During ’87 strike, no Viking crossed picket line

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 that started Monday, 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 — It was not as if the Vikings violently stormed Winter Park for their equipment that September day in 1987. No, they just walked in and took it, shuffling out like high schoolers on their way to an across-town game. No matter how out of hand the NFL labor situation had gotten across the country, the Vikings were still calm. They were simply taking what was theirs, claiming what they needed.

The Vikings didn’t take the equipment just for the heck of it or to keep it out of the hands of the replacement players who would set up shop there in just a matter of days. They took it to use it.

Just as they had five years before, the Vikings decided to set up shop on a scraggly field at Normandale Community College, where they held optional workouts during the strike. Although some players chose to leave the Twin Cities during the few weeks off, many remained. There’s no consensus now, 25 years later, on how many, but most remember that about 70 percent of the team remained.

The sessions were hardly organized, but they mattered. News footage shows men in various states of uniform, from short shorts and no helmet to fully suited up. They worked primarily on offense — it would take longer for the defense to get rusty — and concentrated most on simply staying in shape and sharp with the playbook. Defensive back Neal Guggemos said that the toughest part was that the team was lacking other methods of preparation besides the physical on-field drills and scrimmages.

“We went through some of the processes that we would have with normal practices,” Guggemos said. “Obviously, we didn’t have film work, which I think the normal person today doesn’t realize that probably two-thirds of your day is film and one-third is on the field. So we did the field stuff and were lacking the game plan and the film study part of it. But still, we were active and going through the motions.”

Plenty of other teams around the league were hosting these informal practices, but many of the 1987 Vikings believe to this day that their strike regimen gave them an edge when they returned to the field. Some cited the physical work in the practices, but most players valued the sessions simply for the united front they provided.

From Day 1 of the strike, union rep and tight end Steve Jordan stressed that the team needed to remain unified. About 16 percent of NFL players crossed the picket line and played during the strike. No Vikings player did so, and that was the result of a long campaign before and during the strike by Jordan and other team leaders such as alternate player rep Greg Coleman and Tim Irwin.

Players loaned one another money when things got tight. They discussed the possibility of crossing back, and every debate but one ended in a resounding no. The one that didn’t was a special case.

Tight end Mike Mularkey and defensive end Mark Mullaney were both injured at the time of the strike, and without access to the team’s trainers and facilities, there would have been no way for them to properly rehab during. There weren’t the independent rehab centers and trainers that exist today.

In an attempt to get the two healthy, the team approached the players with a deal: Mularkey and Mullaney would be allowed to cross the picket lines and rehab without any interaction with the scabs. It sounded like a good proposal, and they took advantage of it once the rest of the team announced it supported the decision.

The first day across the line, Mularkey was in the training room when general manager Mike Lynn approached him. Lynn said he wanted Mularkey to attend meetings and to rehab with the scab players on the field. Malarkey said no, that wasn’t a part of the agreement. Lynn pushed back, and Mularkey was quickly back across the picket line. He’d lasted a day.

Mullaney remained with the team, and replacement players remember him helping out in practices. He never played, though, neither during the strike nor ever again in the NFL. He remained on injured reserve for the rest of the season and was waived the following summer.

So Mularkey and Mullaney were the exceptions, but even now, many teammates don’t even remember their stories. They never played, so to many it was like they never crossed.

The situation with the injured players might have put the striking Vikings in a tough spot, but an even more difficult situation arose as the work stoppage progressed. Jordan had been meeting with coach Jerry Burns behind the scenes throughout the strike, and Burns for the most part supported the players’ initiative to remain united.

“He understood,” Jordan said. “It was very astute of him to understand. He said, ‘Whatever you guys do, just do it as a team. If you’re going to stay out, then everybody stay out. If you’re going to have a bunch of guys come in, everybody come in.'”

That was his official stance, but he couldn’t help but crack. With the scabs playing so poorly, Burns had an idea. He approached the players to see if he could have the team’s seven rookies, including one quarterback, Rich Gannon, cross the line. Irwin remembers it like it happened yesterday. Burns presented it as a win-win: Send Gannon and the rookies, and maybe the scabs would leave the union players with a better record when they returned. Still, the Vikings had to debate, and it was Irwin’s job to deliver their decision.

“It was the hardest thing I ever did to tell a coach I really cared about, ‘I’m sorry, Jerry. We’re doing this as a team,'” said Irwin, then a seventh-year right tackle. “I was the one who told him that.”

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So the rookies remained with their teammates, not only for their practices at Normandale but also for the picketing, which began once the scabs started practicing. Jordan had had the NFLPA-issued signs at his house since the strike began, but he wouldn’t use them until the Vikings fielded their new non-union team. When they did, the peaceful protest began.

During the scabs’ practices, the Vikings would gather at the top of the hill at the Winter Park facility. They held signs, some official, others hand-written with messages like “An injury to one is an injury to all – SOLIDARITY.” They’d chant, sometimes, things like “Scabbies go home,” and “No scabs! No scabs! No scabs!” They’d put in their time, and usually by the end of practice, the picketing players had dispersed. There was no need for contact or confrontation with the scabs, which both sides preferred.

This wasn’t going to be like Buffalo, where replacement player Kurt Ploeger had seen unloaded shotguns and aggression before he’d left for Minneapolis, where he’d chosen to sign. It wasn’t like Cincinnati, where the Bengals had video footage of their alternate player rep, Dave Rimington, keying a car.  Jordan was determined to keep it civil.

Ploeger said that the first day he drove from his in-laws’ home in Blaine, Minn., to Winter Park, he had no idea what to expect. He’d arrived late, not until the Thursday before the first game, and as he approached the practice facility he was prepared for the worst.

“I thought, what am I going to encounter when I drive down there?” Ploeger said. “Because I’m the new guy. Everybody else is going to be there already practicing, and I’m going to roll on into Winter Park, and I’m wondering, am I going to encounter players picketing and standing in front of my car? Well, I get out there, and there’s nobody around.”

That’s not to say the striking players didn’t protest. They did. But they did it in Jordan’s vision, a peaceful and respectful display. When members of other unions who’d joined the picket line approached him about putting jacks in the road, which would pop the tires of any car that crossed the line, or about putting sugar in gas tanks, he said no, and he warned that if anyone were to attempt such things, he’d ask them to leave.

Jordan tried his best to keep the Vikings’ strike within its limits. He didn’t want to make the national news with violence or indecency, and that’s why he was so shocked with fans’ reactions to his efforts. The same fans who a week before had been following him to his car for autographs were now cursing at him and his teammates, “short of spitting on us, basically, short of that,” Jordan remembered. They told him to get into the stadium and play. Jordan was disappointed at the time, upset, especially when he saw things the other way. He didn’t feel that he was the bad guy. He still doesn’t.

“I’m the bad guy, but I’m really not,” Jordan said. “By the way, the owners are making a lot of money. You’re going in to see the scabs. You’re going in to see an inferior product on the field. But guess what, you’re not getting discounted ticket prices, and yet you’re mad at me. It’s like I want a Cadillac, but I’m going to buy a Yugo. But by the way, you’re going to charge me for a Cadillac, and I’m okay with that because at least it’s a car.”


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