“All we are saying is give scabs a chance.”
Sung to the tune of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance
Long before replacement officials landed in the National Football League this year, there were replacement players.
Twenty five years ago, the NFL Players Association walked out in a strike against the league. Owners took a week off and then for three weeks fielded teams made up largely of new players. They were called the Replacements by some and the more derogatory Scabs by others.
On October 18, 1987, the replacement players took the field for the last of their three games. By the next day most of the replacements went on to the rest of their lives, never to play professional football again. Some lasted until November when temporarily expanded NFL rosters were returned to the limits carried into the season. After that smoke cleared around the 28 league teams, only a few replacement players were still working.
As a group, they were largely forgotten until 2000 when Gene Hackman and Keauna Reeves headlined the movie The Replacements, which has become a cable network classic detailing the fictional Washington Sentinels and their replacement squad during a strike by the real players.
“The Replacements was Hollywood’s version, but I must say a lot of it rang true,” said Matt Stevens, who was the main quarterback for the replacement Chiefs. “The animosity, the locker room full of guys from all over the country and from all walks of life. The only thing we didn’t have on our team was a sumo wrestler on the offensive line and we could have used one.
“For most of us it was the chance to go back and enjoy something that we had done our whole life â€“ play football.”
In the movie, a replacement player’s car is vandalized. That happened at Arrowhead Stadium when former University of Kansas wide receiver Richard Estell came out of the building after taking a physical to find two tires slashed and the hood of his car bashed in. The movie featured a fight in a bar. That happened in Westport, where two replacement players were arrested in an incident that went down late one night at Stanford’s & Sons Restaurant. The Replacements featured a striking veteran player crossing the picket line before settlement of the strike to rejoin the team. That happened in many NFL cities, including with the Chiefs where cornerback Kevin Ross jumped the gun and came back to the team the day before the strike was called off.
While the movie became a feel good story of a bunch of players lifting a downtrodden team to a spot in the playoffs, the reality was much different. It was a month of mediocre to poor football on the field, while off the field was where the most memorable action took place, including striking players showing up with shotguns (that was in Kansas City), strikers laying down on the road in front of buses carrying replacement players and physical confrontation that led to one of the biggest names in football history to end up on the ground in a wrestling match (that was also in Kansas City.)
“Being in the middle of it, I never get tired talking about the whole story,” said Stevens. “There was so much more than the final score of three games and the statistics. It was just a very memorable part of my life and a bunch of other guys that could not be duplicated.”
Replacement football was played over three weeks and for the most part was far inferior to the quality of play fans had become used to seeing from the NFL. There were four teams that went 3-0 in replacement games, including the ultimate Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins. There were four teams that lost all three replacement games, including the Chiefs. None of those teams finished the year with a winning record.
The lack of preparation time before the replacement games was simply not enough time to produce good football. After the third weekend of games on the 1987 schedule were cancelled, the new players had a week of practice and then three weeks of games.
“Some guys had been in camps in the pre-season,” said Jack Epps, a Kansas State safety who was one of the replacement defense’s most productive players. “But there were other guys that weren’t, and guys from the Canadian league (CFL), guys that last played in the USFL, even some guys that had been out of the league for a few years.”
Led by general manager Jim Schaaf and pro personnel director Whitey Dovell, with help from assistant GM Denny Thum and college personnel director Les Miller, the Chiefs fielded a completely new team within a week of the strike’s start.
“I’m not going to tell you that this is the same as what left,” Dovell said at the time. “But I don’t think it’s an embarrassment.”
Embarrassment is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s no question that the replacement Chiefs were at best a motley crew. They signed 70 players and bodies came in and out the front door of the team’s offices on a daily basis.
“Every day we had to redo the roster,” said Gary Heise, who was the Chiefs public relations director during that season. “This was before we had the computers of today, so we just couldn’t hit a button and delete. It was a chore. Every day was a new day.”
Epps left grad school at Kansas State to join the team. Punter Kelly Goodburn was teaching in the Park Hill School District. Offensive lineman Doug Hoppock was working in construction. Center Jim Pietrzak was selling insurance in Louisiana. Offensive lineman Glenn Hyde was in an executive training course in Atlanta. Kicker Paul Woodside was driving a UPS truck and another player, barefoot kicker James Hamrick was an institutional investor for Merrill Lynch in Houston.
Running back Ken Lacy was at home in Tulsa with his family. “I wanted to play and it didn’t matter where,” Lacy said. “I’m here for what this whole game is all about for me â€“ there is decent money in it. My kids have to eat too. I’ve got to buy diapers. I had a chance to go other places but as far as getting diapers for the kids, this was the best place.”
Two weeks before the strike was called, the owners had voted unanimously to field the replacement teams. The league had gone through a 57-day strike by the players in 1982 that wiped out seven of the scheduled 16 games and was determined not to have its product shutdown by the NFL Players Association.
“We saw what happened five years ago and I don’t think there’s any secret if we don’t operate, then we’ll see (threats of strikes) every three years,” Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said in the days before the strike started. “We cannot shut down every time the players association strikes.” Hunt insisted that his replacement players would not wear the scarlet S of scabs on their reputations.
“Our guys will be free agent players who want to play in a free enterprise situation.”
Seeking higher wages and a less restrictive free agency system, the real players thought the owners plan to field replacement teams was nothing but a bargaining ploy.
“It’ll never come to that,” Chiefs fullback Larry Moriarty said in the days before the strike. “There are so many things you have to take into consideration, besides the fact that the public won’t but it and television won’t buy it.”
Added cornerback Kevin Ross at the time: “There won’t be anybody in here (Arrowhead) to see it, not NBC, ABC or anyone else. Playing games with people they cut, with people who weren’t considered good enough in the first place â€“ it would make them look like fools. They’d be downgrading themselves. They’d be in trouble.”
After winning the 1987 season opener at Arrowhead Stadium over San Diego, the second game on the Chiefs schedule was in Seattle against the Seahawks. Unable to decide on whether Todd Blackledge or Bill Kenney was his best quarterback (or worst), head coach Frank Gansz decided he would use both. Blackledge would be his first down quarterback. If second down was not an obvious passing situation, Blackledge stayed on the field. For the downs where a pass was required, Kenney would come into the game.
None of it worked and the Chiefs lost 43-14 to the Seahawks. They made the long flight home from the Pacific Northwest unsure what was going to happen next. The NFLPA was calling for a strike and the players did not expect to play again anytime soon.
“I was too upset about losing to Seattle,” said Ross. “I wasn’t much for the whole thing. I was a football player and I needed to play football. I supported the union, but that wasn’t going to put bread on the table.”
As the Chiefs charter headed through the night skies over the Rockies, team management began finalizing plans for pulling together a group of replacement players. Many NFL teams worked on putting together a new team from the moment training camp ended and pre-season games were played. The Washington Redskins had an entire team sitting in a hotel for several weeks, some 30 players in all, prepared to replace the real players the moment after the strike was called.
The Chiefs did not do that. Five years earlier, the Kansas City locker room had been the most pro-union team in the league. That was due in large part to starting guard Tom Condon being president of the NFLPA at the time and actively involved in negotiating sessions with the owners’ representatives. That strike lasted 57 days and even after the players returned to work the Chiefs locker room was united in their distrust and dislike of team management led by team president Jack Steadman and general manager Jim Schaaf.
“Because of what had happened in the ’82 strike, the organization didn’t want to stir the pot and cause any rancor if it got out that we were putting together a replacement team,” said Denny Thum, then the assistant GM to Schaaf. “When the situation looked like a strike was definite, that’s when the job began of finding players.”
Schaaf was in charge of the football operations with assistance from Thum. Dovell ran the pro personnel department. They and others were involved in searching for replacement players.
“You have to remember this was 25 years ago, and there wasn’t e-mail, there were no cell phones, there was no texting, no Twitter, no Facebook,” said Thum. “We had phone numbers, but we’d call and the number would be disconnected or they wouldn’t be at that number any more.
“It was just hard to get a hold of guys.”
Eventually phones were answered, messages were returned and players began the process of heading to Kansas City. They were not quite sure what they would find with the striking players that were setting up picket lines at Arrowhead Stadium and the Truman Sports Complex.
“They told me everything was quiet and there wouldn’t be any problems with the striking players,” said Stevens. “They really fed all us a line on that one.”
The players flew into town individually and were expected to become a team very quickly
“They should have given us name tags because there were a lot of faces coming and out of the hotel,” said wide receiver John Trahan. “Guys would show up and then they would be gone in those first few days.”
Thum was part of the process of getting players signed and then getting them through physical exams and testing.
“There were definitely players that were sent home,” Thum said. “Most because they could not pass a physical, and that was hard to do when the major criteria was that they were breathing.”
One of the most unusual player signings came when Thum had to get a signature on a final contract from defensive back Jitter Fields, who joined the team after playing the first week of replacement games with Indianapolis. He was claimed on waivers and joined the Chiefs for the final replacement game.
“I went down to the locker room, trying to find Jitter to sign this paperwork,” Thum remembered. “The trainers told me that he was warming up, so I thought he was out on the field. They said ‘No, no, Jitter warms up in the sauna.’
“So I find Jitter in the sauna and he’s signing a contract with sweat dripping off his nose onto the paper and smudging his signature. It’s the only sauna signing I had in almost 40 years in the NFL.”
Once they had put together a team, the Chiefs put the new players up at the Comfort Inn motel along I-435 near Front Street. The isolated location kept the replacement players from wandering too far away, not that most of them had the time to hit the Kansas City streets in search of entertainment.
“There was so much time spent just trying to learn the playbook,” said quarterback Alex Espinoza who had played at Iowa State. “Most of the guys that were there did not have cars with them. There was nothing around us and there was so much to put together with offense and defense. Plus, guys were not in good shape, so by the time we got back to the hotel, we were exhausted. There wasn’t any energy to do anything but go to bed.”
On the strike’s second day, the Chiefs announced their first batch of replacement players. It was also their first day as a group inside Arrowhead Stadium. To make it there, they had to cross the picket line of the real players, whose ranks were bolstered by members of other unions like the pipefitters, electrical workers and TWA flight attendants.
Getting those players to the stadium locker room would prove to be a scene worthy of consideration for a movie.
“I knew it was going to be different when we came out of the hotel to board the bus and there are like seven or eight police officers out there forming a gauntlet to get on the bus,” said Stevens. “Then there were two or three policemen on the bus with us. So we started towards the stadium and since I’d been there earlier in the year, I knew how you got to Arrowhead.
“All the sudden we are taking all these roads I wasn’t familiar with and back roads and streets and it seemed like we were going around in circles. I was sitting in the back of the bus next to a policeman who had a radio and all the sudden the radio goes crazy with reports of entrances to the stadium blocked and discussion of what we needed to do.”
The striking Chiefs players turned out in force that first day, some arriving in rather flamboyant and controversial fashion. They strikers were trying to predict where the bus carrying the replacements would arrive.
“So all this chatter goes on over the radio and we started heading for one of the entrances,” Stevens said. “Then all the sudden we stop and go off in another direction and we come through an entrance I didn’t even know was there. The bus driver is really going fast and before you know it, we look out the back and there are three pickups trucks following us.
“I figured we’d go in the front door, but when we got down close to the stadium we saw that was not going to happen because there were a bunch of striking players, so we do a circle around the stadium and all the sudden we have three pickup trucks coming at us, along with three still behind us.
“Our bus driver decided he was going to play a game of chicken and he drove right at those trucks and they moved out of the way. In fact, they ended up slowing down the trucks behind us. We were going so fast I swear our bus took a curve on two wheels and we went screeching into the stadium tunnel and they closed the gate behind us.”
It was a daily battle of cat and mouse between the team and the striking players â€“ what gate would the replacements use to get to the stadium.
“Every practice we had to take a different route so the picketers wouldn’t meet up with us,” said quarterback Alex Espinoza. “We would take the East Gate one day and the West Gate the next day and we would not tell people how we would get in. We would bus in, so we would not have our own vehicle parked in the parking lot where players park and walk in.”
In the first days of the strike and the replacements being bused in, Thum said they would wait to see what gate the strikers would congregate at and then go in a different way.
“After a few days they wised up and then had guys at every entrance,” Thum said. “They were always read to throw something, mud balls, rocks, eggs. They always made their presence known to the guys on the bus.”
Sometimes confrontation turned up in other places. In that first week, two players were arrested after a disturbance in a Kansas City bar that was instigated by union members calling offensive lineman Doubiago and John Aimonetti scabs. Kansas City police charged Doubiago with assault, while Aimonetti was hit with a disorderly conduct charge.
“That first 10 days or so there wasn’t a lot of going out and about,” said Stevens. “We were trying to learn offenses and defenses. But we all know boys will be boys.”
Practices were a struggle because sometimes there were not enough players at a certain position. At least twice, offensive line coach and former pro lineman Carl Mauck had to jump into the drills. When there were not enough healthy arms to throw passes, wide receivers coach Richard Wood threw passes in one-on-one drills. Wood had played eight years at quarterback in the NFL and AFL some 20 years before.
“You just tried to get the basics down,” remembered Stevens. “There were not a lot of complicated game plans.”
There couldn’t be because the roster was constantly changing and players were coming and going on a daily basis.
“I was outside the locker room by the elevators and the doctors were doing physicals in one room and we were getting biographical information in another,” remembered Heise. “The elevator doors opened and there was this guy standing there and he looked like he might be a doctor. He asked where he was supposed to go and so I pointed him to the doctors. Then he came back and said, ‘I’m a player, where do the players go?’
“I knew then we were in trouble.”
That would prove to be very true for the replacement Chiefs, who during their bus rides to and from their motel home, took to singing to pass the time, changing the words of John Lennon’s classic Give Peace a Chance to “all we are saying is give scabs a chance.”
That chance would come first in Los Angeles.