The Surreal Strike of 1987

Remembering a walkout that helped create today's NFL
October 14, 2007

WHILE PICKETING the Bengals' training facility with his teammates 20 years ago last week, a delicious thought came to Boomer Esiason. "I'm going to sit down in front of this scab bus and really make my point," one of the highest-paid players in the NFL said to himself. Esiason plopped down on the pavement, preventing the bus from picking up the replacement players the Bengals employed during the NFL strike. It wasn't quite a Tiananmen Square moment, but the message was clear: Players would strike until they got what they wanted.

The most sordid chapter in the 88-year history of the NFL played out for three weeks in 1987. Five years after a 57-day strike shortened the '82 season to nine games, the owners were determined not to be held hostage. They fielded replacement teams of wannabe and used-to-be players for three weekends of football the league wishes it could forget. The Redskins signed a quarterback on a work-release program from prison. The Bills signed a truck driver to play guard—and block Lawrence Taylor when Taylor crossed the picket line. Hall of Fame receiver John Stallworth crossed for Pittsburgh; when he caught his 500th career pass, he was congratulated by players he'd never met. The Bears signed an Illinois house painter as backup QB. You might have heard of him: Sean Payton, who played in three replacement games, is the reigning NFL Coach of the Year. "I'll never forget our first game, at Philadelphia, which is such a strong union town," said Payton, the Saints' coach. "There were stories that they were going to try to stop the game, so we got up before dawn and bused to Veterans Stadium. We got there at five in the morning and went to sleep on the floor of the locker room."

Though some established coaches—Bill Parcells, Buddy Ryan, Chuck Knox—were lukewarm participants, the Redskins used the games as a springboard to a Super Bowl win. Scouts signed players who knew coach Joe Gibbs's system, and the replacement Skins won their first two games, then went to Dallas to face a squad fortified by line-crossers Danny White, Tony Dorsett, Randy White and Ed (Too Tall) Jones. Dallas was an antiunion town, and when Dorsett was introduced before the game, the crowd booed lustily. Danny White was jeered as well, Washington won 13--7 and Gibbs was hoisted in the air by the replacements.

"That strike," says Esiason, "made me public enemy Number 1 in Cincinnati. The fans hated a guy making $1.2 million going on strike. I threw for 409 yards against Pittsburgh [in November] and was walking up the tunnel after the game and got hit with a full beer. But looking back, I think it was worth it. The owners saw the scars that strike left, and they knew how dangerous another strike would be to the future of the game."

Though the players splintered and caved after three weeks, the replacement games helped their cause more than the owners'. The union decertified so it could sue the NFL on antitrust grounds, which eventually led—after the Plan B free-agency era from 1989 to '92—to the system now in place: free agency with a salary cap. The NFL is the only sport that hasn't had a work stoppage since 1987, and it's now a $6.3 billion-a-year industry, but difficult days may lie ahead. Small-market owners think that the current labor deal is too heavily weighted toward big-market teams. "Another strike would be just unimaginable," says Esiason. "The game's too rich." That may be so, but the enduring lesson of '87, the league's most surreal period, is that logic doesn't always hold in NFL labor talks.

Running to Extremes

THE HEAT WAVE that baked the Midwest wreaked havoc on the Chicago Marathon. Temperatures rose to the high 80s with stifling humidity; many of the 45,000 runners dropped out, 184 were hospitalized and one—Midland, Mich., police officer Chad Schieber, 35—died after collapsing due to a heart condition. Three-and-a-half hours after the race began, it was called off.

That tragedy followed two remarkable finishes, one fantastic and one heartbreaking. The men's race was won by Kenya's Patrick Ivuti, who beat Morocco's Jaouad Gharib by .05 seconds (right) in 2:11:11.00. In the women's race, Ethiopia's Berhane Adere sprinted down the stretch to catch Romania's Adriana Pirtea, who led by 30 seconds after 25 miles. Pirtea felt so safe on the lead that she started waving and high-fiving onlookers, unaware that Adere was steaming up behind her—an unwelcome sight on an utterly star-crossed day.

PHOTOBETTMANN/CORBIS (FANS) PHOTOWILLIAM R. SMITH (PAYTON)STRIKE A POSE Payton (above) crossed the line walked by fellow quarterbacks Esiason (bottom right) and Dan Marino. PHOTOAL MESSERSCHMIDT/WIREIMAGE.COM (MARINO)[See caption above] PHOTOMICHAEL E. KEATING/THE ENQUIRER (ESIASON)[See caption above] PHOTOJERRY LAI/AP (IVUTI)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)