Believe me, in five or 10 years, you'll be saying, "I knew that guy when he was nothing. I knew that guy when he was a scab."
Joe Deforest, 22, goes to sleep every night in a most pleasant hall of mirrors, in a room that not only reflects the rock-ribbed certainty of his football past but also projects the restless nature of his dreams. The room is a front bedroom in the home of his parents, Carl and Joyce DeForest of Titusville, Fla., about 10 miles west of the launchpads at Cape Canaveral. Joe works at the Cape, logging eight-hour days as a logistics engineer for Grumman as part of its space-shuttle support team.
These days he's up by 5:45 a.m. and at work by 7. He lifts weights for two hours in the late afternoon, gets home around 6 p.m., has dinner with his folks, sees his fiancèe, Laura Bohlmann, for a couple of hours and is at home in bed by 10.
The room is the thing. Along one wall are rows of trophies he won as a football and baseball player at Titusville High, where he was named Space Coast Conference defensive player of the year in 1982. In one corner is a shelf of footballs, two of which celebrate his exploits as a linebacker at Southwestern Louisiana. One is the ball he intercepted in the closing minutes of a game against Nevada-Las Vegas on Oct. 16, 1985.
"My biggest thrill in college ball," he says. "Score tied. A minute and a half left. They had the ball. I intercepted a screen pass and ran it back to score."
Another ball is the one he ran with for a TD after blocking a punt against Ole Miss on Oct. 18, 1986. Above his bed is a blown-up copy of a check dated May 14, 1987, for $1,457.00. That is what DeForest got to keep, after taxes, of his $2,000 signing bonus from the Houston Oilers, who would later cut him. Another wall, papered with news clippings, documents his adventures as a replacement player with the New Orleans Saints during the NFL players' strike earlier this season. One headline reads, FORMER RAGIN' CAJUN DEFOREST JOINS LIST OF N.O. SAINTS 'SCABS'. Another says, DEFOREST, SUBSAINTS ENJOY FINAL FLING BY STOMPING BEARS.
And, to hear him tell it, what a fling it was. On the shelf with his college footballs sits an unmarked NFL ball that DeForest appropriated after the Saints' 19-17 victory over Chicago, one of two games that New Orleans won during the strike. "I just took it," he says. At night these days, alone in his room, DeForest occasionally plays a videotape of that game, savoring with especially keen relish that moment in the second quarter when he blitzed unimpeded from the right side and sacked Chicago quarterback Steve Bradley.
The tape is rolling now. DeForest is sitting on the edge of his bed. Bradley is shouting the count. He drops back, and from the right side of the screen, DeForest, No. 55, emerges. DeForest grabs Bradley around the waist and, falling, pulls the quarterback down. Commentator Pat Summerall says, "A Saint blitz by Joe DeForest...." On the replay, John Madden says, "Who blocks Joe DeForest, number 55, coming from the back side?"
DeForest sighs and hits the rewind and then the play button on his VCR. "I get goose bumps hearing Pat Summerall say my name," he says. "I play the Bear game back, just to boost my ego. It was my only NFL sack. Every time I see it, I swear, I can't believe I'm doing this. I just want to keep looking at it. It's something I'll always keep, show my kids, my grandkids. It makes me feel that I can play in the NFL. Playing for the Saints was like being born again, and I don't want to give it up."
DeForest was one of 1,540 replacement players who came off semipro rosters, the playgrounds and all kinds of jobs for a chance to play football for an NFL team during the strike. Of that group, only 61 are still on active rosters. DeForest was among the unlucky ones who were sent packing back to their homes and old jobs.
The town in which DeForest was raised owes its languid existence to the Newtonian principle that what goes up must eventually come down, and few folks in Titusville are more familiar with the perils implicit in that principle than DeForest. His father owns a real estate agency in town, and the family business is still hurting from the shock of the Challenger disaster of January 1986. That sent the shuttle program into a tailspin, causing mass layoffs, and the real estate market plunged. DeForest considered football a saving grace. He was a junior then at Southwestern Louisiana, on his way to earning his degree in four years and already looking forward to being chosen in the 1987 NFL draft.
He had an excellent senior season, but when draft day came, no one chose him. The Oilers decided to take a peek at him in training camp and gave him that bonus to get him there. When he told Laura about the money, she said, "I'll take a white Porsche."
Instead he gave her a diamond engagement ring and promised to marry her in February 1988, right after his first season with Houston. He returned from school to Titusville and threw himself into a conditioning program, working with weights and bulking up his 6'2" frame from 240 pounds to 255. "I was in the best shape of my life," he says.
On July 27, DeForest was sent off to Houston with backslaps and accolades, a young man known and envied by the townsfolk. Five years earlier he had helped lead Titusville High to its first Class AAA state championship. Now, after four years of college ball, he was off to the pros. The town had sent two men to the NFL—Wilber Marshall of the Bears and Cris Collinsworth of the Cincinnati Bengals—but they had played for Titusville's crosstown rival, Astronaut High. No one from Titusville had ever made it in the NFL. Laura paid $3.50 to buy space on the marquee of Don's Florial Art, located on the town's main drag: GOOD LUCK, JOE, IN HOUSTON.
The Oilers really did give him only a peek. A couple of weeks later, DeForest slipped back into Titusville, as furtively as a man plotting to hold up a bank. Laura picked him up at the airport. "I didn't want to face my parents," says DeForest. "I didn't want anybody to see me. I was hurt and mad. It's hard on the ego, especially when, over the past 13 years, people have been telling you how good you are. You have an image. Then this guy I don't even know says, 'You're not good anymore. Go home.' Your whole world is shattered. When I got home, I didn't want to go to the mall or the beach or near the high school."
DeForest's image of himself, the structure supporting his sense of well-being and his self-esteem, was bound up with being a football player. When the Oilers stripped that away from him, he was lost for the first time in his life, adrift in a way he had never imagined. "I was in the mall one day, and I saw an old high school coach, and I ducked into a store," he says. "I didn't want to hear him say, 'Hey, what are you doin' back?' Your whole ego, your whole life, seems worthless. Football and my family are what I've lived for. You work your entire life, every day, then all of a sudden you're cut? You can't play anymore? You can't tell me that. A part of you is dying. People don't understand that. They say, 'Oh, that's all right, life goes on.' Not for a while it doesn't. Life stops for a while when you get cut."
In late August, DeForest quietly surfaced long enough to land the job with Grumman, largely through the efforts of his former Pop Warner coach, Ed Heiner, who supervises Grumman's logistical ground-support systems for the shuttle. Heiner put DeForest to work monitoring the flow of repairs needed to maintain the myriad electronic components involved in checking out the shuttle before launch. "I was leading a normal nine-to-five life and not liking it because I knew I could still play," says DeForest. "But I realized I had to accept it: Ball's over."
On Sept. 22, the day after NFL players union leader Gene Upshaw announced during Monday Night Football that the players would indeed strike, DeForest had his usual after-work workout and went home, never thinking he would be called in as anyone's replacement. But as he walked in the front door, his mother said, "The New Orleans Saints called. Your plane's leaving tomorrow morning at eight o'clock."
The ticket to New Orleans was prepaid. DeForest called his boss that night. "Go," Heiner told him.
"What about the job?"
"Don't worry about it," Heiner said. "Good luck, and let us know how you're doing."
DeForest was on his way. He never hesitated, certainly not at the prospect of being called a scab. "I'm a guy who worked all his life to play football and was rejected, and now it was time to have a second chance," he says. "How many times do you hear of people getting a second chance, taking advantage of it and it really paying off? I don't want to work for a living. What an easy life playing ball is! You work half a year and get paid more than almost anybody gets paid in two years. How can you blame a guy for wanting a piece of that?"
However they justified crossing the picket line, New Orleans replacement players treated their scabhood with humor. Early in the Saints' first strike game, against the Los Angeles Rams, play stopped for a TV timeout. Across the line of scrimmage, the opposing players stood staring at one other. Most of them were strangers, even to their own teammates, who had come together quite suddenly out of nowhere. Just two weeks earlier they were car salesmen, coaches, bricklayers, dockworkers and bartenders. Only one had been a logistics engineer at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, sailing around the Cape of No Hope. In the silence of the moment, Bruce Clark, the Saints' regular left defensive end, who had crossed the picket line, bellowed over to the Rams, "What's up, scabs?"
Players guffawed on both sides of the line. "You just had to laugh," says DeForest. "It typified everybody's attitude: 'We're here, we're gonna play ball, we're gonna have some fun.' "
Some played for money, some for fame and glory, some for a second chance to show what they could do. Whatever their motives, these replacement Saints came together as a team in a way that DeForest had never experienced. They saw themselves as a sort of platoon of doomed soldiers. In such circumstances, total strangers can become the fastest of friends.
"We all knew we were fixing to get cut one of these days, and so every day we got closer and closer," says DeForest. "The instability of the thing brought you together because you wanted someone to lean on. You know that feeling? You didn't know from day to day what was going to happen. You could tell it on the field. We got close. You got in the huddle and believed in the guy next to you because he was your friend—not only your teammate, but your friend. Every day after practice, we rushed home and turned on the news to see what Gene Upshaw was saying."
Upshaw was their hero. "We loved the guy," says DeForest. "Gene Upshaw got us a job by taking the players out."
For DeForest, that four-week period of his life was a rush exceeding anything he could have imagined when he boarded the morning flight out of Orlando for New Orleans. "At first I just wanted to get my picture taken in a uniform," he says. "Then I just wanted to play one play. Then I wanted to start. Then it was, 'I've gotta have a sack.... We gotta win!...I gotta stay for another game.... I gotta stay for the rest of the season.' Then it was, 'I gotta make a career of it.'
"It sounds greedy, but it's addictive. You want more and more and more. Once you get into it, once you taste the life, once you get the money, once you get the fame, there's not one other thing you want to do in the world."
DeForest enjoyed the flavor so much he ended up as the Saints' second-leading tackier during the strike. "A tough guy," says New Orleans outside linebacker coach, Vic Fangio. "He's smart, aggressive, a team player. He's got some natural pop to him."
The sub-Saints beat the sub-Rams and the sub-Bears, but Fangio says that DeForest played his best game in a losing effort against the sub-St. Louis Cardinals. "In that game he probably would have gotten the game ball if we'd won," Fangio says. "I would have pushed for it. He was in on eight tackles and did a good job rushing the quarterback."
Fangio figures that DeForest might make it as a reserve outside linebacker, but not now with the Saints, who are deep in linebackers. "It was too hard to keep him over the guys we had," Fangio says. "But If I had a guy hurt now, Joe would come under consideration."
DeForest didn't know what was in store for him after the Saints played Chicago in their final strike game, on Oct. 18. He believed the club would keep him. After the game, he looked around the locker room and thought, Hey, this is the last game for a lot of you guys, but I'm staying. Most of the replacements were released en masse the next day, but Fangio thought enough of DeForest to break the news to him individually. "Joe," he said, "when you get a chance, come back to my office."
The news shocked DeForest. "I wanted to cry, because I didn't expect it," he says. "For the second time in three months, a person I hardly knew told me I couldn't play football anymore. It was like strike two."
He flew back to Florida, but this time he did not slink back into town. After all, he had been on TV, and Summerall and Madden had celebrated his sack. On the Cape, fellow workers came up to shake his hand. He signed autographs. On his first morning back at work, one of his office mates, Bobbi Jo Hurdle, who happens to be the sister of former major league baseball player Clint Hurdle, hollered at him. "Boy, you looked great in those tight britches!" she said.
In a way those britches still pinch him today, reminding him of what he was and could still be. DeForest earned about $10,000 for playing in three games as an NFL pro, but the experience was worth far more than that. In fact, New Orleans has invited him to try out for the team next season.
"The Saints rehabilitated my ego," he says. "No one can make you believe you're not good enough to play unless you can look in the mirror and accept it yourself. Until that day, no matter what anyone else tells you, you still can play. For me, that dream is as hot as ever right now. I'm glad for that. I worked hard last summer, but the experience told me, 'Turn it up a notch.' I will."