1987 - THE PREVIOUS TIME THERE WAS A PLAYERS' STRIKE
1987 was certainly an interesting year for professional football, particularly in Pittsburgh.
In January, Art Rooney Jr. was removed from his position as the Steelers Vice President of Player Personnel, with many pundits observing that it was a sacking. He paid the price for the failure with the Steelers draft choices of the eighties. A decade earlier, Chuck Noll built the four times Super Bowl champions through the draft, so any subsequent failure with their system would appear obvious.
The NFL agreed a new television contract that embraced a non free-to-air channel for the first time in ESPN. With the television agreement completed, the NFL could concentrate their efforts on the collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners due to expire on August 31.
There was some small talk at the beginning of the year regarding a players’ strike. The possibility of the second strike in five years didn’t gain much credence, especially when negotiations began in earnest in March.
The NFL’s commissioner Pete Rozelle suggested the talks would be less acrimonious than when the two sides negotiated the last agreement in 1982.
In March, with the NFL’s players/owner talks continuing, Art Rooney Jr. again made the headlines in Pittsburgh with his talk of bringing an Arena Football team to town. Dan Rooney didn’t think the introduction of the rival professional football team would affect the Steelers.
When the NFL draft arrived, Heisman trophy winner Vinny Testaverde went to Tampa with the first pick. The Steelers selected Rod Woodson and when he missed training camp, holding out for more money, it appeared that the Steelers draft challenges of the eighties would continue.
Woodson was a world-class athlete, who threatened to forgo football and head to the 1988 Olympics competing for the gold in the 110-metres hurdle.
THE STEELERS 1987 SEASON BEGINS WITH A WIN
After going 0-4 in the preseason, the Steelers stunned the 49ers with a 30-17 victory in the season opener. Mark Malone remarked, “We went out there and played aggressively, played loose and got after them.” Three interceptions and one fumble recovery tipped the balance for Pittsburgh and the ’87 season was off and running with a victory.
Mike Merriweather was named the AFC defensive player of the week. He had 8 tackles, one assist, an interception and the forced fumble recovered by Delton Hall.
Although increasing signs that negotiations between the league and players were going badly overshadowed the following week, the little matter of a game against the Browns came to the fore. The deadline set for a players’ strike was the Tuesday following the Browns game.
Dan Rooney was mystified the negotiations had dragged on so long, “Everybody is doing well. This game is a great game, maybe the greatest in history. The compensation to the players is very good. Why upset this kind of situation?”
The major disagreement between players and owners was free agency. The union was seeking freedom for the players to sign with the team of their choice after four years, while the owners wanted to be compensated for their loss.
As with every team, the Steeler held a meeting to discuss the situation. With their union representative Tunch Ilkin at the helm, the players gathered downtown in Froggy’s restaurant to finalise their decision. The players voted unanimously for a strike.
After the meeting, Tunch Ilkin told the media that Dan Rooney had suggested, “Let’s keep these guys together.” Tunch believed that Mr. Rooney was concerned that the Steelers stayed together as a team (whether on strike or not) and that he didn’t want dissension on the team.
THE STEELERS STRIKE OUT 34-10
So ran the appropriate headline after the Steelers were thumped by the Browns in the second game of the season, with the planned strike just two days away.
The Steelers quarterback for the game, Mark Malone (pictured right with coach Noll), was cited as the unluckiest, as opposed to the worst quarterback in the NFL. Coach Noll protected his quarterback by choosing to defend him.
Other observers of the loss were not so charitable and blamed the quarterback for the defeat. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed that Malone was a good quarterback against bad teams, but a bad quarterback against good teams.
When the players duely called their strike on the Tuesday, the owners declared they would continue the football season after a one week postponement. The delay would enable the teams to organised replacement players and bring them into a short training camp.
With a potential loss of TV revenue, the aim for the owners was to continue the schedule as quickly as possible.
The Steelers replacement training camp was set up in Johnstown. The Steelers business manager, Joe Gordon, commented the team had explored an area within a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh and has settled on Johnstown as the “prefect setup” for the Steelers.
“It’s no joke said Chuck Noll. “We’re bringing people in. We are trying to get as many as we can. We’re going to Johnstown and work out. We’re going to training camp up there.” Noll said he had no problem coaching a team of strikebreakers.
“Do I have any misgivings about coaching this? We’re going to take another picture of this and this is another Pittsburgh Steelers team and I coach the Pittsburgh Steelers team, no matter what, whatever you want to call it.”
It offered an opportunity for players who played for the new team to make the old team if they played impressively, if and when the strike was settled. “We’re going to go on with playing football and getting the best we can get and being the best we can be.” Any Steeler who wants to join the new team in Johnstown is welcome, he added, but he will not try to encourage them to break the strike.
The replacement players practiced in Point Stadium and stayed at the nearby Holiday Inn in Johnstown. Point Stadium, which once hosted minor league baseball teams, was not used to the high interest that now descended upon the facility. The stadium was only home to an amateur baseball tournament in the summer and high school football games in the autumn.
Joe Gordon confirmed the team was not moving to Johnstown to avoid confrontation with any labour group in Pittsburgh. “It’s to get into a situation where we can best prepare to play a football schedule.”
Gordon said the training camp in Johnstown will be similar to the one held every summer in Latrobe. “We look upon this very much as a similar situation as starting from scratch. Just as we go to training camp to prepare for the season, we’re approaching this in the same way ."
Coach Noll confirmed the approach he was making; treating the training camp like any other he had held with the Steelers. With all the unknowns the season ahead presented, Noll’s commented on his attitude towards putting a team together, “We have to start from scratch and we’re doing a lot of that right now.”
The Steelers were now attempting to put a replacement team together as best as they could. With the uncertainty surrounding the duration of the dispute, Noll commented that he didn’t think he would be cutting any of the replacement players.
While the replacement players camp was settled, the striking players were having difficulties in finding somewhere to practice. During the previous lockout in 1982, the striking players has practiced in Pitt Stadium, but this time Pitt coach Mike Gottfried said he would not allow players to work out in Pitt Stadium.
“We have a policy during the season, and that it is Pitt Stadium is closed. It is closed because of our concern over the agents and it will stay that way," Gottfried remarked.
STEALERS REPLACEMENT TRAINING CAMP
The NFL owners confirmed their cancellation of the third scheduled game of the season to allow the teams the time to prepare their replacement players to continue the season from week four.
The strikebreaking training camp was headlined as "Stealers," as coach Noll took full advantage of an opportunity to evaluate potential additions to his ‘A’ team when the strike was over.
The NFL rules at the time dictated that during the season, a team can briefly work out a free agent in shorts, but cannot work him out in pads. The replacement training camp gave Noll an opportunity to take a look at the free agents practice with one eye on slotting them into his team, while the other eye viewed the potential of signing them permanently to the team when the strike was over.
“If we wanted to find out about them during the season, we couldn’t, because it’s illegal to do it. This is a chance to do that,” Noll observed.
To find the best personnel available, every team had to draw heavily on the information they held on the players willing to cross a picket line. Naturally, the Steelers gave serious consideration to the those who had played or been in camp with them previously.
Steve Bono, quarterback, signed as a free agent by the Steelers after being with the Vikings for two seasons. The Steelers cut Bono from their Latrobe camp early September.
Charley Dickey, guard, tried out for the Steelers in 1985 and was also cut in their 1987 camp.
Dan Reeder (media guide picture right), fullback, played 11 games for the Steelers in 1986 and was released after three exhibition games in 1987.
Steve Apke, linebacker, played at Pitt and released by the Steelers after three exhibition games in 1987.
Anthony Tuggle, defensive back, picked up from the Bengals in 1985 and released by the Steelers in 1986.
Robert Washington, defensive back, released by the Steelers in 1985. Spent 1984 on Injured Reserve list with knee problem.
Albert Williams, linebacker, free agent released by the Steelers after three exhibition games in 1987.
Joe Williams, linebacker, free agent released by the Steelers after three exhibition games 1987.
Warren Bone, defensive end, came in as a free agent in May 1987 and then was released by the Steelers in August.
Danzell Lee, tight end, came in as a free agent in 1987 and the released by the Steelers after four exhibition games.
Ralph Britt, tight end, came in as a free agent in 1987 and took a practice at long snapper in Latrobe, but released by the Steelers in early August.
Mike Clark, running back, came in as a free agent in 1987 to compete against fellow rookie Merrill Hoge in Latrobe, but released by the Steelers after two exhibition games.
Dave Opfar, nose tackle, played three years in the USFL before joining the Steelers in 1987 as a free agent, but released after two exhibition games.
Craig Bingham, linebacker, drafted by the Steelers in 1982 and waived in 1985 .
Brian Blankenship, offensive lineman, signed and released by the Steelers in 1986 and by the Colts in 1987.
Eric Sams, running back, from Carlynton High School who attended Robert Morris, which didn’t have a football team at the time. Signed as a free agent by the Steelers in 1982 and played for the Pittsburgh Colts (described as a minor league outfit playing in the Ohio Football League, out of Pittsburgh). Played for the Carnegie Bulldogs in 1986.
PUMPING UP THE STEELERS REPLACEMENT TRAINING 1987
With the Steelers "A" team on strike, it was now up to Chuck Noll to put together a "B" team that could continue the football season.
The centrepiece of any football team is the quarterback. Along with all of their teammates, the Steelers front two Mark Malone and Bubby Brister were on strike. When the Steelers set up their replacement training camp, they were blessed with having their third string quarterback, Steve Bono, (1987 media guide photo left) willing and available to take advantage of now being promoted to number one.
Bono had been waived on the final cut during preseason and accepted a $1000 bonus to play for the Steelers in the event of a strike. He had some playing experience with the Minnesota Vikings and having been with the Steelers in camp for the summer in Latrobe, knew the playbook and the coaches.
Behind Bono were Erik Kramer of North Carolina State and Kevin Brown of the University of California-Berkeley.
Another player who had been in summer camp with Bono and knew the playbook was fullback Dan Reeder. Although not entirely at ease with being a strikebreaker, he realised it was another opportunity to get paid for what he enjoyed doing.
Reeder was a realist, “You’re not playing with the best. It’s a job. It’s a step above college football, but you know it’s not the NFL.
I’m not here to fulfil a dream to play in the NFL or anything like that. I’m here to collect money. I signed a contract before I left, that’s why I’m here. I gave my word.
You do feel like a scab being here, especially when you know it’s the union’s right to have a strike. He said if he had to do it again he would not accept the money and report to the non-union camp.”
Another former Steeler was David Trout who kicked for them in 1981 between Matt Bahr and Gary Anderson. Trout also had USFL experience with the Philadelphia Stars and was appreciative of having another chance to be back in Pittsburgh.
“It’s an opportunity for somebody to see me kick again and if I kick well, who knows. This is home in a sense and an opportunity to be in the black and gold again. To be where I wanted to be.”
While Johnstown was witnessing the Steelers B team being put together, in Pittsburgh, the conscience or their wallet was forcing some strikebreakers to consider returning to play.
The focal point of the offensive line, Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (1987 media guide photo left), was mulling over his return. The second highest paid player on the team, running back Earnest Jackson, was of a similar mind. The challenge for the local union representative, Tunch Ilkin, was keeping the strikers together. The return of a couple of players, no matter how reluctant on their behalf, could soon turn into a flood.
Cornerback Dwayne Woodruff was one player concerned with the possibility of strikers returning to play and breaking the team’s harmony. “I’m strong on keeping this team together,” he commented. There are a number of teams in this league that will have problems once this thing is resolved. You can see some of the animosity on certain teams now because players went in.”
Second year guard John Rienstra, who idolised veteran Webster, said his resolve would not allow him to follow the center back into camp.
He commented, “I would hate to see something like that happen. A lot of people, myself included, didn’t want a strike. But we all as a team decided to do this and I hope we stick together. I know 95 percent of the team is solid. If Webby goes in, there’s nothing I can do about it. I was hoping for the good of the team as a whole if we did something, we’d do it together.
MIKE WEBSTER AND EARNEST JACKSON REPORT TO CAMP
As expected, a week into the strike, the first strikers to return to work were Mike Webster and Earnest Jackson, ending their walkout on Thursday September 31. Webster and Jackson put on their uniforms for the first time in 10 days, giving them a few days to practice with their replacement teammates before Sunday's game.
Tunch Ilkin (1987 media guide photo left), said the action by the two veterans fortified the resolve of the rest of the strikers.
“If anything, the fact Earnest and Webby went in took a team that has been pretty apathetic about the whole thing and made them pretty solid. Everybody’s just disappointed.
I’ve just talked to Donnie Shell in South Carolina and he couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘Keep the guys together Tunch. We’ve got to keep together.’”
Coach Noll declared that he was proud of Mike Webster and Earnest Jackson for coming into camp. He also tried to apply pressure on the strikers by declaring, “There’s a good chance some striking Steelers will lose their jobs on the team even if their walkout ended tomorrow.”
He also had a strong opinion on the root cause of the dispute, blaming the union.
“Why do I feel the strike is wrong? Because they are after control of the league. Free agency is of no benefit. The system is what the whole strike is about. They want to change the system and the system has been pretty good for a lot of people.
Now, it may not be perfect, but I don’t think you change the system because a third party (the union) comes and says they want to change the system. That’s what’s driven a lot of things over the deep end, into the abyss.”
What probably drove the strikebreakers to cross the picket line, as always in these conflicts was money. Jackson stood to lose $16,250 in base pay each week and Webster $18,750.
With the first replacement game due on the horizon, the media began to take sides.
The Pittsburgh Press took the side of the players with a headline, “NFL Owners, not Players, are the Superstars of Greed-iron,” with an editorial telling fans that football players were considered by the owners as disposable parts of a business; simply work units.
The newspaper reminded its readers of Dick Butkus, “one of the greatest players in the history of football,” who was forced to retire from football with two bad knees.
To get what he deserved, he had to hire a lawyer and take the Bears to court. The players are why pro football has become a national obsession. And since the beginning, they’ve been low-balled by the rich people who own the franchises.
The key to the owners’ economic system, and why the players had decided to strike, is that the workers must work where they are told to work. They can’t shop around for a better deal.
Journalist Mike Royko finished his article by observing, “Sounds to me like football is run by a bunch of commies. “
STRIKERS RALLY TO THE CAUSE
As Sunday approached, the striking players decided to compete against the television broadcast of the game by announcing a rally for their fans outside Three Rivers Stadium.
“The Steelers are going to have a rally, a tailgate party, a show of appreciation for our fans who would rather talk to us than watch the televised game,” said Tunch Ilkin.
The strikers finally organised a workout together on October 1st. More than thirty players worked out on a grass field near Three Rivers Stadium. Tunch explained, “Last week we only had about eight guys in town. Now all of a sudden, everybody’s back in town.”
On October 2nd, the striking players picketed the training camp of the replacement players, Point Stadium, for the first time. Tunch requested the pickets not to confront the replacement players physically.
From a bridge overlooking Point Stadium, the strikers taunted their replacements in a training session with both light hearted and unforgiving slogans. Center Mike Webster, who crossed the picket line three days earlier, replied by bending over and showing his butt. “I’m glad that I couldn’t get my belt off,” he joked. “It was a spur of the moment thing to try and lessen the tension.”
The strikers were joined by local trade unionists carrying various signs, including “Johnstown, An All-American City, Not a Scab City,” a reference to the location of the replacement training camp.
The resolve of the strikers was solid, in spite of the defection of Webster and Jackson. “We’re stronger now than before,” remarked tackle Mark Behning.
The Steelers and the Colts made what is believed to be the first trade of a strikebreaking player when DE Mark Smythe was dealt to the Steelers for future considerations to the Colts. Smythe was a tenth round draft pick by St. Louis in 1984 and hadn’t played in the NFL since his rookie year.
THE FIRST REPLACEMENT GAME - STEELERS AT ATLANTA
With the first games of the reconvened 1987 NFL season on the horizon, hopes would have been high in some training camps, while gloom surrounded others. With just one week of the replacement camp behind them, all teams had put together a hotchpotch collection of players and were now preparing for the unknown.
The media were viewing the games with some cynicism and the Pittsburgh Press described Steelcity's first game as, “the Substitute Steelers against the Phoney Falcons.”
Atlanta’s coach Marion Campbell commented, “It a little weird. Our group’s enthusiastic. But as to what we’ll look like, I’m not sure.”
Steelers coach Chuck Noll was looking forward to the challenge. When asked how the Steelers’ ‘B’ team compared with other NFL ‘B’ teams, Noll commented, “I have no idea. That’s what we’re going to play and find out.
Tiptoeing into the unknown is a very exciting thing. Some people never want to do it. They want to be always safe and what a shame. What a shame people are hamstrung with that. That’s what makes it go – the excitement of the unknown.”
Steelers linebacker coach Jed Hughes added, “The script is totally unwritten. You can’t predict it. Nobody’s got a crystal ball. And now, this is totally uncrystallised.”
THE STEELERS REPLACEMENT LINEUP
The Steelers were looking better than most teams as they had drawn on former players or player who had previously been in camp with the team.
On offense, the Steelers looked very respectable with a supreme offensive line centring on strike breaking veteran Mike Webster. Noll paid Webster the compliment of suggesting it was like having a coach on the field.
At right guard was Ted Petersen, who played center and tackle for the Steelers for seven years until 1984. Left guard was Brian Blankenship who was signed by the Steelers in May 1986 and cut September 1st.
Left tackle was Jim Boyle, and although he had never played a regular season game for any team, was well liked by the coaches. Right tackle was Jeff Lucas was described as a monster, raw but showing promise.
The Steelers ground attack looked full of potential. The twin threat of strike breaking running back Earnest Jackson (pictured left) and half back Rodney Carter, promised to give the Steelers offense a punch. Jackson had accumulated over 3,000 yards the previous three seasons and his experience with the Steelers offense could prove crucial with the season lurching into uncertainty.
Carter had been the leading receiver in college football in 1985, catching 98 passes for 1099 yards at Purdue and was selected by Pittsburgh in the seventh round of the 1986 draft for his dual threat.
Place on injured reserve after injuring his right knee during his rookie preseason, Carter returned to the Steelers in 1987. Unfortunately in training camp, Carter came up against strong competition from rookie Merril Hoge and was waived when the team made their final roster cuts.
To complement the Steelers running game, the wide receivers were considered by the coaches to be a strong addition.
Joey Clinkscales, that year’s ninth draft choice had looked good in camp until the veterans arrived.
Russell Hairston, a defensive back, who had reinforced his receiving skills when playing both ways in the Arena League.
Lyneal Alston, had been signed in May as a free agent.
All three players had been in the Steelers main training camp in the summer and would have already been familiar with the playbook and ready to help the Steelers on offense.
Danzell Lee, a free agent who had been drafted by the Redskins in 1985, was the first choice tight end who had impressed Noll during summer camp with his blocking ability, a necessary skill for any Steelers tight end. Despite shining in camp, Lee had been waived.
The Steelers were not looking so good on defense.
Joe Greene (pictured left) admitted at the beginning of the replacement camp that the players were unknown to him. He observed, “After our first practice, I said to myself, ‘My goodness, what have you gotten yourself into? Who are these people? How long is this going to last?
But after a couple of lessons, things started to come together. They’re improved. They learned quickly. They are very promising.”
Greene gave his starters out as Tommy Dawkins at left end, Michael Minter at nose tackle, Alan Huff at right end and Dave Opfar playing inside when the Steelers go to a four man line.
Huff had been in camp with the Steelers in 1985 and Opfar had played three years in the USFL and was in the summer camp with the Steelers, but cut early. Dawkins and Minter had no pro experience.
The starters in 3-4 defense will be Craig Bingham, Joe Williams, Steve Apke and Albert Williams. Bingham was a Steeler backup fro 82 to 84. The others were free agents released late in camp.
The proposed starters in the 4-3 formation were Darryl Knox (no pro experience), Tyronne Stowe (drafted in 1987 and then released by San Diego), Albert Williams, a free agent who had been released by the Steelers during summer camp.
Dave “Rambo” Edwards, a hard hitter who had backed up strong safety Donnie Shell the past two years, was now the new free safety.
Anthony Tuggle, who played with the Steelers briefly at the end of ’85 and in training camp last year was the strong safety.
The cornerbacks were mostly newcomers.
Cornell Gowdy was in camp for a week or two in 1985. Rock Richmond had played in the USFL, Canadian Football League and Arena but not in the NFL.
Ray Williams had never been in a NFL camp.
Larry Griffin was the number eight pick for the Oilers and played three games in Houston the previous season.
With all the unknowns facing the fans as the replacement games approached, it was surprising that at the beginning of October, only 20 season ticket holders had requested refunds from the Steelers.
Part II of the 1987 players strike>>>