Ex-Viking Lewis: ‘It was a different time’

Twenty-five years ago last week, NFL players went on strike for the second time in six seasons, forcing the league to employ replacements for three weeks while the 24-day dispute dragged on. In a three-part series starting today, FOXSportsNorth.com’s Joan Niesen examines how the Vikings — a team that fell a touchdown short of the Super Bowl that season — weathered one of the strangest months in NFL history.

Monday: Seeds of discontent — Back then, players had much to fight for
Tuesday: A united front — No Vikings crossed the picket line
Wednesday: Lessons of history — Players lost the battle but won the war

MINNEAPOLIS — Kurt Ploeger’s back ached as he watched. It ached as the image of Wade Wilson appeared on the television screen, a fuzzy dispatch of a game played hundreds of miles away. It ached as the Vikings quarterback drove to the Redskins’ 6-yard line, as Joe Gibbs crouched on the sideline, waiting to see if his team would hold onto its 17-10 lead and impending Super Bowl berth.

It was Jan. 17, 1988, and any Vikings fan knows what happens next. Any Vikings fan knows that Wilson launched a pass to Darrin Nelson on the left front edge of the end zone. Any Vikings fan knows that the ball went through Nelson’s hands in a sea of Redskins defenders, that Washington ran out the clock and the Vikings’ season was over.

That’s all common knowledge. But what about Ploeger? What happened to him? What happened to the man with the television and the aching back, the man who earned $9,000 off the NFC Championship game berth, not from Vegas sports books but from the league itself?

No one owns Ploeger’s jersey. No one went out and bought it when he arrived in the Twin Cities on Oct. 2, 1987 and reported to Vikings practice at Winter Park. Yes, people cheered when he took the field in his purple and gold uniform, but they cheered even louder when word got out that he and his ragtag band of teammates would no longer be playing.

Kurt Ploeger was a scab, one of the hundreds of non-union players who filled the ranks of NFL teams for 24 days in 1987 while the NFL Players Association went on strike. One week of games was cancelled, but for three Sundays, these men played — some better than others — for a shot at the pros, to fulfill their dreams, or maybe just because the league cut them a $5,000 check each week.

They were a strange moment in sports, those 24 days, and Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the strike. It’s been a quarter of a century and another lockout since men like Ploeger embarked on their strange task, and many folks today have forgotten. A strike like that, with replacement players and bungled games and so much contention, couldn’t happen again, we think, and that might be true.

It might be true, but it doesn’t mean we can forget. It doesn’t mean there still aren’t lessons to learn and stories worth telling.

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On Aug. 31, 1987, the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement expired. Labor unrest had been brewing since the previous season, and things were about to come to a head. Players wanted free agency. They wanted a greater share of the proverbial NFL pie. They wanted freedom. They even wanted better turf.

The NFL was riding a wave of increasingly valuable television contracts that saw its revenue boosted significantly in the late 1970s and 1980s. Players wanted a cut, and they wanted it through free agency and the larger salaries it would bring. Player compensation was suppressed, the union argued, because the league prevented what are now outright bidding wars between teams over talented players. Now, 25 years later, we nod and say, yes, that was all true. We acknowledge that makes sense. But at the time, it was the kind of demand that twisted a season and redefined the measures that the league would take to get what it wanted.

It was just five years since the last players’ strike, a 57-day affair that led to the cancellation of five weeks’ worth of games in 1982, and the league was not going to let that happen again. It wasn’t ready to lose out on that much television revenue, no matter the blow to its reputation or the rift it might create. And so as labor unrest ballooned in the lead-up to the 1987 season, teams began to come up with contingency plans, as did the NFLPA.

In spring minicamps, 92 percent of players surveyed endorsed the idea of a strike. (Only Green Bay and Pittsburgh were not polled.) The die was cast, and it’s not as if anyone didn’t see what was coming. The NFLPA had begun building its war chest of funds, determined not to be starved of money like it had been five years earlier. Player representatives such as the Vikings’ Steve Jordan began meeting with their teammates, telling them to follow the players association’s example and begin to curb their spending. Jordan had to make players understand that it would likely be a three- to six-week lockout but that they should prepare as if they were about to miss an entire season’s wages. No one was really sure how long this would last.

It was a contentious time. The strain of 1982 was still palpable. Trust between players and the league was low. The players still remembered the 1960s and ’70s, when something as simple as getting team-issued workout gear was a struggle. The NFL was still haunted by all it lost in those five weeks five years earlier. Each side thought the other had more than it deserved, and all the players really wanted was some kind of bargaining chip.

“It was a different time,” said Leo Lewis, then in his seventh season with the Vikings. “There was no free agency, so we were basically, I mean, the . . . refusal to work was probably the only leverage that we had to improve salaries and working conditions.”

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Steve Jordan graduated with an engineering degree from Brown University in 1982. It was that sheet of paper and the smarts it implied that just a few months later landed him the job that could have derailed his football career.

Jordan was the 179th pick in the 1982 NFL draft. He ended up with the Vikings and was thrust into his first dalliance with labor unrest. The strike was looming when Jordan joined the Vikings at Winter Park, and players had gotten wise to owners’ machinations. Teams had begun to cut player reps, realizing that in the days before cell phones or the Internet, those cuts could deprive players of information and disrupt their organization. Prior to 1982, many teams had only one player rep, but when Jordan reported to camp, the Vikings were looking for an alternate to David Huffman. The “he’s an Ivy Leaguer; he must be smart” rationale was put forth, and Jordan was it.

In 1982, Jordan didn’t think much of it. He was Huffman’s backup and little more until after the 1983 season, when Huffman played a year in the USFL, losing his status as player rep. Jordan took over during a period of calm and thought little of it. In fact, he didn’t realize what he’d done until three years later, when the second strike of his career began and the threat of cutting player reps loomed again.

“I foolishly volunteered to put myself on the chopping block,” Jordan said.

But there was an upside.

“I was pretty seasoned at that point,” he added. “Fortunately, I was also — I’m not going to say untouchable, because no one is — but I was a starter at that point. I think I was going to my second Pro Bowl or something like that, so I was pretty comfortable in my position.”

Fuzzy news clips from the strike reveal that “comfortable” is a gross understatement. For those fall weeks leading up to and during the strike, Jordan was the quiet darling of local television news; with a flat-top haircut and a resolute, informed tone, he calmly explained to the masses — who largely blamed the players for the strike — his and his teammates’ goals and objectives.

No. 1 on that list was unity. If the league was going to strike, the Vikings were going to do it as one. No matter that big names like Joe Montana, Tony Dorsett and Lawrence Taylor refused to sit out in other cities. The Vikings weren’t going to allow those kind of exemptions, not when Jordan had spent all summer flying all over the country and rallying his teammates to the NFLPA’s cause.

“Certainly, it had been one of the issues after the end of the prior season,” Lewis said. “So, yeah, we were all prepared. We had to certainly have a united front. Not every team was as united as we were.”

That fall, unity came down to money. Players supported the strike in theory, but in practice, it was sometimes difficult. Some didn’t have to think twice about missing those paychecks: Jordan had an engineering degree and a job in the offseason, Nelson worked as a financial analyst at Minneapolis-based investment banking firm Piper, Jaffray & Hopwood in the summers and Tim Irwin was in law school and working. There were others, too, with those pursuits beyond football, but they were far from the norm even then.

Many players were too young to have stockpiled money. Neal Guggemos was a second-year player who’d gone to private college at the University of St. Thomas. He still had about $10,000 in student loans, he said, but he had the advantage of being single and having no family to provide for. To Jordan, young players like Guggemos weren’t the issue. It was the veterans, the players who should have been financially sound but weren’t, whose complaints that they didn’t want to strike or later needed to cross the picket line irked the player rep.

“I didn’t appreciate that attitude because we’re all out here trying to do something better and bigger than what we all could individually,” Jordan said. “But I had to drop back and understand that for me, I was a little bit unique in that I have a degree. I actually had a job. Football wasn’t my whole life. But for some guys, in their minds, this was the best life is ever going to be. So I couldn’t judge that.”

There was no judgment, but there were countless meetings and votes to convince every player, from the greenest rookie to the most seasoned veteran, that he needed to stay with the team. It was a calm approach that stressed team-first and capitalized on the Vikings’ recent success, and somehow, it worked.

The day before the strike began, Sept. 21, the Vikings made one last trip to Winter Park, where they emptied their lockers of all the uniforms, helmets, balls and equipment they could carry. By the end of the day, little but the nameplates above each locker remained.

That day, the team trickled out of the facility, one by one and in small groups. They’d return once more, to pick up those last paychecks from their Sept. 20 win against the Rams, but after that, there was no trickling. The Vikings were doing this, all or nothing.

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