On the Steelers: 25 years ago, NFL gave fans replacement players

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It's perhaps appropriate that the NFL uses replacement officials to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the replacement games it foisted on fans in 1987. Twenty-five years ago, games played on the matching weekend became the first casualty of a players strike. But there would be more before it ended, severely testing a term being thrown around often these days during the lockout of the officials -- the "integrity of the game."

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The players went on strike after playing two games, and the third games of the season were canceled. That's when the NFL machine went to work on its alternate plan.

Anticipating the strike, most teams quietly had been signing replacement players to continue to play games while their players struck.

You think replacement officials are a threat to the integrity of the game? Try replacement players. It was a preposterous idea that the NFL somehow, some way pulled off. Guys who never belonged in NFL training camps, never mind on rosters, were suddenly wearing the same uniforms that future Hall of Famers wore the game before.

The NFL should be ashamed of itself for the continued use of the sham, scab refs. However, the NFL doesn't shame easily. They used those scab or "replacement" players for three games 25 years ago. If you think the replacement refs are funny to watch, you should have seen those guys in '87.

Those three games counted in the standings, all the records went in the books and you can still find guys who never should have set foot onto an NFL field listed as Steelers alumni.

Two Hall of Famers -- Mike Webster and John Stallworth -- crossed the picket line and joined the replacements. Stallworth, in fact, caught what then was a Steeler-record 500th pass in a strike game.

The strike folded as more and more veterans gave in. The NFL was forever empowered by what it pulled off. But it was taught a lesson as well. It is why the league locked out the players last year instead of waiting for them to go on strike once the season began.

As for the replacement fans, they stayed away in droves from the strike games. The Steelers' first strike game came in Atlanta, where former Pitt and Penn Hills High School star Bill Fralic led a group of Falcons strikers picketing the stadium. They picketed the entrance to where the Steelers busses were supposed to enter, but the busses pulled an end-around and went through another area. The attendance that day in old Fulton County Stadium: 16,667. Not even a good baseball crowd in Atlanta. The crowd for their next game, in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Rams, was posted as 20,219.

They had one home game with the replacements, against the Indianapolis Colts -- the final replacement/scab game. They drew an announced crowd of 34,627 at Three Rivers Stadium. Unlike some other teams, the Steelers offered refunds to those ticket-holders who did not want to watch the un-real players. Enough took them up on their offer that the Steelers acknowledged the game was not sold out, breaking a string of sellouts that had begun in 1972.Like revisionist Russian history, however, the Steelers since have changed their mind and decided that game was a sellout and their string of sellouts since '72 stands.

If you saw the movie "The Replacements," 1987 was nothing like that. Not even close. It was like the farcical movie they made based on the 666 lottery fix. Both times, they ruined what could have been great pictures.

The real replacements story was so much better -- much of it funny -- although you won't convince then-Steelers player rep Tunch Ilkin there was much to laugh about. He has, however, chuckled at the thought of his striking brothers firing their morning donuts at the cars filled with scab players pulling in to Three Rivers Stadium to take their jobs.

A happier anniversary

Frenchy Fuqua and Franco Harris have a ritual they play out every Dec. 23, that had its roots in the Immaculate Reception 40 years ago.

Each Dec. 23, Fuqua and Harris talk by phone, and they scramble to be the first one to make the call to the other.

"Have every year for the last 40 years," Fuqua said. "The thing is who makes the phone call first. He beat me this year."

What possibly could they have to say to each other on Dec. 23 each year?

"What we say is, 'Happy Anniversary, Happy Anniversary.' "

The early, good bye

The off weekend -- incorrectly called a "bye" by the NFL -- comes nearly two months earlier for the Steelers than it did last season, when they were off Nov. 20. This is the earliest the NFL now begins its "byes." But that wasn't the case in some previous years.

In 2001, the Steelers were scheduled to be off after their second game, which was supposed to be the first regular-season game at Heinz Field. They opened at Jacksonville, then 9/11 occurred two days later. That canceled their home opener, and then they had the open date, so it's the only time in at least their modern history the Steelers have had two consecutive weeks off.

Usually, all teams would prefer to have their off week at midseason and not after three games.

"You hate that. You want it around week six or seven," linebacker Larry Foote said.

This open date comes at a good time "in hindsight," as Foote said. The Steelers can use the extra week to get James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Rashard Mendenhall healthy. It also means that tight end Weslye Saunders, suspended by the NFL for the first four games, will miss three games and not four. Stevenson Sylvester is another injured linebacker who can use the extra week off.

"We really got blessed this year with our bye week," linebacker Chris Carter said.



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