During the NFL strike San Francisco 49ers player representative Keith Fahnhorst experienced emotions he hadn't felt at any other time in his 14-year career. Listening to the Niners scream at each other in union meetings saddened him, as did his work in organizing pickets in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to keep teammates from abandoning the strike. Fahnhorst became so distraught that at one point he lost 12 pounds and had to be hospitalized for exhaustion. Then, on Oct. 13, two days before the end of the strike, Fahnhorst listened during a conference call as members of the NFL Players Association's executive committee pleaded with the 28 player reps to keep their teammates from defecting en masse before the next day's owner-imposed deadline.
"Reps started yelling at each other from one side of the country to the other," Fahnhorst says. "It went on and on." Then Chicago player rep Mike Singletary called timeout and offered to lead a prayer. "All across the United States players were praying," recalls Fahnhorst. "That's when I realized the strike was over, that we were doomed."
Fahnhorst hung up, went into the bathroom and cried. His wife, Sue, found him. "She tried to tell me everything was O.K., that now we could go back to work. I shook my head and said, 'Sue, it's not that easy.' "
When the union called off the strike, Fahnhorst knew the Niners faced an arduous task. Seventeen 49ers had broken ranks before the end of the strike, including stars Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Roger Craig and Russ Francis. Perhaps more than any other team, the Niners had seen their cohesiveness destroyed and longtime friendships strained by the strike. Some Niners even suspected teammates of having leaked information to the front office.
The strike also threatened quarterback Montana's position as the team leader. Having abandoned the strike early, would he ever again be able to command his teammates' respect? And would the rest of the league retaliate against him? "I'm sure other guys around the league will be extra zealous in their hits on Joe—to bring the fact home that he deserted us when the going got a little tough," said Atlanta Falcons linebacker Joel Williams before Montana's return game.
Even his teammates questioned Montana's integrity. "This isn't going to affect how I think of Joe as a player, but it might affect my level of respect for him," guard Guy McIntyre said. "When you're a team, you don't expect people to just play one half. And it's the same with a strike. You have to ask yourself, Can you trust a man in the trenches?"
As soon as the strike began, Fahnhorst and linebacker Keena Turner, the assistant player rep, tried to forestall hard feelings by encouraging open discussion of the issues. There was only one ground rule: The 49ers would act as a team. Majority rule. Period. Rah-rah.
That proved unrealistic. Montana said that he had suffered severe financial setbacks and couldn't afford to lose any more money. Clark, 30, felt that he needed the paychecks because three offseason knee operations might soon force him to retire. Tight end Francis, 34, was in a similar spot, having been placed on injured reserve on Sept. 7 with a strained Achilles tendon.
And so the 49ers started coming apart. "It was tough sleeping," says Montana. "I was torn between what I had to do and what I wanted to do. I'd go to our meetings, and guys would argue with me. I'd think, This is ridiculous! What have we become?
"You can only sacrifice so much for somebody else. In the end, it comes down to economics. We aren't like steel-workers, who can make up lost wages over a 30-year career. Most of us have about four years to make money. Why would anyone try to take that away?"
On Day 11, Montana and eleven others announced they were planning to report to work. In hopes of dissuading them, some of the remaining strikers, at Fahnhorst's behest, grabbed picket signs and went to the 49ers' Redwood City training camp. Coach Bill Walsh, fearing a showdown might erode team unity, prevailed on the defectors to delay their return. But five days later they crossed the line.
That development took a heavy emotional toll on all the Niners. Craig, who lost $69,000 in salary, returned even though he felt like he was "driving a huge ax between my teammates and myself." Turner was distressed because cornerback Eric Wright, his best friend and godfather to his daughter, Sheena, was one of those who reported. "Every morning I woke up with headaches," Turner says. "Eric and I have had disagreements before, but they were never as intense and heated. If our friendship didn't survive this, then I guess it wasn't very good to begin with."
When the 49ers got back together for the first time, on the morning of Oct. 19 at their training facility, they were understandably apprehensive. The first team meeting, during which Walsh discussed the importance of honest communication, was unusually quiet and businesslike. Then at lunch backup quarterback Steve Young, who honored the strike to the end, made a great show of coveting Montana's bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies. "It was a good way to break the ice," says Young. Never mind that Montana, who had brought in the cookies to give to a secretary, didn't share them with Young.
Fahnhorst shook hands with the defectors as well as the 14 replacement 49ers still with the club. Turner passed Montana in a hallway and playfully rubbed the quarterback's tummy. Montana giggled. After practice, safety Ronnie Lott gave one of his trademark rambling speeches. "I told the guys not to look at the small picture, that if we held the last three weeks against each other—after all we'd lived through—we'd be pretty shallow people."
Clark, Craig, Turner and Lott went out that evening for beers. A few nights later Clark, Turner, Lott and Wright, partners in a restaurant in Cupertino, had dinner together. And on Oct. 22, during practice, the Niners burst into a rendition of Happy Birthday to You for Turner, who had just turned 29. "It was like we had never left," says guard Randy Cross, a faithful striker.
Practices were hard, pep talks basic. "It was like training camp," says Walsh. "I reiterated that it's vital to judge a person by his performance and commitment rather than his politics, spiritual feelings or economic status."
Walsh set aside time each day for players to air their feelings, and he had University of California sociology professor Harry Edwards, a 49ers' consultant, attend practices. Walsh also met individually with players to discuss their financial problems.
If the Niners came together smoothly, Walsh knew it was because of Fahnhorst's and Turner's efforts to promote harmony. So, on Sunday, he made them captains for the game against Núw Orleans. And the team played better, especially in the air, than it had before the strike. Montana completed 18 of 32 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns as the 49ers won 24-22.
Lott believes the Niners are on their way to becoming closer than ever. "Adversity, if dealt with in the right way, makes you stronger," he says. "You have to look it in the face and challenge it immediately. If you ignore it, you'll grow apart."