Thirty years ago this month, NFL players stood together and delivered messages of unity. Their displays of solidarity weren’t in response to profane criticism from the president or to protest racism and police brutality, but part of an organized effort to improve working conditions for themselves and a future generation of players.
On Sept. 22, 1987, Redskins players arrived at the team’s training facility in Chantilly wearing signs with messages such as “Justice on the Job, Freedom of Choice Denied NFL Players” and “NFL Players Concerned About Safety, Artificial Turf.” Nine players on the roster didn’t show up, but linebacker Neal Olkewicz, Washington’s union representative, claimed the Redskins were a unified force.
“It’s just hard to get some guys out of bed,” a smiling Olkewicz told The Post that day. “As far as I know, all the players are strong supporters of a strike. It’s not a sign that they will cross the picket line.”
A day earlier, the Redskins had convened at Olkewicz’s house to vote on whether to participate in the labor dispute. There was no shortage of dissent during the deliberations, which led to the ultimately unanimous decision to strike. Defensive tackle Darryl Grant was a second-year pro in 1982, when an eight-week player strike shortened the season to nine games. The Redskins won the Super Bowl following that season, but Grant wasn’t excited about the prospect of another work stoppage.
“I didn’t want to do it, and I made that known that I didn’t want to do it because of what happened in 1982,” Grant said this month. “Guys were crossing, and there was a whole lot of chaos. But once everybody decided we were going to do this, we were all for one, one for all, and we stuck together.”
Grant and fellow former Redskins Ravin Caldwell, Dexter Manley and Rich Milot recently gathered at NFL Players Association headquarters in D.C. to recount stories from the strike-shortened 1987 season, some of which will be included in an upcoming NFLPA-produced video. They lauded the contributions of the replacement players who went 3-0 for Washington during the strike and were the focus of the latest ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, “Year of the Scab,” but they also suggested the determination of the Redskins’ regulars to stand together was the defining story of the franchise’s second Super Bowl-winning season.
While Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard and assistant GM Charley Casserly assembled a team of replacement players for Coach Joe Gibbs during the strike, the regulars held workouts at George Mason University and various high schools.
“That wasn’t that unusual for us, because there were times during training camp when Gibbs would get upset and just leave and we continued to practice,” Grant said. “That’s the kind of autonomy our team had. Everybody was in pretty good shape when we came back. We stayed working out because we all knew it was going to end at some point.”
By the time the strike ended Oct. 15, 227 of 1,585 registered union players had crossed the picket line. The Redskins were the only team without a player who crossed, though Manley threatened to defy his teammates and break rank on a couple of occasions.
“I’m not going to say it was easy, but we are all proud of the fact that nobody crossed,” Grant said. “However you want to look at it, we stuck tight, and that sent a shock wave, I think, throughout the league. I still run into players throughout the country, and they still comment how we didn’t cross the line. They’re still amazed by it.”
“I think it actually advanced the league for the players,” Caldwell said. “The next year, they finalized the new deal for us that broke free agency wide open. I think we did the right thing as far as players. The owners always want all the money. I’m proud of the way the guys stuck together.”
Milot, who played linebacker for the Redskins from 1979 through 1987, credited Gibbs with keeping the regulars unified during the strike.
“We had nobody in our corner,” Milot said. “We didn’t have the fans. We knew we weren’t going to have the owners, and we probably weren’t going to have the media, either. But Joe wanted the team to stay together. I think if Joe were adversarial, some guys would’ve crossed.”
The replacements, or “Scabskins” as they were sometimes derisively called, earned an improbable 13-7 road win over the Cowboys on “Monday Night Football.” Several Cowboys players, including star running back Tony Dorsett, had crossed the picket line, and Washington was an eight-point underdog.
“We just thought that was a sign of weakness, and we decided to hold strong and show a sign of toughness,” said Grant, who was among the Redskins who gathered at Doc Walker’s restaurant, Scoreboard, to watch the game. “It was just funny the way they folded the way they did.”
“There’s no way [the Cowboys] could’ve gone in there and played that game with any focus,” Milot said. “They were being shunned by half the league already.”
When the regulars returned, most of the replacement players were cut. Washington, which was 4-1 after the strike, finished the regular season 11-4 and went on to defeat the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Grant, who banged on the window of the bus carrying the Scabskins when they first arrived at the team’s training facility, came to accept the replacement players who remained on the roster after the strike.
“I had no animosity toward any of the guys that made the team,” Grant said. “I ended up being good friends with [replacement tight end Craig] McEwen. I knew, and we knew, that we weren’t going to be successful with tension and a bunch of craziness in the locker room, so we just kept moving. [Gibbs] felt that they were guys that could make the team, and we had confidence in his evaluation and his support of us. The guys he chose to keep, he’s the one who had the eye on what took place, so we had to accept his decision just like he accepted our decision.”
“At first we had these guys coming in and taking our jobs,” Caldwell said. “Of course we didn’t like that and we hated that, but as time went on, it was like, those guys are just like us, looking for an opportunity to play and a chance to get in the league. I think after we got to playing football, tensions eased, and we accepted those guys.”
Thirty years later, Grant holds no grudges about the 1987 strike and says he would be happy for the replacement players to be honored by the Redskins. (Only the replacement players who played at least one game with the team after the strike ended received Super Bowl rings.) But Grant also said he never would’ve accepted an invitation from Beathard or Casserly to play for the Redskins if he were in one of the replacement players’s shoes during the strike.
“I know I wouldn’t,” Grant said. “I wouldn’t do that, because to me, that ain’t right. I don’t believe in crossing picket lines. People are fighting for their families; people are trying to make things better for themselves. It’s not like you’re trying to be nasty. You see things that aren’t the way they should be, and you would like them to be enhanced. As we know, corporations, they want to profit off of you. It’s not in my DNA to do that.”
Caldwell’s father was pro-union and repeatedly told him during the 1987 strike that he’d better not cross the picket line, no matter how many of his teammates did. Caldwell didn’t think twice about crossing the line, but he also didn’t fault the replacement players, most of whom hadn’t played beyond college, for taking advantage of an opportunity to play in the NFL.
“Hell yeah, I would’ve went,” Caldwell said. “You gotta realize, I started playing football when I was 3 years old. This is all I know my whole life, football, and you take it away from me? It’s easy to stay you would’ve stayed out, but you do something all your life and it’s taken from you? I’m going. I would be going.”
“Should they have done that?” asked Milot, who agreed with Grant and said he would’ve declined an invite to be a replacement player if he weren’t already in the league. “With all these guys dying of head injuries nowadays, could there have been protections that we could’ve gotten back then? Should they have done this? Ethically, I wouldn’t do it.”