The ’87 strike paved road for future players

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 –
The Yugo appeared on the U.S. automobile market in the 1980s. It was a Serbian import, a small (tiny) sedan that looked, felt and drove like it had been built in the Soviet bloc. Not only were Yugos ugly, but they often didn’t work.

To Steve Jordan, the replacement players at the bottom of the hill at Winter Park were Yugos. He and his picketing teammates above were the Cadillacs, the classics on the other end of the spectrum. It was a heavy insult to level at the men who wore the Vikings’ purple and gold for those three weeks during the 1987 NFL strike, but it’s hard to blame Jordan, even today.

When the replacement players took over, the Vikings were 2-0 and looking like the best Minnesota team in years. When the reins were handed back to the union players after three weeks on strike, that record stood at 2-3. The scabs had lost all three games resoundingly, by an average of 12.3 points. So of course Jordan and his teammates looked down on them, but it’s easy to see that the struggles were not entirely the fault of the poor schmucks on the field.

That summer, the Vikings were one of just nine NFL teams that did not offer players released after training camp a $1,000 signing bonus to re-sign if the strike were to happen. General manager Mike Lynn was in something close to denial that a strike would happen, even more in denial that replacement players would be called upon. But the league wasn’t losing out on its precious television revenue, no matter what product it had to broadcast to the masses.

So the Vikings had to scramble, and it showed. Many of the better players with NFL experience had been snatched up long before Minnesota started looking to stock its roster. Kurt Ploeger had been receiving FedEx packages of memos and contracts from teams for days before he chose the Vikings, and he settled with Minnesota only because it was his home state. That was one instance where the Vikings got lucky, and they were also able to bring in a few other players with Vikings or NFL experience, such as Peter Najarian, Rufus Bess, John Turner, Tony Adams and Stafford Mays.

The Vikings also held open tryouts, some in Memphis and others in the Twin Cities. The events were something of a circus; players were affixed with numbers as if they were competing in some kind of 5K or marathon, and the sheer amount of people who showed up made the affairs far from manageable. In the end, the team culled some of its roster from those tryouts and others through the help of the coach of the Chicago Bruisers, an arena football team. Gino Nudo not only turned over some of his own players but also worked to recruit in the Midwest. It was a last-ditch effort in a process that shouldn’t have been so frantic, and the Vikings’ hesitance cost them big time.

Some experienced players didn’t arrive to camp until a day or two before the first game, and they weren’t familiar enough with the system to play, ceding their spots to less experienced and talented players. That in and of itself is laughable, especially when the men on the field ranged from semi-pro players to engineers to recovering drug addicts to a quarterback, Adams, who’d been retired from the NFL for nine years.

That was the madness that coach Jerry Burns and company worked to control, and even as the scabs settled into their roles, there was no measure of calm. Players were coming and going, being cut and receiving contracts. One defensive end, Phil Micech, ran out of vacation days at his chemical engineering job in Milwaukee, so he was forced to leave the team before the final week of practices. But with a few key injuries, the team needed Micech again the next weekend in Tampa Bay, no matter that he hadn’t practiced for days. So the Vikings put him on a plane and got him to Tampa as quickly as they could for what was an eventual 20-10 loss.

******

They might have seen the players on the field for those three weeks as inferior, but it was hard for the striking Vikings to blame them. Those on strike had seen their NFL dreams realized, but they also knew how hard it had been to get there. They largely did not blame their replacements for wanting the same things, and they understood that many believed this might be their shot at the big time.

“I look at it from two perspectives,” said running back Darrin Nelson, then in his sixth year with the Vikings. “No. 1, it’s somebody’s lifetime dream to play in the NFL, and if you get an opportunity, you should take advantage of it. And then the other (side) is you’re actually hurting the guys that are playing in the league, and you’re prolonging the situation by participating. So I kind of had mixed feelings and mixed emotions about those guys. I guess in the long run, I can’t blame them. So I didn’t really harbor a lot of ill will against those guys.”

It’s easy to say that now, 25 years after the squad that played so poorly that it incited the Vikings band to play the “Looney Toons” theme during an Oct. 4 loss at home. It’s easy to say that now, knowing the Vikings recovered from that three-loss hole the scabs dug them. Now, memories blur, and we see all it took were four weeks without union players for things to get back to some kind of normal.

On Oct. 14, after that second scab game, about 90 NFL players crossed the picket lines, the largest wave yet. The league had smoked them out, starved them for too long of their paychecks, and the exodus continued. It happened across the league, nearly everywhere but Minnesota, where the Vikings remained at their picket line until the bitter end. At that moment, they’d gained very little, if anything, but those 24 days had sowed the seeds for what eventually would become free agency as we know it today.

By the time the strike ended, most of the Vikings were more concerned with simply getting back to work and those paychecks given the fact they’d accomplished little. It was time for football, and that was what mattered. The scabs, for their part, had seen it coming. While some stuck with the team after the strike – Najarian, Wayne Smith, Mays, Bucky Scribner and James Brim, among others, got some kind of shot at the pros – most were just happy to have had their moment in the spotlight.

******

True free agency, which the players sought in the 1987 strike, did not begin until 1993, but in February 1989, the league took the first steps toward free agency by implementing an early form, known as Plan B Free Agency. Under Plan B, teams could hold limited rights to a maximum of 37 players; those 37 could not sign with another team without allowing their initial team the right to sign them. All other players were unrestricted and could negotiate with whatever team they chose.

Players did not like this overly restrictive initial incarnation, and they began to take legal action, which culminated in the NFLPA decertifying in November 1989 so that players could take individual legal action. That tactic was borne of the league’s lopsided win in 1987 – players knew they would have to go to extreme measures – and it eventually worked. Six years after the strike, true free agency was theirs.

Looking back, players can say they’re now pleased with the strike’s results, but back then, it was more complicated. Labor unrest in sports seems always to have the inherent narrative of “we’re doing this for the future,” but that’s hard to see or even feel in the heat of discord.

“A lot of older guys were saying, ‘Hey man, we’re striking for you guys,’ and a lot of stuff like that,” said Sam Anno, then a rookie with the Vikings. “And let’s be honest, guys, come on, football players. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Everybody was just trying to get what they could get at that time. I don’t know how it was to think, ‘Okay, man, I’m striking for those guys 20 years from now.’ That’s a bunch of crap.”

Back then, the future was a fuzzy notion for these men. Today, it’s at the forefront. Today, free agency is a given. They remember fighting for it, some more passionately than others, but it’s a battle they’ve won. Today, ask them about labor, and it’s pensions, pensions, pensions. Maybe some were more circumspect and forward-thinking than Anno in the moment back in 1987, but it’s doubtful, and now they hope that the next generation of players can somehow think of them.

“What was frustrating to me is what we did as players back then, and when it comes now to talk about NFL retired players, current players, there are some current players that aren’t worried about retired players, when they really have no idea what took place back then, what sacrifices retired players did for them back in that ’87 strike,” said Mike Mularkey, then a fifth-year tight end.

They want pensions. They want help for the former teammates whose brains have been reduced to something resembling mush. They want all the things that were just vague dreams in 1987, when free agency engulfed most other bargaining points. Most of all, though, they want clarity.

Many of these players, even those who are vested by the NFL, have no clue what their pension packages look like. They’re worried about the details, about the tiny fighting points that players might be blinded to today. They can remember themselves in the moment, fighting for the big things and ignoring the little, and they want to correct that.

Some just complain. Some wish they’d played those extra three games to be vested. Some still bemoan the fact that they weren’t grandfathered in. Others, like then-receiver Leo Lewis, worry for the sport and its consequences. They see how much more work is left to be done. Lewis wants to educate. So does Jordan, whose son, Cameron Jordan, was a first-round pick by the Saints in the 2011 draft. It hit close to home, his son entering the league into a lockout just as he did, and he wants Cameron’s generation to handle it as well or even better than he did.

These men don’t want handouts. They fought their part, and they want the next generation to keep fighting. They laid the foundation, and though they may still be owed something tangible, what they really want is respect.

“They need to appreciate the guys that came before them, which means a lot of things,” Nelson said. “Which means you learn about them, you help them when you can, and if you’ve got a chance to negotiate something in your collective bargaining agreement which would help them, you should do that.”

******

Remember Kurt Ploeger? Kurt Ploeger, the man with the aching back, the scab who drove to Winter Park that day 25 years ago without a clue what he was in for?

Here’s what Kurt Ploeger got: He got $9,000 in playoff money. The scabs were entitled to half their team’s share, even in the case of the Vikings, where they did little but hinder the team’s postseason run.

He got to watch the Vikings be treated as a Cinderella story, when really their 8-7 record was much better than it looked, thanks to those three October losses. He got to cheer even harder for the team he grew up supporting as it made its way to the NFC Championship game because this time money was on the line, and with a newborn daughter, it really couldn’t hurt.

He got a herniated disk, which he suffered in practice and still played with, a decision he still regrets today. He got a sore back, which bothered him for years and necessitated 2001 surgery. It was a career-ending injury.

And to make matters worse, he also got a couple phone calls. The first came in November of that same year, from Jeff Diamond of the Vikings’ front office, asking him if he might be interested in rejoining the team. Despite the pain, Ploeger considered it, until, wait, hold on, the Vikings said. We’ll get back with you. And then they didn’t, not when they found a better option in former Bear Mike Hartenstine.

The other calls came the following spring. They was an invitation to training camp in 1988 from both the Vikings and the Raiders. Ploeger considered them, but again, it went back to that pain and that herniated disk. He couldn’t do it.

So many scabs went into the lockout hoping for their big break. Ploeger, though, already had his. He was drafted by the Cowboys in 1985, their next pick after Herschel Walker, and should have had a shot at a career past 1987. But for one of the few replacement players for whom the strike could have been a sustained career boost, it was anything but. Being a scab ended Ploeger’s career.

Somehow, he doesn’t resent what happened. It’s too long ago, for one, and really, things have worked out. He’s a pastor. He has a wife and children. He doesn’t have to worry about NFL pensions or labor unrest anymore – he didn’t play long enough to be vested, and he has a degree and a career.

So now, just like he did during that NFC Championship game, Kurt Ploeger can just cheer. This time, though, there’s nothing on the line, and really, there’s no reason to be bitter. After all, he got his brush with fame. Now, he can only hope that people remember.


Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.