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During last weekend’s Redskins-Dolphins preseason broadcast from Miami, Comcast color commentator and former Skin Jeff Bostic joked about the antiquity of Ray Brown, Washington’s newest and oldest lineman.
“Did Ray play with Sammy Baugh?” Bostic giggled.
No, the 41-year-old Brown, who was just signed to replace injured tackle Jon Jansen, didn’t play with Slingin’ Sammy, the greatest Redskin of all time. But he did once play alongside Sammy Garza. And a host of forgotten souls with such names as Tom Welter, Charles Vatterot, and Keith Radecic. Replacement players, Brown and his mates were called back then.
Or, less politely: scabs.
“You try to move on, but you don’t go through a strike without having some emotional feeling for the guys who took your job,” recalls Neal Olkewicz, the former Redskins linebacker who served as the team’s player representative for the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) in 1987.
Whatever you call them, NFL owners hired nonroster players to put on the pads during the players’ walkout of 1987. All these years later, it’s fair to call Brown, who was among those who filled in for the legitimate St. Louis Cardinals, the biggest winner of this union-busting strategy: He’s stayed on the field ever since. Brown, whose long run includes stints with the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions as well as a previous gig with the Redskins, has outlasted all of the hundreds of other nonunion footballers who, to varying degrees, owe their NFL careers to the strike.
There could be one other strikebuster besides Brown still in an NFL uniform come this year’s opening-day kickoff: Doug Flutie. But Flutie, who is trying to hang on with the San Diego Chargers after recent knee surgery, is a different sort of scab. He was a Heisman Trophy winner and he already had a roster spot with the Chicago Bears when the players union decided to strike in late September. Flutie, who originally joined his Bears teammates in the job action, crossed the picket line in the last week of the strike as part of a trade to the New England Patriots, which gave him a chance to play near his hometown of Natick, Mass.
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Brown, now in his 19th NFL season, had no Heisman, nor any of Flutie’s name recognition or job security. He was an unknown tight end from Arkansas State when he was drafted by the Cardinals in the eighth round of the 1986 draft. He got only spot duty during his rookie season and was cut by the team during training camp before the 1987 season.
When rumors of a leaguewide strike surfaced during that off-season, NFL teams decided that they’d put bodies on the field regardless of whether the union followed through on its threat. The Cardinals’ front office dangled a starting job on the line in front of Brown when the strike took hold just two games into the season, and he bit. He crossed the picket line to sign with St. Louis on Sept. 22.
The owners’ strategy worked better than management could have ever imagined. After three Sundays of nationally televised scab games, the NFLPA waved a white flag, decertified itself as a union, and advised members to go back to work.
“We basically got our asses kicked,” says Olkewicz. “I never thought the owners would really put on the replacement games, and I never thought that the fans would support those games or that television would show them. I was wrong. That killed us.”
The real Redskins were regarded as the most tightknit unit in the league during the strike. Olkewicz says he worked hard to keep up morale and give coach Joe Gibbs an assist. Though technically a representative of management, Gibbs constantly urged his players to show solidarity during the walkout and said that any decisions about staying on strike or going back to work should be made as a team. Not a single player on the Redskins’ regular 45-man roster crossed the picket line. No other squad could boast such unity.
While the real Skins were out on strike, the replacements had a rather glorious run. The Scabskins’ exploits, after all, were the basis for the Keanu Reeves vehicle The Replacements. Gibbs, who already had one Super Bowl title to his name, confirmed his greatness by coaching a Redskins team made up entirely of no-names to a 3-0 record against squads loaded with stars who crossed the picket lines rather than miss a paycheck. The first game for Washington’s subs was a 28-21 win over the Cardinals—whose players included, along with Brown, Pro Bowl receiver Roy Green and 10 other regular roster members, the largest number of line-crossers in the NFL—before only 24,000 fans at RFK Stadium. The second Scabskins win came over the New York Giants, 38-12.
But the highlight of the replacement season for Washington came in Week 3, when quarterback Tony Robinson, fresh off a sentence in a Tennessee prison, led the team to a 13-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys—who used Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Randy White and assorted other regular players—in a Monday Night Football telecast.
“My only real memory of those replacement games was walking into the Redskins’ locker room after that Dallas game,” says Frank Herzog, Washington’s radio play-by-play announcer for the past 25 years, “and I saw this skinny receiver who nobody ever heard of yelling, ‘We are the Washington Redskins!’ I looked at him and said, ‘No, you’re not!’”
The real Redskins met every day during the strike near Redskin Park to wave placards and scream epithets at the nonunion players who’d been handed the jobs that they couldn’t win during training camp. Though the mood at the facility was always tense, the only violent incident came when defensive tackle Darryl Grant smashed the window of a bus carrying replacement players to practice.
It’s been estimated that NFL players lost a total of more than $80 million in salary for the three games they were on strike. The players went to work for the next five years without any labor agreement at all. A pact with management was finally signed before the 1993 season. But the deal, which included the first hard salary cap, very limited free agency, and gadgetry such as the mobility-crimping “franchise player” tag, was recognized as the most owner-friendly deal in the history of collective bargaining in major professional sports.
Brown’s three starts while the real Cardinals offensive linemen were on strike earned him an invitation to training camp when the team moved to Arizona the next year, and he won a job the old-fashioned way. Brown did not return messages left at Redskins Park. His San Francisco–based agent, Stephen Baker, declined to discuss any matters related to his client’s status as a former replacement player.
The NFL stuck to its word and let the three replacement games count in the official standings for the 1987 season. When the union collapsed and the real players went back to work, the only good news for Olkewicz and his teammates was that the Scabskins’ three wins, all over Eastern Division rivals, had given Washington a big cushion in the race for the playoffs. The Skins had home-field advantage in the NFC Championship game against the Minnesota Vikings, and they put it to use in a 17-10 win that gave the team a Super Bowl berth.
In the big game, Doug Williams led his unified bunch to a 42-10 rout of the Denver Broncos. During the off-season, the replacement players were given Super Bowl rings, just like the real Redskins.
The union Redskins were thankful for their replacements’ performance, and the dominant memory of that season is the Super Bowl win, not the strike. But hard feelings for those who crossed the line still linger.
“Our pension plan is the crappiest of all the leagues,” says Olkewicz.
Olkewicz, who played 11 years in the NFL, lives in Brookeville, Md., and owns and operates a vending-machine business. He says Redskins fans are surprised to see a guy with such local luminescence stuffing snacks into machines for a living. He still follows the Redskins, and he says he smiled and shook his head when he heard his team had re-signed Brown earlier this month. The fact that Brown could owe his career to his days as a replacement player had nothing to do with the former shop steward’s reaction, however.
“The Redskins cut me to sign Ray Brown in 1989,” says Olkewicz. —Dave McKenna