Sports Outside the Beltway

Recollections of the 1987 NFL Players Strike

Mickey Spagnola looks back at the last NFL strike, shedding some light on why neither side wants another one.

It was October of 1987. The NFL was suffering through its second work stoppage in five years. Or shall we say strike, because the work really didn’t stop. The late Tex Schramm spearheaded a movement in the NFL to continue playing games (i.e. collecting TV revenue) with replacement players while the NFL Players Association walked out.

So there we were, right out here at The Ranch, covering two teams: One on strike and walking a picket line on the sidewalk out there on Cowboys Parkway, and a second full of guys living out a Walter Mitty existence, getting a one-in-a-million chance to play in the NFL, and who knows, possibly catch the eye of a Tom Landry.

Kevin Sweeney. Loren Snyder. Kelvin Edwards. Sebron Spivey. Cornell Burbage. Mike Zentic. E.J. Jones. Bill Hill. Chris Duliban. Vince Courville. Alvin Blount. Sal Cesario.

Some did. Nearly all didn’t. But they can say, to this day, they played three games for the Dallas Cowboys.

They were known as “scabs.” Me, I was the “scab team” beat writer. These guys had stories to be told. I was the storyteller. Heck, about 13 years later, even Hollywood told their generic but heartwarming story, with much creative license, in the movie The Replacements, starring Gene Hackman, Keanu Reeves and Brooke Langton. Certainly you’ve seen it on cable.

But as vivid as yesterday is the day when several of the “real” Cowboys players were forced to cross the picket line if they wanted to team to continue funding their annuities, which at the time, were fancy mechanisms included in contracts for delayed payments. One of the first was Randy White, and he pulls up in his pickup truck with fellow defensive lineman teammate Don Smerek alongside.

Well, the picket line was in progress, and the guys made White, of all people, wait patiently for an opening to drive through. Finally, White, nicknamed “Manster” for very good reasons, crossed the sidewalk into The Ranch entrance. But by then, Tony Dorsett and a couple of the other guys walked in front of White’s truck. There was a standoff. White was burning. Know that Smerek once suffered a gunshot wound to his leg. And let me tell you, Randy White is the last guy you want burning, especially back in the day. The game of chicken was on.

Finally, White smashed the clutch in and raced his engine, sticking his head out the window. He then briefly popped the clutch. The truck slightly lurched forward. Teammates, you know. This was ugly. They were ready to go at it. That’s what labor differences can instigate.

Dorsett and gang finally moved. White raced down the driveway to the players’ entrance, tires smoking. Funny thing was, Randy White wasn’t the only guy who crossed the picket line to keep his annuity funded. So did Danny White and Ed “Too Tall” Jones and . . . Dorsett.

This football charade lasted three games. A total of four weeks. The Cowboys, who went into the strike 1-1 and emerged after the three strike games 3-2, never were the same. Would lose the next two and at one point four straight to finish 7-8. The Cowboys would go 3-13 the next year.

Old age, injuries, some bad luck and this strike were the ruin of Landry’s Cowboys. Maybe why Jerry Jones is here today.

That’s why I had this perception the NFL and the players learned a very hard lesson nearly 20 years ago, and that they would never allow themselves to go down the road, sometimes of no return, hockey and baseball have traveled.

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I’ve read that the ’88 team lost its respect for Danny White as leader because he crossed the picket line in ’87.

Yet Randy White also crossed and it seems he didn’t suffer nearly as much in his relationship with team mates as Danny White did.

I’ve always wondered why.

Posted by Fred Goodwin | November 29, 2006 | 06:19 pm | Permalink

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