Think this lockout is strange? Wait until you hear about '87

by | Special to

PITTSBURGH -- Mention the previous period of labor strife to a Steelers player of that day, and from deep inside veterans and replacements alike arises a chortle.

Then it grows into a guffaw.

1987? Ha-ha-how could they forget?

It all started with Steelers replacement camp in Johnstown, the central Pennsylvania city that floods, the inspiration for the Charlestown Chiefs a decade earlier in the film Slap Shot. This time, it was closer to slapstick.

A member of the L.A. Raiders sits in a picket line during the strike of 1987. (Getty Images)  
A member of the L.A. Raiders sits in a picket line during the strike of 1987. (Getty Images)  
"We went to the bar across the street, had a few beers after practice, and walked back to the hotel," recalled quarterback Steve Bono, a late cut in the club's training camp two months earlier. "To think, we went to camp for six weeks in Latrobe, then went to camp for two more weeks in Johnstown. What were we, nuts?"

Center Mike Webster mooned his striking veteran teammates when they came to picket practice at Johnstown's Point Stadium. "He bent over and started patting his butt. We were howling," tackle and player rep Tunch Ilkin remembered of the future Hall of Famer.

Receiver John Stallworth caught his 500th career pass amid giddy replacement mates whose names he barely remembered by their third and final game together. The pass came on a trap audible, advised by Webster at the line and thrown by Bono, confounded by the post-reception fuss. Bono, by the way, roomed with former UCLA teammate Lupe Sanchez, a Steelers veteran safety walking a line outside Three Rivers Stadium at the time.

Oh, and both replacements and strikers shared the same grass field outside the Pittsburgh stadium, practicing one group after the other because team president Dan Rooney made sure that the vets had a key and a football mission.

Those were a convoluted 24 strike days, to be sure.

"It was interesting," said Rodney Carter, a rookie third-down back enabled by the strike to earn two more seasons to follow. "It was a different time."

"It was," Ilkin added, "a crazy time."

True, parallels exist with today's NFL lockout and nearly 3-month-old labor unrest: decertification of the players association; a Rooney (Art II, not Dan) and a Mara (John, not Wellington) in key positions for the owners; and a lawsuit in front of U.S. District Court Judge David S. Doty in Minnesota (the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral arguments Friday in St. Louis).

Yet, at least for these Steelers, nobody expects to relive those '87 days.

Except in the case where history bears repeating for purely educational and entertainment reasons.

"We got our butts kicked so bad in the strike," Ilkin, now a Steelers radio broadcaster, was saying this week.

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Added Craig Wolfley, his assistant rep at the time and a fellow Steelers radio broadcaster today: "We were like the Iraqi Army looking to give itself up to the CNN camera crew."

Under the leadership of Gene Upshaw, the players association membership agreed to strike after the '87 season's second week.

Their stance, in hindsight, was a mite shaky.

They didn't believe owners would stage replacement games. "We were 0 for 1," Ilkin scored it.

They didn't believe the NFL's television partners would air such games. "0 for 2."

They didn't believe fans would pay to watch. "0 for 3."

The Steelers' franchise as a whole was starting to whiff at the plate. As the decade after the Super Bowl 1970s unfolded, with only Webster, Stallworth and safety Donnie Shell remaining among their four-ring crowd, the franchise started to lapse into a sub.-500 state for the first time since coach Chuck Noll's third season, 1971. The two years before 1987, they went 7-9 and 6-10.

So their front office tried to plan ahead for the eventuality of labor trouble, especially five years after a 57-day strike in 1982 that began -- yet again -- after Week 2. Released players such as Bono hung around Pittsburgh, living with Sanchez. Carter, a two-time cut after being a 1986 seventh-rounder, fretted through the dilemma of a financial incentive.

"It might have been, like, [a walk-away offer of] $1,000," said Carter, who works in pharmaceutical sales near Bethlehem, Pa. "If there was a strike, you would come back and play. If there wasn't, you could keep the money. I was one of the last cuts on the final cut day, and I was coming off a knee injury. I didn't take [the money]."

Carter drove directly from his native New Jersey to Johnstown for replacement camp. There he joined a running-back pal who was signed by his hometown Steelers the season before, Chuck Sanders of Slippery Rock. They sat in their hotel Jacuzzi soaking up a new sensation: Free of making-the-roster stress.

"We felt like the stars, me and Rodney Carter," recalled Sanders, the founder and CEO of a settlement-services firm in Pittsburgh.

Carter remembered that night they repaired to their chain hotel room and ordered room service -- most likely burgers, he said -- "and Chuck looked at me: 'This is how the kings live.'"

Paupers abounded among the replacements. One unidentified player wore headphones to the inaugural Johnstown practice until kicker Dave Trout, six years earlier a Steeler, warned him about facing Noll's music. Wannabes came and went in a single day.

"I remember one guy, we were supposed to be in shorts, and he was trying to return punts," Sanders began. "And the ball kept hitting him in the face. Coaches said, 'We got to get you a helmet.'"

"It was a cast of characters," said Bono, who works in financial investments in Menlo Park, Calif. "Even though the movie The Replacements was Hollywood, I always felt the casting of the characters was really good. We had all those types."

Most of any tension was focused on the veterans, starting with a 14-year veteran earning $18,000-plus per game -- the first of four Steelers captains to cross.

"Webby called me up," Ilkin explained. "He was in tears. He said, '... I don't know if I'm going to do this again.' I said, 'Go ahead, man.' But some guys were upset because he was the captain."

"Actually, I was not going to play," said Bono, whose replacement stint sent him on a 15-year career arc that included a Pro Bowl and 13-3 season with the 1995 Chiefs. "I grew up in a union family. My dad was a tool-and-die maker, in the International Machinists Union. But my dad, who was on strike at that time, said: 'You need to play, and these are the reasons why.' He's the one who talked me into it. And thank goodness he did.

"We had a pretty good team., too. Thank goodness for the Mike Websters and Earnest Jacksons and John Stallworths ... and guys who crossed. Plus, guys like me who were not on rosters and came to play. We had for sure a few guys who ended up sticking around for several more years" such as Bono, Carter, guard Brian Blankenship, cornerbacks Larry Griffin and Cornell Gowdy plus linebacker Tyronne Stowe.

The city that floods actually provided a safe haven, far from what Sanders described as "ugly" behavior befalling friends in such places as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.: "We were better off going to Johnstown, which was smart by the Rooneys."

When the Steelers veterans showed Oct. 2 to picket, the atmosphere was jovial. The vets stood on a bridge overlooking Point Stadium, home mostly to high school sports and a famed Babe Ruth baseball tournament. Each side teased the other, the butt of jokes, a la Webster.

Two days later, the Steelers replacements opened play that resulted in a 2-1 strike record, winning in Atlanta, losing in Los Angeles to a Rams defense with most of its veteran starters and beating the Colts in that Stallworth moment at home. The vets worked out at the downtown YMCA courtesy of then-director Bill Parise, who so happens to represent Steelers linebacker James Harrison nowadays. They practiced at their usual Three Rivers field thanks to Rooney -- "Dan calls up and says, 'There's a key on [this secretary's] desk. You didn't get it from me,'" Ilkin recollected.

After that third replacement game, with an end imminent, Ilkin and Wolfley gathered the veterans at Three Rivers to await word whether to strike or report. Ilkin spoke to Upshaw over a mobile telephone -- before cell phones, remember -- installed in the foreign-made luxury sedan of second-round draftee Delton Hall, the starting cornerback opposite Rod Woodson.

"I thought, if anybody got a picture of that, it wouldn't look good: 'Players on strike, and he's in a Mercedes?!'" Ilkin said.

"That whole strike really, wow, was a mess," Carter continued.

Later on, due mostly to a decertified union and the lawsuit before Doty, the veterans received free agency and the NFL entered a salary-cap era that helped to transform it into a $9 billion business.

"Wow.. ., wow... ," Bono said, struggling to describe it. "People in general have been asking me about the current strike, what's going on. That one [in '87] was a little different."


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