On the Steelers: Tales of 1987 strike
Mike Webster helps replacement player Ben Lawrence stretch before a workout in the 1987 strike camp in Johnstown.
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Two games into the 1987 season, the NFL Players Association called a strike and Art Rooney Sr. called me into his office.
A press conference was being held down the hall, but the Chief waylaid me as I rushed toward the press room to grab a pen, paper and tape recorder.
"I want to talk to you," he said.
I tried to tell him I had to go to the press conference to learn what the Steelers' plans were during the strike.
"This is more important," he said sternly.
So I entered his office with none of my reporting tools. He gave me a pen and some pages from his personal stationary -- gold paper -- and told me to take notes.
Art Rooney went on to tell me that the strike would ruin football and explained why. I still have the notes on his stationary, but of course it did not ruin football. The strike eventually prompted a collective bargaining agreement that helped foster labor peace until, maybe, now.
Still, it was one big story the next day in the Post-Gazette, the first of many during the last NFL labor strife, which really did not last long. One game was canceled and then three more were played with "replacement" players. It remains perhaps the most unique season in NFL history because of it. Guys off the street playing next to Hall of Famers like Mike Webster.
The strike of 1987 even produced a bad movie -- "The Replacements," which could not hold a candle to what actually went on around the NFL during that one month.
The collective bargaining agreement had run out and there was little progress made toward a new one. The players' main goal during that time was to get some sort of free agency, and ownership stiffened on that topic. So, the players walked out. It ultimately led to a new CBA, free agency and the salary cap with a not-so-gentle push from a federal judge overseeing the case.
Tunch Ilkin was the Steelers' union rep at the time, and it was my third season covering the team for the Post-Gazette.
Unlike some teams that had their heads stuck in the sand, the Steelers had prepared for the possibility of a strike and the NFL's determination to continue playing games with what NFLPA called scabs.
The Steelers held a replacement training camp in Johnstown, far enough from Pittsburgh that their striking players never came around to cause trouble -- except for one Saturday in which they drove up in a convoy and almost laughingly walked a picket line.
Dan Rooney helped diffuse the situation by secretly giving Ilkin a key to the grass practice field outside Three Rivers Stadium and telling him to "keep the team together." The real Steelers practiced there throughout the five-week strike.
The Steelers stayed at the Holiday Inn in Johnstown for their two-week strike camp. The writers stayed there, too. The team's personnel people did a good job of lining up available players to play, and while many were not of NFL caliber, some were and remained on the team after the strike ended.
They did not allow the media into practices for the first three days nor let us know which players they had signed. So, the writers decided to use our collective resources to come up with as many names as possible and put together our own roster. We fanned out and compiled a Steelers replacement roster. Every time we bumped into what looked like a football player at the Holiday Inn, we'd ask where he was from, what position he played and how big he was. I once slipped into an elevator with a guy who looked to me like he was the quarterback and on the ride up got all the info on Steve Bono I needed.
We wound up publishing a pretty complete roster, to the Steelers' surprise.
With word that practices would be closed for the first three days to us, the ingenuity flowed again. They held practices at the old baseball/football field in Johnstown's Point Stadium. Johnstown's Incline ran up the hill near the stadium, and a few writers took that to the top with binoculars to try to watch practice, including one from the old Pittsburgh Press. That newspaper also hired a helicopter to fly overhead to take photos.
A few of us took a different approach. Bob Labriola, then of the Greensburg Tribune-Review and now with the Steelers, and I scouted spots outside the stadium on the first day of closed practice. We noticed a handful of people on a third-floor porch across the street from the stadium watching practice. They invited us up.
There, we had a clear view of everything the Steelers were doing because the only barrier was a wall about 12 to 15 feet high. We were 30 feet above and right across the street with our binoculars. A Post-Gazette photographer joined us and the next day the newspaper had great photos and a good report of what was going on behind the almost-closed doors at the Steelers' replacement practices.
We watched practices from that vantage point until the Steelers finally opened them up to us. At one point as we watched practice through binoculars, Chuck Noll looked up and saw us and gave us a little wave of the hand.
As you might imagine, that band of replacement players was a pretty diverse bunch. The first day of open practice, we followed the players as they walked several blocks from the Holiday Inn to Point Stadium. One of them be-bopped along the way to the music on his Walkman. Problem is, he never took the thing off once they got onto the field.
This was a walk-through practice and the players were mostly in street clothes. As Noll spoke to his team on the field, the player still listened to his Walkman and not to Noll. I was chatting with the replacement kicker, David Trout, and mentioned it to him. Trout excused himself, walked over to the player and said a few words. The player sheepishly put the Walkman away.
One player the Steelers signed had been the fullback in high school in Passaic, N.J., for Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, the former Pitt player and 11-year NFL back who died of a brain tumor in 2006. His son, Cameron, will follow him into the league in next month's draft as the fine defensive end at Ohio State.
Heyward's fullback -- can't recall his name -- regaled us with stories about Ironhead and how they could not find a helmet big enough for him back in midget football. He said at one point they put a helmet on top of his head.
This was the kind of eclectic collection of players the Steelers strung together and somehow came up with a team to compete in three NFL replacement games. Several of their real players crossed the picket line to play -- led by Webster, who reported to Johnstown along with halfback Earnest Jackson before the first strike game. Later, John Stallworth and Donnie Shell joined them. So, two Hall of Famers, Webster and Stallworth, played in those games. Stallworth even caught his 500th NFL pass in a replacement game. He finished with 41 catches that season, his last, and finished his career with 537 -- the Steelers record until Hines Ward came along and obliterated it.
No one knows where the current labor strife will take everyone, but it won't take the Steelers to Johnstown and it won't produce any fun stories the way it did 24 years ago.
First Published March 13, 2011 12:00 am