Former Saints coaches, management, players recall NFL strike 25 years ago
by SHELDON MICKLES
October 23, 2012
We took it serious, let’s put it that way. I don’t think all the teams took it seriously.” JIM MORA, former Saints coach
Before there were replacement officials, there were replacement players.
Not a lot of younger NFL fans know about it, but Monday marks the 25th anniversary of the end of a 24-day strike that resulted in league teams using replacement players for three games early in the 1987 season.
When NFL players put down their pads and abandoned the locker rooms on Sept. 22 to start walking picket lines in an attempt to gain free agency, the league’s owners struck back.
In order to avoid a work stoppage like the players’ 57-day strike five years earlier, they quickly cobbled together teams made up of high school coaches, car salesmen, strip-club bouncers and even bricklayers — basically anyone with a football résumé willing to cross the picket lines.
While the players quickly became known as scabs and were ridiculed by the NFL Players Association’s rank-and-file, members of the New Orleans Saints front office referred to them as “non-union personnel.”
A tall task
It was the job of Bill Kuharich, then the Saints director of player personnel, to put together a team that no one could possibly know if it would play one game or the remainder of the season.
Two days before the strike was called at the end of Week 2 games, General Manager Jim Finks told Kuharich to not travel with the team for its game at Philadelphia in order to start preparing for a strike.
“It was the only game I missed while I was with the Saints,” Kuharich, who was the club from 1986-99 and later served as its general manager, said last week. “But Jim told me to stay back because the strike was going to happen.”
It turned out to be an important and time-consuming task before the advent of the Internet or cell phones, which resulted in Kuharich pulling scout Tom Marino off the road for some much-needed help.
Together, they contacted about 150 players and signed 60 for Jim Mora and his coaching staff to start molding.
“First, we worked from a list of players we had cut in training camp,” Kuharich recalled. “Then, we called some guys that were on our ‘ready list,’ players we call when there is an injury. We also called some veterans, but we really focused on first-year players.”
A bonus, Kuharich said, was a group of players he and Mora knew from the USFL having worked together with the Philadelphia-Baltimore Stars in that league for three years before it folded in 1985.
“The league was dormant for only about three years, so we got quite a few players that had played for him,” Kuharich said.
“The familiarity of those players, because he and his coaching staff had worked with them, helped with the transition as we put this thing together.”
There was still a lot of work to be done, however, just to get the players in town and on the practice field — which they did just two days after the strike was called.
“Basically, it was a whirlwind, but every team was doing the same thing trying to put together a team,” Kuharich noted. “There were a lot of long hours, late nights and lots of calls to agents and players.”
Sixteen of the players had been to training camp with the Saints in 1986 or ’87, but others arrived sight unseen and were put up in a Kenner hotel the night before physicals and their first practice.
“I’m not going to say we had an advantage over other teams, but we were able to move a little quicker than some other teams,” Kuharich said.
One reason, he pointed out, was because Mora and his staff, unlike some established NFL coaches, fully embraced the idea of putting together a team and working with them as they would their regular players.
“They were young coaches, and they were teachers and they enjoyed coaching these guys,” Kuharich said. “They just coached them and did a good job. They were willing to coach where a lot of other teams said, ‘We’re not doing this.’
“Our (coaches) treated it like they were getting ready to play a game. They said, ‘These are the guys we have to work with and we’re going to do the best we can under the circumstances.’ The players saw it as an opportunity, and they all worked hard and were energetic about it.”
That, Mora said, was one of the keys to the Saints’ 2-1 record during the strike.
The Saints crushed the Los Angeles Rams 37-10 in their first game before 29,745 fans in the Superdome, then took to the road — falling 24-19 to the St. Louis Cardinals and defeating the Chicago Bears 19-17.
While the Saints had 10 veterans who crossed the picket line available for that first game, they had as many as 14 players return before the strike officially ended on Oct. 15.
Even though they had some veterans available, as many teams did, the Saints still had to get the group to play as a cohesive unit — which didn’t happen all across the league.
For example, the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants lost all three games during the strike and failed to make the playoffs to end their hopes of defending their title.
“We took it serious, let’s put it that way,” Mora said before the Saints’ game with the San Diego Chargers last Sunday. “I don’t think all the teams took it seriously, you know, about going out and getting players. But we did, and it helped us.
“We took it serious, we worked them hard and the coaches took a serious approach to it. … We coached them up, and it paid off.”
There were some light moments along the way, however, as Kuharich and Marino pointed out.
Marino was the point man for getting the replacement players together at the hotel, and had a chartered bus ready to take them for their physicals.
He said former Tulane safety Treg Songy, a native New Orleanian who was a 12th-round draft pick of the Saints in 1985, agreed to play with the team but wasn’t there when the bus was scheduled to leave.
“The funny thing was, I didn’t call Treg; I wasn’t aware of him because he was drafted before we got here,” Marino said.
“Anyway, he said he really wanted this opportunity to prove the coaches then had made a mistake.”
However, Marino said Songy was the only player not accounted for when he suddenly saw a guy who looked like a defensive back running toward the bus carrying two big bags holding his belongings.
Assuming it was Songy, Marino had the driver open the door and said, “Treg, where have you been?”
To which, a laughing Marino said, the player replied, “I’m not Treg, I’m Darryl (Songy’s brother). Treg signed with the (New York) Jets yesterday.”
Fourcade spurns Raiders
While the Saints had Treg Songy poached from them, they got one back when Gretna native John Fourcade agreed to be their quarterback while waiting at the airport to fly to Los Angeles to sign with the Raiders.
“I got calls from the Raiders, Redskins, Saints and a couple of other teams,” recalled Fourcade, who dropped off his younger brother Keith, a linebacker, at the Saints’ practice facility on the way to the airport. “But I was going to sign with the Raiders until Mr. Finks tracked me down at the airport.”
Fourcade went to training camp with the Saints in 1986, but didn’t get much of a chance and wasn’t thrilled about playing for them until Finks called.
“Mr. Finks said, ‘If you come with us, we’ll give you an opportunity to play,’ ” Fourcade said, “and it worked out well.”
Fourcade threw an 82-yard touchdown to tight end Mike Waters, which at the time was the longest scoring pass in franchise history, in leading the Saints over the Rams, and started the other two games as well before the strike ended a few weeks later.
Running back Dwight Beverly, who played for Kuharich’s brother, Lary, in the Canadian Football League, was another star along with a defense that allowed 207, 143 and 133 yards in the three games.
Beverly rushed for 139 yards on 35 carries in the loss to St. Louis just weeks after giving up his job as a bouncer at a Calgary strip club.
He got a chance only because Covington native Vincent Alexander, who was the leading rusher in the first game, left to visit his pregnant fiancée on the West Coast and never returned.
“Our coaches really liked (Alexander) even though he wasn’t as good as the veterans we had,” Marino said. “When he didn’t return, Jim Finks found Vincent’s brother and gave him a plane ticket to go and bring him back because we needed him.
“He never came back, either.”
Beating Ditka, Payton
In their last game, a victory over Mike Ditka’s “Spare Bears” in Soldier Field, the Saints faced a young replacement quarterback named Sean Payton. He was 3-of-11 for 28 yards in a backup role and served up an interception on what would be the final attempt of his short-lived NFL playing career.
“It was 31/2 weeks,” said Payton, who recalled that game against the Saints after becoming their coach in 2006. “We were all young … out of college and looking to make our impression on the football world.”
After the strike ended, Fourcade and a handful of replacements remained with the team and he played sparingly from 1988-90 before being released.
But he still cherishes the opportunity and the fact that the replacements helped the Saints chalk up the franchise’s first winning season at 12-3 and reach the playoffs for the first time.
“It was fun,” Fourcade said, “a lot of fun.”
“We just rolled with the punches,” he said. “A lot of guys got their 15 minutes (of fame). It was a great experience, and I know I’ll never forget it.”