hopefully.
By week's end Seiple was one of 15 Dolphin "veterans" in camp, but as fellow strikebreakers Jake Scott and Jim Mandich were not reluctant to admit, any resemblance between this and the team that won the last two Super Bowls was purely coincidental. Scott was working with "three defensive backs I never even saw before," who seemed disposed to rotate hazardously into one another on zone coverage, and he more or less considered practice to date as "a waste of time." Mandich says he felt more like a coach on the field than a player.
Scott and Mandich were in camp because both signed multi-year contracts some months ago at "more than double" what they made last year. Scott said they could hardly champion the "freedom" argument since they had been quite free to accept big money offered by the World Football League before signing themselves back into Dolphin bondage. Anyway, said Scott, the real argument was economics, "and when I'm getting six figures and I'm just a defensive back I'm probably already overpaid."
July 28, 1974
Center Jim Langer, like Scott an All-Pro, was first to cross the picket line—in a blue-and-white Plymouth. He says he prefers to think of himself as a "professional" rather than a union man, although he pays his dues ("which is something a lot of those strikers haven't done"). He says he has been treated fairly in Miami "and I'm not about to slap the Dolphins in the face for some guy in Atlanta or Houston who doesn't like to observe curfews."
The leader of the Dolphin strike force is Player Representative Doug Swift, an amiable, articulate outside linebacker who wears tinted glasses and is the first player ever to make the NFL out of Amherst College. Paradoxically, he might not have gotten the chance had he not hustled into camp as a scab in 1970 when the league was experiencing its first strike. Ten rookies and free agents made the Miami team that year; eight were starters through the Super Bowl.
Swift's picket line outside the Dolphin camp at Biscayne College is not exactly a bastion of militancy. Only one policeman—lazing in a squad car under a lone Florida pine tree—is there to keep the peace, and he is not needed. Strikebreakers exchange viewpoints and pleasantries with the pickets—when there are any—as they motor through the gate. The United Auto Workers would be appalled.
The pickets, such as they are, operate out of an Open Road air-conditioned motor home, from which Swift dispenses neatly stenciled placards ("No Freedom, No Football," "Monopoly Is Played With Dice, Not People") and cold drinks. Vigilance is not their byword. The young gate attendant who watches their coming and going calls it "a Mexican strike. They hang around a couple hours and then split." It is hot in Miami in July.
Swift & Company boils down verbally to Swift & Wife. Julie Swift—slim, blonde, fetching in a halter and shorts, is at least her husband's equal as a militant on the issues and traces part of her intelligence in such matters to her labor law studies at the University of Miami. "Have you ever read the standard player's contract?" Julie asks pleadingly. She pooh-poohs the show of strikebreakers ("How many regulars are there in camp, that's the big question?"), while at the same time she explains away the scarcity of picketers because "this is more of a symbolic picket line."
As Mrs. Swift speaks, Garo Yepremian, the placekicker, refuses to have his picture taken with the pickets—even though he has not crossed the line. Yepremian is partaking of a soft drink in the van, which Doug Swift says costs $200 a week to rent. He says they might have to give it up soon, though, submitting to what he calls "the union blues." He hints darkly that the press has not been very sympathetic.
The Swifts say the majority of passers-by signify their support (V-for-victory signs, clenched-fist salutes), but Julie admits there has been an occasional antagonist. One afternoon a gray-haired lady in a beat-up station wagon shook her fist as she passed and shouted, "Get back to work, you bums!"
Langer, on the other hand, says that the strike has no support from the people he encounters and Scott says," We're alienating a ton of fans. When I was home they'd see how I live, which is pretty damn good, and they'd say, 'Are you going to picket?' "
Otherwise, willingness to be a scab appears to be a small price to pay for those dreamers who would be Dolphins. Player Personnel Director Bobby Beathard processes daily the claims of potential All-Stars who last played football in high school in 1965, "but have been working out ever since," and those of prison inmates looking for an early way out of the slammer.
Because all NFL clubs are desperate for bodies, Beathard dutifully screens every likely candidate. Some of them have been recommended by their wives, who attest that "My husband never misses a game on television, and just loves the Dolphins. Please give him a tryout." One the Dolphins did bring to camp was an undrafted rookie quarterback from Dayton named Kenny Polke. Polke impressed Shula with his strong arm and passing accuracy. "Surprising," Shula says, admitting that all he had in mind originally was "somebody who could hand the ball off."
Polke's deep brown eyes moisten as he says he thinks now he "can play this game—somewhere," but that he "knows" he won't be a Dolphin once Bob Griese and Don Strock show up (Earl Morrall is already in camp). It's just as well, he says, because every day he gets more homesick, and it didn't help when he got a Dear John letter.
Shula, meanwhile, maintains his equanimity, trying, he says, "to understand all the issues" while keeping intact a facsimile of his great team. At his press conferences—marked contrasts to the embroiled, slightly broiled Swifts'—he is cool and dry in a freshly laundered shirt, shaved and (for him) remarkably dispassionate. Historically, Shula has been about as close to being a management man as macaroni and cheese is to quiche Lorraine, but he is resentful of certain strike issues. He feels the strike has come at a time when the owners' latitude to deal has already been considerably limited by their fiscal war with the WFL (Dolphin salaries have doubled over last year, to almost $3 million), and because he refuses "to be told how to coach" by players. "We didn't get where we are by coddling ourselves," Shula says.
As a final irony, the strike has performed a minor miracle of public relations in making a sympathetic figure out of Owner Joe Robbie, who has often been at the vortex of controversy in Miami. Like good steel, he seems to thrive in the hottest ovens, however, and he had just come off a remarkable string of contract successes—and concessions—after the Csonka-Kiick-Warfield defection.
But an old adversary was intent on rectifying that development last week. Ellis Rubin, the Miami Beach attorney and longtime management baiter (he was a successful petitioner against the television blackout of home games), is now threatening suit if Robbie attempts to start the season with rookies and free agents or anything short of the "real Dolphins."
Some alligators never quit.