Anthony Allen says he finds himself talking “pretty often” about his first game as a receiver with the Washington Redskins.
It came 20 years ago, against the then St. Louis Cardinals at RFK Stadium. Allen’s stats: eight catches for 255 yards and three touchdowns, in less than three quarters of work.
A memorable debut, for sure. But Allen, who now coaches football at Garfield High School in Seattle, his alma mater, has learned over the years that not a whole lot of folks remember he even played on the team. He used to own a highlight tape of the 1987 season that helped him convert nonbelievers.
“I messed up and recorded General Hospital over it a few years ago,” Allen says, laughing. “But I remember that day really well. Really well.”
Since accidentally destroying the video evidence, Allen can still direct doubters to the Redskins record book. And there, under single-game records, you’ll find his name and those 255 yards receiving.
After all these years, Allen’s yardage total remains the franchise’s best. Yet, apart from Allen’s family and burgundy-and-gold trivia buffs, he and his big day are pretty much forgotten.
Time has doubtless contributed to Allen’s anonymity—“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. That’s something,” he says—and the 1987 season had plenty of compelling storylines for Skins fans. For one: Those Redskins ended up giving Coach Joe Gibbs his second Super Bowl win.
But most important, there’s the fact that a lot of fans don’t consider Allen’s record, or any of his Redskins stats that year, legitimate. The game against the Cardinals was not only his first game here, it was also the first game played after members of the NFL Players Association went on strike just two weeks into the 1987 season.
The NFL owners responded to the players’ job action by forming teams to play until the strike was settled. “Replacement players,” the owners called them.
The Players Association used another name: “scabs.”
Allen had played two seasons with the USFL coming out of the University of Washington in 1983. And when the rival league folded, he caught on with the Atlanta Falcons for another two seasons. He thought he’d have a third season with the Falcons, but he was cut on the last day of training camp in the summer of 1987.
“I was shocked when Atlanta let me go, and I knew I could still play,” says Allen. “I went home and prepared to get picked up by somebody else in the league.”
His phone had started ringing as soon as the Falcons cut him. But none of the offers coming in from essentially every team in the NFL were for him to sign on for the regular season. Instead, personnel staffers, including the Redskins’ Bobby Beathard and Charley Casserly, asked Allen to be a part of the teams they were putting together if the union called a strike.
Allen says he wanted to avoid being a tool of management and had hoped to stay loyal to his former Falcons teammates and to the union. He figured the “scab” tag would stick with him and would hurt his prospects for a post-strike career.
“Both Casserly and Beathard called me,” he says. “But I turned them down. I turned everybody down. I stopped answering the phone.”
Allen didn’t believe the replacement games would ever really come off. But he caved when he realized that the season would indeed go on with or without him. The turning point came when Dan Henning, the Redskins receivers coach in 1987, followed up Casserly and Beathard’s pitch and left a message at Allen’s home.
“I knew Dan from the Falcons, and he knew what I could do,” says Allen. “He said, ‘Listen, you’re 27 years old. You are at the crossroads now: If you don’t [join a replacement team], you may get back in the league, you may not get in. We’re giving you a chance to get back in right now.’”
The aggressive recruiting by Skins management would pay dividends once the union walked out on Sept. 22. Washington had the best scab team in the league.
On the other side of the picket line, the “real” Redskins, led by linebacker and shop steward Neil Olkewicz, were the most tight-knit group in the NFL. Not a single player from Washington’s regular roster crossed to play in the replacement games. No other team could make that claim.
The union players got together outside Redskin Park every day to stage vocal and occasionally violent protests during the replacement team’s practices.
Because of his initial reticence, Allen arrived in D.C. just three days before the Cardinals game. While guys with household names like Monk, Clark, and Sanders walked the line, Allen joined a receiving corps made up of no-names Keiron Bigby and Richard Johnson.
Allen’s familiarity with Henning’s offense put him at the head of the replacement class.
“One day I’m in Seattle,” Allen says, “a few days later I’m the primary receiver.”
Just as Redskins management had outrecruited everybody else, Joe Gibbs and his staff outcoached the opposition. The Cardinals had picket-crossing all-stars such as Neil Lomax, Roy Green, and J.T. Smith in uniform for the first scab game—as well as offensive lineman Ray Brown, whose long NFL career was launched as a strikebreaking Cardinal. But as a team, they were no match for the replacement Skins.
The guy in the Doug Williams role for the Redskins strike team was a New York bartender named Ed Rubbert. The first pass Rubbert threw Allen’s way ended as a 37-yard touchdown. On the Skins’ next offensive play, Allen beat all-pro safety Smith, caught a bomb from Rubbert, and went 88 yards for a second score. In the second half, he caught another 44-yard TD. With three minutes to go in the third quarter, Allen caught his last pass of the day, having already set the receiving record that’s still on the books.
The replacement Redskins won that game, 28-21. A week later they crushed the Giants, 38-12, with Lawrence Taylor among the picket-line crossers. In the final strike game, played after the Players Association waved the white flag and asked to come back to work, Washington beat Tony Dorsett, Danny White, and other scabby Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.
No other team went undefeated during the strike. Gibbs’ reputation as a coaching genius was secured.
“It was tough on Joe, coaching us and telling us that no matter what, we’re ‘real Redskins,’ and then on the other side still trying to keep his regular guys together while they’re out,” says Allen. “I was very impressed with how he handled everything. Here we were, playing teams with All-Pros, and we were just, well, just guys—regular guys. And we were beating them.”
As Henning had insinuated during his recruiting pitch, Allen’s play during the strike games did indeed provide his re-entry to the NFL. He stuck with the Redskins for the rest of the regular season, and though he didn’t catch any more passes, he has a Super Bowl ring.
He says Darrell Green and Dexter Manley were among the regular players who let him know fairly often that they didn’t appreciate his crossing the picket line. In return, Allen says, he would jab back that the replacement players’ performance handed the team first place in the division when the strike was over.
“I wasn’t going to back down,” he says, “and I think the guys really did appreciate that we played hard.”
He was cut following the 1988 season.
The Skins strike team inspired The Replacements, a feature film starring Keanu Reeves. Allen has never seen the movie and has even turned the channel “a few times” when it’s appeared on his TV screen as he surfed.
“I’m never going to watch it,” he says. “I don’t need to see somebody else saying how it was. I remember how it was.”