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BSJ Oral History: 30 years ago this month, replacement football came to Foxborough

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FOXBOROUGH — Thirty years ago this month, the NFL was in chaos.

In the fall of 1987, the players, seeking unqualified free agency, had decided to go on strike after the second week of games, thinking the move would give them leverage with the networks. The owners would cower in the face of their massive TV contracts and return to the bargaining table. Right? But the owners called their bluff and decided to retaliate by bringing in replacement players, and the networks acquiesced to the idea of replacement football.

Across the league, the battle was on, as the NFL tried to come to grips with a bizarre stretch of football that would, in many ways, come to define the 1987 season. Every team had to find a way to survive through that stretch, one that pitted owners against players, and, in some cases, players against players. What follows is an oral history of the 24 days of replacement football in New England, and all the hoopla that came with it.

When the idea of replacement football was first broached, the Patriots, like everyone else, had to scramble to put together a roster. GM Pat Sullivan, coach Ray Berry and the rest of the New England braintrust ended up finding a handful of players who had either been with them the previous year or two in camp, scout-team types that were hungry for a shot at the big time. That group was soon augmented by a few veterans who decided to cross the picket line. Running back Chuck McSwain, whose brother Rod was already on the roster as a linebacker, was one of the guys who got the call as a replacement. A former fifth-round pick of the Cowboys out of Clemson, he was on the fence -- until he talked to his brother.

McSwain: “When they called, I asked my brother what I should do. ‘Well, at least someone will be working,’ he said with a laugh. That was the reason I went. I’m from North Carolina, and could have played in Atlanta. But when New England called, I thought it’d be cool to go up there and hang out with him. That was really the main reason. I knew my brother and (linebacker) Johnny Rembert, so I kind of knew some of the guys in the locker room. That was why I went to New England. But it was kind of funny — I was living with my brother, and I’d drive to the stadium and go to practice and play games and my brother would be outside picketing.”

Wide receiver Larry Linne, a former UDFA out of Texas-El Paso: “My father and Ray Berry played together in Baltimore, and so I feel like that had a little to do with getting me in the door. But I think I surprised them. I had a good punt return in preseason, and they ended up keeping me around until I was one of the last cuts. The next summer — the year of the strike — they called me again and said ‘Would you like another shot?’ I went through preseason again and played well, and had another good stretch. I got down to the last week, and there was some conversation that I could have been traded to Dallas. But I was one of the last cuts again. I went back home and my daughter was born. I ended up working out for the Cowboys, but wasn’t on the team. Then, the strike came up and the Cowboys asked, and Raymond also called me. He said, ‘Let me tell you the situation. We’re trying to get a team together and win during the strike. We want you to come back.’ He said, ‘We already know what’s going to happen — this will last about three weeks.’ He added that he was going to do all he could to keep me all season when the other players came back.”

Linebacker Rogers Alexander, a former fourth-round pick of the Jets: “The whole thing kind of came together on the fly. Three or four days after I showed up, I was in a defensive huddle. I look to my left and there’s Julius Adams. I look to my right, and it’s Ray Clayborn. Yes, I was a replacement guy, but that was cool. There were more than a few regular guys mixed in with us. Ray had just signed a big contract and had been one of the best defensive backs in the league the year before. But he said his wife was like, ‘You’re going to play. We’re not missing those game checks.’ Some guys like Julius, they were about to retire, and they were looking to put as much money away as possible for retirement.”

Regardless, it became clear the Patriots were in better shape than some other teams around the league. The Giants, who were defending Super Bowl champions, had struggled to assemble a team, and it was soon evident they were in trouble.

Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick: “We found out (that the strike was going to hit) around the middle of the week. By the time we coaches started contacting players (the personnel department had very few), any decent player was already signed. I signed three guys off a semi-pro team in Hartford after they finished practice in front of car headlights. Unfortunately, the three best players from that team were signed two days earlier by other NFL teams.”

After the Week Three games were canceled, the rest of the league picked things up again in Week Four. By this point, the Patriots had five regulars cross the picket line in that time, including running back Tony Collins and guard Ron Wooten. Even with two full weeks to prepare, the first week of replacement football was a little rough, and things were no different in Foxborough. As roughly 25 players picketed outside the stadium, the Patriots ended up on the losing end of a 20-10 decision at home against the Browns in front of a crowd that looked distinctly less than the 14,830 announced by the team. Collins, the first regular to announce that he would cross the picket line, fumbled three times before the end of the first half. (The Patriots recovered twice and the third fumble was negated by a penalty.) He ended with just 24 yards on 15 carries. As a team, the Patriots were 0-for-13 on third down. ‘”The game was frustrating,” Berry said. "I thought we would execute better. The players knew what to do but they just didn't get it done.”

Patriots season ticket holder and future team owner Robert Kraft: “As a fan, I remember still wanting to watch football, so I took my boys to that first game, I think it was against Cleveland. It was so strange to be in the stands that day, rooting for your favorite team, but not knowing the players for which you were cheering. The stands were empty. We lost the game. It was among the most depressing games I have attended in my 58 seasons going to games.”

But there were still some memorable moments in that one. Defensive lineman Murray Wichard, an undrafted free agent, was fired up to get on the field, and got his first sack against the Browns.

Wichard: “In that game against the Browns, Jeff Christiansen was the quarterback. I got into the game, and I was able to get a sack. After I got him down, I stood over him for a second. I wasn’t taunting — I never did that. I never got in a guy's face. But I stood over him for a few seconds … and he rared back and took his foot and BOOM! Right between the legs. That was probably the closest thing I had to a ‘Welcome to the NFL’ moment. I still can’t believe that.”

Their next game, a Week Five contest against the Bills at Sullivan Stadium. It was this game where the players started to realize how much the region had started to rally around them. In front of what was the smallest Sullivan Stadium crowd ever —11,878 rain-soaked fans — and while striking players again walked the picket line outside, the replacement guys felt the embrace of the New England fans.

Quarterback Bob Bleier, an undrafted free agent out of Richmond: “When we walked out for the first game against Buffalo — my hometown team — I looked up in the stands at the old Foxboro Stadium and there was a sign that said, ‘This is Bleier Country.’ Right there, it kind of punched me in the gut. I didn’t care I was there because of the strike. I didn’t care about any of that. That was awesome. I saw that the fans were so into it and I had a chance to play. I had made the NFL. I made it. I did something a lot of guys would have the chance to do.”

Running back Michael LeBlanc, who was released by Winnipeg of the CFL that offseason, was signed by the Patriots as a replacement, gained 146 yards on 35 carries. The win over Buffalo was the first for the replacement Patriots, and appeared to buy them some goodwill with local fans.

Alexander: “The fans were great — crazy, like New England fans usually are. I grew up an Air Force brat, and spent time in Springfield. I was a Red Sox fan as a kid, and it was nice to get back in that area. The fanbase was with us. Everyone was positive, and rooting us on in any game we won.”

The rest of the NFL raged around them — in Houston, the striking Oilers hurled eggs at a bus carrying the replacements and broke a window with a rock. In Kansas City, some veterans showed up with shotguns. In Washington, regulars belittled replacement players, in some cases, heckling them from outside the fence during practice. And in other cities, angry players stood in front of cars and buses to prevent entry into stadiums. But things were pretty quiet in Foxborough.

Linne: “My experience was that some of the players were angry that there were guys crossing, but the players never let it get really personal. The only guy on the team I felt it from was Craig James. He was mad and acted as if he hated the replacement guys and other guys who ended up crossing. At the start, Irving Fryar was mad at me because I wore his number and had some success. He was upset about it, but later, he told me he forgave and forgot what happened, and just let it go. We actually had some of those guys cheering for us because they knew we could keep them in the mix for the playoffs. There was a certain element of guys who were torn because they knew it was going to happen. I mean, a lot of the guys knew we just had a baby. When you put it in perspective, I’m doing whatever I can to feed my child, I felt a lot of those guys understood.”

Bleier: “I don’t want to give out any names, but I think the guys who were the third and fourth guys on the depth chart were the ones who were the most threatened by us and the other rookies. Those were the ones who had something to worry about. It was their positions and their jobs, their livelihood. I never really felt hostility from a lot of the established guys. The one guy who I felt a little something from was Tom Ramsey. Tom’s a great guy, but when I came in and then, they brought Flute in, he knew he was being pushed. Tom was nice to me until the strike, and then he wasn’t.”

Wichard: “There wasn’t that much craziness. I mean, we saw some stuff on TV, but for the most part, it was pretty quiet. One of the things that helped us was the fact that they almost always had an early bus from the hotel. They would bus us into the game a little early to take precautions so there wasn’t much craziness. I can remember getting to the stadium a lot earlier in the morning than I used to.”

Alexander: “The Patriots were one of the unique teams where being a replacement or a scab wasn’t as hard as it was in some other places. I had been with the Jets the year before, and knew some of the guys who were scabs on the Redskins, and their experiences compared to ours were night and day. We were treated so well. The Patriots, even back then, treated their players well, replacement or no. There were a bunch of examples, like when they brought lunch into the stadium for us because we were cramming when it came to trying to learn the defense.”

McSwain: “The only thing that was tough? Every time I went out to eat with my brother, I had to pick up the check. ‘Hey, you’re the one that’s working,’ he would say.”

The defense was clearly the strength of the replacement team. After having some serious issues in their first game against a Cleveland team that would eventually reach the AFC title game against the Broncos, the Patriots allowed just two touchdowns in their two other contests. They not only had a handful of established players crossing over at that point, but the defensive players there became adept at camouflaging some of their weaker aspects.

Alexander: “There were a couple of replacement guys who struggled with conditioning, to put it politely, and we played some defenses to cover things up. You could do that by subbing a lot and running stunts. But defensive coordinator Rod Rust did a great job when it came to covering up our weaknesses. I mean, you had to protect some of these guys. Guys were at home on the couch, or working full-time jobs, and two weeks later, they were in the NFL going through a two-hour practice. I mean, you’re not selling insurance or cars anymore.”

Others weren’t so fortunate, especially on defense. Belichick’s Giants gave up 85 points in the three games.

Belichick: “The ineptitude of the players was staggering. We had a very limited defensive system and if we didn’t have a good tackler at weak safety (Steve Rehage), we could have given up a TD on every play.”

For the Patriots, things came together nicely for them on both sides of the ball in their last game for a few reasons, not the least of which was the fact that they added Flutie to the roster. The former Boston College star had fallen out of favor in Chicago, but had still publicly taken a strong stand against players who crossed the picket line. But the opportunity to play for his hometown Patriots proved too great to pass up.

GM Patrick Sullivan: “His overriding concern was to come home. We knew he wanted to come back to Boston, and he felt this was his opportunity to prove he could play in the NFL."

Bob Woolf, Flutie’s agent: ''It was an extremely difficult decision for Doug and the only reason Doug made the decision, which is a radical one for him since he's sympathetic with the strike, was his desire to play for the Patriots. It's something that Doug always wanted. He would never have done it with any other club.''

Flutie had to learn the offense quickly — four days, to be specific.

Flutie: “That was a lot of fun. The challenge of learning a new offense in four days.''

Wichard: “Flutie was like a rock star. The day he came in from Chicago, I couldn’t get to my locker because there were so many reporters around. And you couldn’t touch him during practice. But he did the damndest thing — when he’d drop back and you’d be coming after him with your arms up, he was great at throwing it between your arms. Every time. Couldn’t bat a pass down on that guy.”

Bleier: “As a fellow quarterback, Doug and I spent a lot of time together. He was a really nice guy and a funny friend. I remember when we were playing the Oilers in Houston and our hotel was attached to a mall and he and I went down to one of those kiosks in the mall where you could play music and sing and record it. We just went in for (expletives) and giggles and recorded a couple of songs. One of them was Johnny B. Good. I can’t remember the second one.”

The players agreed to return to work after the second game, but because the players ended their strike on a Thursday, they were told by the owners they had missed the deadline for being eligible to play in Week Six by one day. That would mean one more week of replacement football. And so, with four days of practice under his belt, Flutie and the Patriots took off for Houston to face the Oilers. Of their three games, it would be the only road contest for the replacement players.

Wichard: “It was different times back then. We flew to Houston — I mean, I was a small college player out of Frostburg State, so that was probably my first time on a plane flying to a game. We took off from T.F. Green, and the plane was huge. We took off on Saturday morning, and we weren’t on the plane for more than a few minutes before the food starts flowing. I don’t think I stopped eating for three hours. It was coffee and muffins and eggs and everything else. It was unreal. Then, we saw Pat Sullivan and Billy Sullivan walk out of first class and to our area of seats. They both walked up to me and told me I was having a great year. They said, ‘Murray, you’re doing an excellent job.’ I couldn’t believe it — not only the GM, but the owner came up to me and said that. That was tremendous.”

In the win over the Oilers, Linne was the offensive star with four catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. He also caught Flutie’s first pass with the Patriots.

Linne: “That was a big one.”

Alexander: “My personal favorite moment came in that game. I got a stop to keep them from a first down late in the game. They were trying to pick on me, and I ended up stopping them. That was a great feeling.”

Flutie finished with 242 total yards of offense (199 passing, 43 rushing). He was the unquestioned star of the show, both during and after the game.

Kraft: “We ended up winning the next two games, including one that local legend Doug Flutie started, so that was fun to see.”

Wichard: “I had all sorts of family and friends down in Houston for that game, and I came out afterward and I was signing autographs for about 20 or 30 people. My Mom is there giggling like she can’t believe it. I’m having a great time. All of a sudden, everyone disappears. A kid rips the pen out of my hand. Flutie is there, and they all forget about me.”

With the end of replacement football was in sight. Flutie was still clearly unsure if he did the right thing by crossing the picket line. “What I'm doing is something I still think is not right. But it's a move I feel I had to make,” he said. “Three years down the road, if I'm still with the New England Patriots, it'll be the best decision I've ever made.” Some of his teammates shared the same sentiment.

McSwain: “Now that I look back, I realize they were striking for a reason. They had a right to strike. It was about being treated fairly and having your rights as an employee. At that time, I really wasn’t thinking about that. Looking back on it, I don’t know if I would do it all over again. The best thing? It was about being around my brother.”

Following that game against the Oilers, for the Patriots, the 24-day strike was history, and replacement football was done. The Patriots had won two of three games, and the fill-ins had done their part to keep the franchise in the mix when it came to a playoff spot. (Ultimately, the 1987 team would finish 8-7, a game out of first place in the AFC East.)

Kraft:Overall, we were 2-1 during the strike, but the wins didn’t feel like wins and the loss didn’t feel like a loss. It just didn’t feel the same. Now, as an owner, I have a much greater appreciation for all the work that it must have taken for the coaches and football staff to field a team for those three games on such short notice.”

A handful of the replacement players used it as a way to gain a foothold in the league, and several of them ended up sticking around Foxborough in some form or fashion. But for many of the others, it was the last chance to put the pads on. Thirty years later, they look back on their experience with great fondness.

Wichard: “It wasn’t as crazy as the movie ‘The Replacements.’ But we still had a lot of fun.”

McSwain: “The Patriots treated us very nicely. I had no problems with the way we were treated. We were treated like real NFL players. But really, we were impostors.”

Thirty years later, the replacement Patriots remain a footnote in franchise history. But many of them remain fans of the franchise and would love an opportunity to come back and thank the ownership and fans for their support through that memorable stretch.

Linne: “I always felt like a member of the Patriots family. I know I was able to get an opportunity because of the strike, but I’ve always had a sense of ownership when someone talks about the team. Even out here in Colorado, all my kids wear Patriots’ gear. I have five daughters, and they’re all Patriots fans. My family and I, we’re Pats loyalists. I’m over any kind of bitterness I ever thought of having.”

Alexander: “You know what would be nice? If they could bring us back for the 30th anniversary, just so we could show people and fans how much they meant to us, that gratification for the way they treated us. I was spoiled coming from Penn State, playing for those fans, and it was just like that here. The fans were always on your side. And coming back would be a nice way to say thanks for the support.”