It's 6:30 a.m. on Friday, day 4 of the NFL players' strike, and the only sign of life at the gate of the Dallas Cowboys' practice facility is Doug Cosbie. The Cowboys' three-time All-Pro tight end and player rep pulls a placard from the trunk of his Ford Taurus. The big black letters on it read: NFL PLAYERS ON STRIKE AGAINST NFL OWNERS.
Cosbie is exhausted. He hasn't slept much since the strike began. He spends several hours each day on the phone, relaying messages from the NFL Players Association's Washington, D.C., headquarters to his 44 out-of-work teammates. Mornings are devoted to supervising the strikers' workouts, which on Friday included a spirited game of touch football—offense against defense, no first downs—that ended in a 20-20 tie.
When he's not on the phone or the field, Cosbie shuffles his 6'6", 238-pound body back and forth on the sidewalk outside the Cowboys' practice facility. "I've never considered myself a leader," says Cosbie, 31, now carrying the sign. Before his senior year at Santa Clara, he worked briefly as a trash collector, and was a member of the Teamsters union. "I became player rep last year because no one else wanted the job," he says. "We never even had a team vote."
At 6:45 a.m., center Tom Rafferty rolls up in his van. Defensive tackle John Dutton follows in a four-wheel drive. A sleepy-eyed Tony Dorsett appears at seven o'clock. "I'm proud of you, TD," says fullback Timmy Newsome, who had arrived moments before.
"I'm proud of me, too," says Dorsett.
All week the same 15 Cowboys—Dorsett, Newsome, Rafferty, Dutton, quarterback Steve Pelluer, guard Brian Baldinger, tackles Mark Tuinei and Kevin Gogan, defensive tackles Danny Noonan and Kevin Brooks, cornerback Everson Walls, defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, linebackers Jeff Rohrer, Steve DeOssie and Jesse Penn—have joined Cosbie on the picket line. Twice a day they meet the bus carrying the alternate players—America's Second Team—to and from practice. "We don't all agree with what the union stands for," says Cosbie. "But we believe in the collective bargaining process. Collectively, we can improve working conditions."
Not every Cowboy feels that way. Veteran defensive tackles Randy White and Don Smerek crossed the picket line on the first day of practice. Other forces are working against Cosbie. "In the Dallas TV-viewing area, there are only about 70,000 union members," he says. "We have very little fan support."
In a Dallas Times Herald telephone poll conducted the first day of the strike, 82% of the respondents supported the NFL owners. To make matters worse, the Cowboys' public relations machine is in full throttle. Practices, closed during the regular season, are now open to the media. A new 23-page press guide is hot off the Xerox. A new team picture has been shot.
"Sometimes it's really frustrating," says Cosbie, taking a break by sitting on the curb. "I feel like myself and a couple of others are fighting the whole battle all by ourselves. I'm so tired right now, I don't want to go to practice."
The Dallas locker room, 11:45 a.m. For 13 years this has been White's sanctuary. A fishing rod is propped up in the back of his stall. Crusty and stubborn, White is salt of the earth. Flannel shirts and pickup trucks. He went to work at age 10, laying bricks in Wilmington, Del. Without football, he figures, he would still be laying bricks. "When I decided to cross the picket line, it was not to make a statement against the union or to show I'm 100 percent behind the owners," White says. "I made the decision based on what was best for me, my family and my future.
"I'm 34 years old. I'm at the end of my career. I only have one year left on my contract. I'm paid $31,000 a game because I busted my butt. Any money I lose, I'll never make up."
As the elder statesman of America's Second Team, White is allowed to skip morning meetings. He arrives in time for a catered lunch. During practice he instructs defensive linemen and plays center. "From now on, when they talk about Randy White, they'll list all his accolades, but right after that you've got to put 'scab,' " says Rohrer. "Randy White is a scab for the rest of his life."
If he's forced to, White says that he'll resign as a team captain. He hopes it doesn't come to that. "It was a difficult decision for me," he says. "My teammates feel like I betrayed them. If there is animosity toward me when the strike ends, I'll understand. If guys go for my knees on the field, I can handle it. I always have."
He pauses. "That's just the way it will have to be," he says.
The Cowboys' practice field, 4 p.m. Twenty-nine of the 46 alternate players went through the Dallas rookie training camp in July. Right now the strongest positions are quarterback and receiver. The offensive line, which has only five players, is pathetic. "I can't imagine trying to play these games with players who haven't been in our system," says coach Tom Landry, who surveys the action from atop a three-story-high platform. He makes notes on a clipboard and directs two videotape cameramen.
By week's end more than 400 hopefuls have phoned the Cowboys, offering their services on the field. Bill Westfall, a Cowboy security guard, turns away a truck driver who shows up at the gate to the team's facility, but not before the fellow rips open his shirt and declares, "Look at this body! And I don't even lift weights." But the Cowboys do sign receiver Clay Pickering, who has bumped around the NFL since 1984 without ever catching a pass and has worked most recently as a glazier in New York. They also pluck kicker Tom Dixon, who led the CFL in scoring last year for the Edmonton Eskimos, from an island off Western Canada, where he was working in his father's lumberyard.
"You can't help but get caught up in the novelty of this," says Paul Hackett, the Cowboys' pass-offense coordinator. Hackett predicts scab ball will look like the old AFL games—lots of wide-open play. "These teams won't be in the ballpark of the NFL," says Hackett, "but they don't have to be. The kids are so enthusiastic—it's their chance at a dream. They're fun to coach."
No player is more enthusiastic than Kevin Sweeney, the former Fresno State quarterback who was Dallas's seventh-round pick last spring. Cut on Sept. 7, Sweeney was considering retiring from football. Real estate beckoned. So did five NFL teams when the strike broke out. "I thought it was morally wrong to cross a picket line," Sweeney says. "My grandfathers were coal miners in Butte, Mont. But when they went on strike, it was to put food on the table. This is different. These guys aren't laborers.
"I've never felt this secure. You do your best, and if you throw it in the dirt, you throw it in the dirt. They can't cut us. So what if the strike ends and we are gone tomorrow. We got a second chance. Heck, last week I was out of work, watching Leave It to Beaver reruns. Now I'm playing quarterback for the Cowboys."