When the 1974 NFL players strike began on July 1st, the World Football League was busy putting the final preparations in place for their season opener a week later with the Florida Blazers at the Philadelphia Bell.
The owner of the Jacksonville Sharks, Francis Monaco, told the media, “We have sold 20,000 season tickets for our home games in the Gator Bowl.” Enthusiastically, Monaco added, “I firmly believe that the World League has advanced more in three months than the American Football League did in six years.”
He continued, “I visited Dan Rooney in Three Rivers Stadium about a year ago because he is on the NFL expansion committee and I wanted to put a team in Orlando.
I sounded out commissioner Pete Rozelle last January in Houston. Prospects (for a franchise) didn’t appear good so I was a ready listener when Gary Davidson, founder of the WFL, contacted me. Now we are a few days away from starting the season.”
Monaco had followed both the Pirates and the Steelers for many years and said, “I have a lot of respect for the Rooneys.” When the Dolphins beat the Steelers in the AFC championship last season, Monaco was in the stands on the Northside. “I was probably the only Floridian present who was rooting for Pittsburgh,” he confessed.
While in training camp, Monaco confirmed he was playing each player $35 a week. The owner was complimentary on his head coach, Bud Asher, who spent a long time as assistant to ex-Steeler Jack McClairen at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona.
The Sharks had a couple of ex-Steelers on their roster. Guard Larry Gagner and quarterback John Stofa who was waived by the Steelers after just one exhibition game. The Sharks were due to play the New York Stars in their season opener.
The Steelers veterans were making plans to picket their team’s training camp at St. Vincent College when the draft picks and free agents were due to report on July 15.
Preston Pearson, the Steelers players representative, explained, “We hope that management starts serious negotiations and that a strike will be avoided, but that’s our only avenue remaining.”
Pearson added, “We want to be prepared if no agreement is reached. I will communicate with school officials at St. Vincent and the police to determine our legal bounds as to just where we will set up the picket lines.”
During the previous strike in 1970, Steeler veterans worked out informally under the leadership of Roy Jefferson, the player representative at the time. “We will not have any group practices this year,” Pearson said. “Everyone is expected to keep in top physical condition on his own.”
Pearson confirmed all of the 40 regulars plus the seven taxi squad members from the previous year were in the players’ association. He admitted that the impending action posed a problem for many of the rookies who had accepted sizable bonuses as encouragement to sign their contracts.
“It’s a hell of a situation for the young players,” observed Pearson. “However, those who make good will eventually be joining our group and enjoy our benefits. My responsibly is to answer their questions and clarify matter which may puzzle them.“
John Stallworth said, “I just can’t see myself holding out for something I haven’t even gotten into yet.”
FRENCHY MAKES LEAP TO WFL
At the beginning of July, while football fans were avidly reading every inch of print about the NFL strike, in Pittsburgh the focus was on the announcement that Frenchy Fuqua (pictured left) had signed a multi-year contract with the New York Stars.
Fuqua would be making the move to the World Football league, joining former Steelers quarterback coach Babe Parilli, for the 1976 season. The Stars were due to play in Yankee Stadium that year after the completion of its extensive renovation.
Parilli said, “What we are really trying to do is plan for Yankee Stadium. We’ll be in the stadium in two years and we’re trying to put together a team that we think will win. Frenchy will be a tremendous help.”
A dispute arose over Fuqua’s availability date after the Steelers checked his contract and found he had two years remaining, plus the option year suggesting he couldn’t join the Stars until 1977.
The Stars’ pursuit of Terry Hanratty and Terry Bradshaw and the acquisition of Fuqua, brought a denial from Parilli that he was making a point of seeking out Steelers. “On the contrary,” Parilli said. “I really have tried to stay away from Pittsburgh players because of the Rooneys. I think too much of them to raid the club.”
Fuqua had been originally drafted in 1969 by the Giants, but was traded to the Steelers the following year in a deal that saw quarterback Dick Shiner going to New York. Parilli enthused, “I think Frenchy was the best back we had last season. But I don’t think the Steelers will miss him that much, they’re so deep. He’ll be an invaluable asset to us.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested that the signing of Frenchy by the WFL would end up in court.
TALKS BETWEEN PLAYERS AND MANAGEMENT TO RESTART?
Five days into the strike, the NFL players taking action won a victory in San Diego when the first round draft pick, linebacker Dan Goode, quit training camp to join the veterans on the picket line.
At the same time, hopes of renewed bargaining flickered when Bill Curry (president of the players) said the union would negotiate the “freedom issues” with the NFL Management Council representative, Jim Finks, suggesting that could be the basis for a settlement.
“That’s the first time they have said that, “ said Finks in Huntsville, representing the owners in talks with the Oilers rookies and free agents.
“That makes me feel good to hear that,” Finks continued.“That they are ready to talk modification rather than elimination. If he’s (Curry) sincere about saying that, then it is the beginning of an agreement.
However, Curry said his statement was nothing new. “We’re never said we wouldn’t negotiate the freedom issues. But the owners won’t discuss it. They never made a counter proposal. Here we are on strike and we don’t even have a counter-proposal.
“I don’t feel it’s my place to talk to Bill,” Finks said. “If he wants to discuss the issues, I’m here. We talked a couple of minutes on the picket lines. We have a good rapport.”
COLLEGE ALL-STARS GAME IN DOUBT
While hopes for the renewal of talks to resolve the strike were increasing, the executive director of the Chicago Tribune Charities threatened to cancel the College All-Stars contest, “unless an arrangement is worked out within 48 hours to allow the game to be played without interference."
The warning by Luke Carroll of the sponsoring agency came on the heels of a vote by the All-Stars not to play the July 26 charity game unless the strike was settled.
“No negotiations, no practice: no contract, no game,” the All-Stars said following a secret 40-minute meeting at their training camp.
A week into the 1974 players strike, the Steelers fifth round draft pick, Mike Webster told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he wouldn’t honour the picket lines at Latrobe.
Talking from the College All-Stars practice, Webster reflected on the vote to cancel the All-Stars game. “That was no a unanimous vote," Webster said. "I question whether it was even a majority vote. There is a small group of us – at least 10, maybe 15 that I know of – who told coach John McKay that if he would be there, we would come to practice.
Coach McKay gave the players 48 hours to decide whether or not to play. He said if we hadn’t decided to play by then, he was going home.”
Webster, along with a handful of others, had decided to report for the first All-Stars practice. The Steelers rookie said he would report immediately to St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, should the Stars game be cancelled.
“I respect the veterans,” said Webster. “But we rookies have no choice. It’s to my advantage to go to camp.” The PPG observed that Webster would face an uphill battle in a bid to upset the Steelers veteran centers, Ray Mansfield and Jim Clack.
“If the strike went right up to the start of the season and all the veterans showed up at one time, I wouldn’t have a chance, Webster added. “There’s no way I can honour the strike.
Coach Noll doesn’t know me or what I can do. And there sure isn’t any security in being a number five pick. I have to report to camp and impress the coaches right away, or the demands the veterans are making won’t make any difference to me anyway.”
STEELER PLAYERS TO DISCUSS PICKETING OF LATROBE
The veterans were preparing to meet to discuss the picketing of the Steelers training camp with their representative, Preston Pearson, (pictured left) confirming all 45 players he had contacted would be out on strike although he wasn’t certain whether pickets would be out on the first day of camp Monday, or on the Sunday, when most of the players would arrive.
“We do realise the rookies are in a heckulva position,” Pearson said. “The thing we want to impress upon them most is that no matter what they do in camp before the strike is settled, they can’t make the team until they beat out a veteran. Nothing can be accomplished until everyone is in camp.”
Pearson added, “We the Steelers as a whole, feel that this thing will be over sometime soon and there will be some football to be played. We hope that no one does anything that will cause trouble between the coaches, players and the owners."
Editor's note: Pearson must have been using a crystal ball when he very prophetically added; “We feel we have an excellent shot at the Super Bowl. We will win the Super Bowl as a team. Everything we do, we do as a team. We strike as a team.”
NEGOTIATIONS TO RESUME AS TRAINING CAMPS OPEN
On July 10th, a few hours after the NFL players and management agreed to meet to resume negotiations, the sponsors cancelled the College All-Star game. It would be the first interruption of the game since it began in 1934.
In the NFL, the teams were attempting to maintain normality as much as possible. For the Steelers, Chuck Noll (pictured right) was looking forward to the opening of the team’s training camp. Noll said, “The rookies aren’t members of the union. To the best of my knowledge, most of them will report. You always have a few who don’t show up, but you expect that.”
Forty-one rookies and free agents were expected to report when training camp opened on the Sunday, with their number one draft choice, Lynn Swann, arriving on Tuesday due to his trial in San Francisco on assault charges.
The Steelers veterans would usually arrive on the Wednesday, but few were expected to cross the Players Association’s picket line.
Even though they would be without their veterans, the team were still expected to hold practices although they would take on the appearance of a football clinic. With the coaches spending more time with the newcomers, it would work to the advantage of the rookies.
“The limited number of players we’ll have in camp will shorten our work a little bit, which is probably just as well,” Noll commented. “We’ll have enough to practice and we’ll have fewer players per coach. That should enable us to work a little closer with some of the players.”
With the first day of camp, the Steeler strikers turned out on the picket line carrying signs displaying, “Players are People Not Property,” “Freedom is Not an Issue but a Right,” and “Monopoly Is Played with Dice Not People.”
With a final count of forty-two in camp, missing were running back Dickey Morton, an 11th round draft choice, and defensive end, Larry Moore.
The Steeler organisation was keen to maintain some harmony in the difficult circumstances and agreed to let a committee of veterans address the issues to the rookies.
Preston Pearson, aided by Rocky Bleier and Sam Davis were given an hour to talk to the newcomers at their quarters in Bonaventure Hall. Dan Rooney then addressed the group telling them that the club were there to make their stay as least disruptive as possible.
The Steelers organisation held the same opinion as the players; that they were strong candidates to make the Super Bowl. Recalling the strike of 1970, Coach Noll expressed his concern at the damage a prolonged walkout could cause. “We lost ten days of training the last time and we never did catch up."
Noll proposed the team would make up the lost training by practicing on days like Sunday when they were normally off or by going to a three-a-day workout instead of two.
A firm believer in pre-season conditioning, Noll feared his veterans falling behind if there was a prolonged delay in them coming into camp.
ROOKIES PAD UP FOR THE FIRST TIME
After a week of the Steelers training camp, on July 15, the rookies and free agents worked in pads for the first time. The exertions sent John Stallworth to hospital, suffering from heat cramps, where he was kept in overnight.
While his teammates were manning the picket line outside the Steelers camp in Latrobe, punter Bobby Walden (pictured left) became the first Steeler vet to enter camp. He spent an hour talking to the strikers before making the final move into camp.
The urgency to return to negotiations was stressed by the Players Union when they proposed to start 24-hour a day talks. The union confirmed if the talks then failed they would go to arbitration on all the issues, except the emotive freedom issues.
STEELER FAN TURNED STEELER PLAYER
Mark Gefert was one of the rookies aiming to take advantage of the absence of the veterans. Drafted in round eight, Gefert thought he could make it in the NFL as a linebacker.
He wasn’t certain in making it with the team that drafted him, as they were already deep at that position and with fellow draftee Jack Lambert in the mix, the odds of him remaining in Pittsburgh were minimal.
“When I first got picked by the Steelers, my first reaction was one of joy because I’ve been a Steeler fan all my life, “ Gefert said. “Then I thought how the Steelers have been loaded with linebackers. Now I realise that it will take an immense effort to make it. But I have confidence or I wouldn’t be here.”
Gefert appreciated that while there were just rookies in camp, he could shine, but proof of how good he is was wouldn't be evident until he was on the field against the veterans.
“I really wished the veterans were here so I could get an idea where I stand,” Gefert said. “Right now I’m up in the air, but so is every other rookie. I think all of us here right now realise that we really can’t make an impression unless we go up against a veteran.”
Gefert felt the idea of just rookies in camp while the strike held was a plus for the rookies. “It’s given us a head start on them. We’ve been given a chance to learn the techniques and the Steelers system. But when the veterans get here, it will twice as much work.”
The rookie was determined to take advantage of the opportunity afforded to him and commented, “I think I have enough ability to play pro football. Maybe not here, but somewhere else in pro football.”
STEELER PICKETS OUT IN FORCE
Outside of training camp, twenty-two of the Steelers strikers met to talk togetherness. Players’ representative, Preston Pearson, said, “We just got together to make sure that everybody was still together and to talk about the latest developments in the strike.”
With the final week of training camp approaching before the exhibition season began, the owners broke off negotiations July 21st claiming dissatisfaction with what they described as the failure of the player’s union to respond to a package offer on a host of player demands.
The players were keen to continue bargaining, but the talks were called off indefinitely the next day.
The Steelers training camp continued with the rookies and free agents in Latrobe while the Steelers veterans maintained their picket line outside. The rapport between those picketing and the local people grew as the strike went on.
Ray Mansfield (pictured left) responded to one passing man who suggested, “You’re losing money by picketing.” Mansfield replied, “We’re losing $98 a week plus meals and board up there (St. Vincent College). We don’t miss the $98. We miss not getting ready for the coming season.”
Bruce Van Dyke thought the public were getting the wrong impression about the players’ demands. “We are not out to get Pete Rozelle as some people think. We are just trying to amend some of the rules the NFL has arbitrarily stood by. We are trying to help the young players, more so than ourselves.”
Mansfield observed the real pressure on the strike would come the following week for the Steelers when their first exhibition game in New Orleans was scheduled. “That’s when the holdouts will begin to chafe at the bit. So far we haven’t missed anything but the training grind. As for preparing for a game plan, it takes only a week to get ready.”
The following week will be worse added Van Dyke. “I don’t want to picket at Three Rivers Stadium. Can you imagine me doing that?
In a move of solidarity, union workers throughout Ohio were asked to boycott the Hall of Fame game in Canton. The request came from the United Auto Workers Community Action Program Council in an effort to aid the striking pro footballers.
“The football players have a right to free and unfettered collective bargaining, which the owners are not giving them,” said Joe Tomasi, president of the council.
The only Steeler veteran to have gone into camp to date was punter Bobby Walden. When running back Joe Wilson joined his nineteen teammates in the Bengals training camp, it prompted coach Noll to express his fears their rivals would get a jump over the Steelers.
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