Commentary

NFL replacements part of history

Updated: June 9, 2011, 5:04 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

NFL Strike (1987)AP Photo/Raul DemolinaMiami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, left, in striped shirt, and striking Dolphins and supporters walk past police at the Dolphins' training camp on Sept. 25, 1987.

A persistent man with an offer was calling, but Robert Williams had to be practical. He was turning 25, and it was time to be an adult. He had a wife to think about, plus a couple of kids. He had a stable, albeit ordinary, job in Waco, Texas, and that was just fine. See, a time comes in every man's life when a dream dies, and Williams apparently had come to peace with that when his phone rang in the fall of 1987. If he could just … get this guy from Dallas … off the phone …

There are no endearing stories in the 2011 NFL lockout. Suits walk into a New York City hotel for a secret meeting, emerge with very little information, and the wait continues. It will all be over eventually, Gil Brandt says, and the season will go on as planned. He knows this because he's been through a few of these labor disputes. He know this because he was the persistent man on the other end of the line in 1987, trying to persuade Williams to play football again during another impasse.

[+] EnlargeGil Brandt
George Gojkovich/Getty Images Gil Brandt, who was vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, has been through labor disputes and says this one will end, eventually.

It might sound strange, but Brandt was moved by the innocence of that season that has been called one of the darkest in the history of the NFL. For years, it was Brandt's job to evaluate NFL talent for the Dallas Cowboys, to sift through the piles of names and numbers and inevitably squash a few dreams. And there he was in '87, like Willy Wonka, handing out golden tickets. Back then, the NFL players' union went on strike, and the owners struck back. They would find somebody else to do the players' jobs.

The search for talent went everywhere, to grocery stores, bars and chewed-up semipro fields. One team, the Washington Redskins, picked up a quarterback on work furlough from prison. But most of the replacement players were young men in limbo, somewhere between college and whatever was supposed to come next.

"Those players kind of considered themselves a cult, almost," said Brandt, a former Cowboys exec who's now an analyst for NFL.com. "Four or five of them got together and bought a used car for 500 bucks so they had transportation. They were a self-reliant group is what they were. I think the hardest thing they had to do was find a coat and tie to wear on an away game when we went to play the Jets.

"It was refreshing. There were so many interesting, refreshing things that happened that year."

So many stories. Like the time receiver Cornell Burbage reached into the stands during a road game at New York, grabbed a package and placed it under the bench. It was a box of laundry Burbage's sister had washed for him. He couldn't afford to have his clothes cleaned at the hotel.

They were called scabs and were met with hostility, threats and profanity as their buses crossed the picket lines. Their following depended on the city. In union towns, the replacements were shunned. In places such as Dallas, some fans loved their grit and nicknamed them the "Rhinestone Cowboys." Nearly every replacement team wound up with some kind of revamped nickname, and they generally weren't nice. The Chicago Spare Bears. The Seattle Sea-Scabs. The New Orleans Saint Elsewheres.

When it was over, after a hastily arranged camp and three weeks of replacement games, hundreds of dreamers went back to their lives while the NFL churned on. A whole generation of fans doesn't know about them, or why asterisks appear alongside their names on old rosters. But to the replacements, it still means something. They're part of history.

Drama Central

The custom-made No. 25 Chiefs jersey with Jack Epps' name on the back does not hang in his spacious Overland Park, Kan., office. His wife bought the jersey for him, and he keeps it at home. Had Epps known 24 years ago that his football career would end so abruptly, with a few hurried goodbyes in a dazed, cluttered locker room, maybe he would've stolen his sweaty jersey as a keepsake. He sure as heck wasn't going to pay $100 for it, which is what the Chiefs wanted to charge for the mementos.

Whatever. Epps has all the memories he needs in his office. He walks to a window, near a picture of Vince Lombardi.

"See the lights that come up over that hotel?" Epps said. "That's a football field down there. That's where I played in high school. This is why I love this spot."

It is late in the afternoon on a scorching June day, and Epps, dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, is busy. He's a lawyer now with two daughters who dance and act and have little interest in football, so he doesn't get to talk much about the old days. He eases into his seat and lets his phone ring for a bit.

[+] EnlargeJack Epps
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comJack Epps, a lawyer in Kansas City, played for the Chiefs during the strike season.

Kansas City might be a sterile, scrubbed-down NFL town now, but in '87 it was Drama Central. There were shotgun-toting picketers and repeated attempts to scare the newbies. The night before their first replacement game in Los Angeles, the aftershocks of an earthquake jolted their team hotel. Towers swayed, and a "Do not panic" announcement was made over the speakers.

"All the players ran out in the hallway," Epps said. "We didn't know what to do. We were all guys from the Midwest."

But Epps was unflappable and stubborn. He believed, with all his heart, that he was good enough to make it. A year before the strike, in 1986, the strapping safety from Kansas State did make it with the Chiefs. But he broke his ankle near the end of the preseason, then spent the year breaking down film with the coaches. He was in Tampa Bay's training camp in 1987 and didn't escape the final cut.

So he went home to K-State, three weeks after the semester started, and begged to get into his graduate school classes. Shortly after the dean said yes, Epps was gone again because when the NFL calls, you can't hit "ignore." He immediately took off for fast-food two-a-days in Kansas City. They had a little more than a week to go over fundamentals, conditioning and, oh, the game plan. Some of them hadn't sniffed a field in a year.

Most of the joy Epps felt about playing football again was doused by guilt. He'd been with the team all summer in '86. He understood the players' plight. One time, the bus rolled into Arrowhead Stadium and a protester yelled, "Jack! Not you!"

"We weren't looking for a fight," Epps said. "I think everybody on the bus had the same kind of attitude. That lightning struck me, and I have the opportunity to play football again."

And they did have fun. Because of the volume of information the replacements had to learn, they spent nearly every waking moment together and became very close in a short period of time. Epps reunited with Doug Hoppock, an ex-USFL player who had been a teammate at K-State. He also became pals with former Iowa State quarterback Alex Espinoza, an old Big Eight foe. Espinoza jokingly called Epps "Cheap Shot" because of a hit he laid on him in college. The laughs were short-lived.

By mid-October, a number of veterans were crossing the picket lines to play, and the end was looming. The Broncos beat the Chiefs 26-17 on Oct. 18, and Chiefs coach Frank Gansz huddled the team together in the locker room. He told them that the players were coming back and that some of the replacements would be here next week but most of them wouldn't. Thanks for coming in to help us, Gansz said.

The locker room was quiet. The replacements were sweaty and worn out. Epps packed up his belongings because that's what Gansz told everybody to do.

"But I never dreamed I was done playing football," Epps said. "And I think this is a mark of those guys who played. You don't really think you're done until you kind of … I mean, there's got to be the coffin nailed and shut. I told somebody one time they couldn't just cut me, they were going to have to drag me out of the locker room, throw me out, take my pads away, take the football and tell me I'm done. That's pretty much what happened."

A week later, Epps got a call from a front-office person who officially told him he was done. The Chiefs did think enough of him to offer Epps a part-time scouting position. He couldn't take it. He couldn't close that door.

Years passed, and Epps eventually used the money he earned as a replacement to pay for law school. He got married and had kids. He told them to give everything to anything they're passionate about.

"I was maybe in kindergarten or first grade when I told my dad and my brother I was going to play in the NFL," Epps said. "It was very short-lived, but I guess I can count it."

Money was a lure

Media accounts from the fall of 1987 tell the story of a 24-day strike that started with great passion. In Houston, the striking Oilers hurled eggs at a bus carrying the replacements and broke a window with a rock. In various cities, angry players stood in front of vehicles to prevent entry into stadiums.

The Associated Press wrote that Chiefs tight end Paul Coffman and linebacker Dino Hackett jokingly yelled, "We're looking for scabs!" as they waved unloaded shotguns outside of Arrowhead Stadium.

Doug Hoppock said that he never feared for his safety and that the gestures were more humorous than anything. He was on the receiving end of a few "We're No. 1 signs," only with a different finger. Most of the antics reminded him of the movie "North Dallas Forty." Still, he had mixed emotions. Hoppock was a K-Stater, just like Coffman, and had been to his house before. He didn't want to hurt Coffman or his family. But if somebody was going to cross, Hoppock figured it might as well be him. The offensive lineman played three years in the USFL, and he was 27 and recently laid off from a job at Yellow Freight when the Chiefs called.

He was no threat to the protestors. Yeah, he had kept in shape by playing pickup basketball every day. But Hoppock's body was worn-out and tired. The Chiefs would not have to pry the pads and football away from Hoppock. Not at that point in his life.

"It's not like you're a baseball player and you get to play old-time baseball," Hoppock said. "You can't play old-time football.

"But there was also the excitement of … 'Hey, I get to strap the pads on one more time. What do I have in my tank?' I don't care who it is, if you've played a sport, you still dream about it at night, thinking, 'Oh, I could go for a series or two,' or, 'I could hang with them.' That's always there."

Money was also a lure. Most replacement players pulled down roughly $4,000 a game after taxes. Because of the cash at stake, a few high-profile players refused to strike. Cowboys defensive lineman Randy White stood to lose more than $30,000 a week, so he kept playing. Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor, Tony Dorsett and Steve Largent also eventually crossed the picket lines.

Hoppock still reminds people today that the competition from the USFL helped those NFL players earn more money back then. And though the USFL satisfied his football itch, he's grateful that he had three games on an even bigger stage. The replacement Chiefs were the first opponents to play at the new Joe Robbie Stadium. Hoppock said they played the game in a tropical storm.

"Oh, it was cool," he said. "It was empty, but it was cool."

At least it was entertaining

There's a joke circulated among battered middle-aged men these days. The NFL is in a lockout. Grab your gear and get ready to play. Jim Crocicchia hears it a lot and still manages a chuckle. He did not have NFL aspirations when his college career ended in 1986. He was an Ivy League quarterback with a degree in economics and a map to Wall Street.

He certainly never dreamed that in 1987, mere months after the New York Giants won a Super Bowl, coach Bill Parcells' team would come calling.

The Giants had a glut of receivers that spring and didn't want to wear down the arm of Phil Simms. So an old coach recommended Crocicchia to the Giants, and he threw a few footballs and thought that was it.

[+] EnlargeStrike 1987
AP Photo/Dennis CookA Fairfax County police officer holds back Washington Redskins players R.C. Thielemann, glasses, left, and Darryl Grant, right, as a busload of newly recruited players arrives Sept. 23, 1987, at the Redskins Park practice facility in Chantilly, Va.

"They liked what they saw and wanted to bring me back for the preseason in August," Crocicchia said. "So, of course, where do I sign? I didn't call anybody or read anything or look at any numbers. I grew up a Giants fan in Connecticut, so it was a dream come true just walking into Giants Stadium with a Giants helmet on and getting a chance to meet Phil Simms."

He made it to the preseason and was one of the final cuts. A month later, he was called back during the strike. Some teams took the replacement games very seriously and plotted their fallback rosters in advance of the strike. The Giants wanted to be respectful of their players and weren't nearly as aggressive. Crocicchia estimated that, at the age of 23 and with just a few preseason games under his belt, he was one of the most experienced players on the replacement team.

"One reporter asked me after the first game, 'What was the game plan? How were you feeling?'" Crocicchia said. "Well, I looked around the huddle at my offensive linemen, and our strategy became to stay in the huddle for as long as we possibly could because they could not catch their breath.

"I mean, it was one of those things where they were just not in game shape. We had a number of mental mistakes that were going to happen."

Crocicchia's NFL debut came on Oct. 5, 1987, a "Monday Night Football" game against the San Francisco 49ers. He knew what the guys in the booth would say, how it wasn't pro football, how some of Crocicchia's teammates came from semipro teams that were the equivalent of beer-league softball. But when they ran out of the tunnel that night, it was for real, and the team was stoked.

The football was, at the very least, entertaining. Bill Walsh broke out the wishbone and shrugged at a smiling Parcells. Crocicchia uncorked an underthrown pass to Lewis Bennett, who made a circus catch in the end zone. The 46-yard touchdown is still considered one of the best catches in the history of "Monday Night Football." The New York Times wrote about a sign that hung in the stadium. "Stay on Strike. We Get Better Seats."

The touchdown ended up being Crocicchia's last. He hurt his elbow in the fourth quarter, giving way to Mike Busch. Busch reportedly was bagging groceries for $4 an hour before joining the Giants.

Crocicchia played some Arena League football after '87, but it wasn't nearly as fun and he retired. He's a managing partner in an investment consulting firm. His daughter, Olivia, is a 15-year-old actress on the TV series "Rescue Me." When Olivia was younger, her manager told her, "It's not 'show love,' it's 'show business.'" That's the way Crocicchia sees the NFL.

"I think it's going to be very difficult for the players' union to keep the players in line," Crocicchia said. "And you saw that the last time around. Once those paychecks stop coming in, and these guys have a lot of obligations that they need to get paid, they've got to go to work. It's just a difficult situation for them."

Months ago, the NFL said it will not use replacement players in this work stoppage. Crocicchia says that's fine. He's not suiting up this time.

"You know, I'm like that old line in that Toby Keith song," he said. "I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was."

Moving on

Robert Williams is an assistant coach at Jesuit Preparatory School in Dallas. He's hard to catch, a woman who answered the phone at the school said. Williams didn't return several messages. A number of former replacement players passed on talking for this story.

Here's what Brandt will say about Williams. That giving football one last try was a huge leap for him 24 years ago. That there were no guarantees, just some short-term pay and the possibility of playing few games to show what he could do. Williams asked whether the Cowboys could give him a ride from Waco.

He didn't want to leave his wife and kids without a car.

So, the cornerback from Baylor who couldn't land on an NFL team out of college said yes and wound up sticking with the Cowboys. He played seven years in the NFL. He won two Super Bowls. One day, he called Brandt to say thanks for the push.

"He ended up getting something Dick Butkus and a bunch of others wish they had," Brandt said, "and that's two Super Bowl rings. That's not pretty cool. I think that's extremely cool."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.

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