Spare Bears: Lessons of 1987 may discourage a repeat in NFL this fall
And one legendary team.
The great Chicago Bears of the mid-’80s never were the same after the 24-day player strike, which spawned replacement players, a deep divide between management and strikers, and lingering resentfulness.
“It was a huge factor in not getting to another Super Bowl,” former Bears defensive tackle Dan Hampton says. “The chemistry was never the same after that. Of all the teams in the league, it hurt us the most, and we were the strongest team.”
It’s slightly different this time because NFL owners, not players, have decided to stop the music. If an accord is not reached, it is not out of the question that games with replacement players could be staged, though league commissioner Roger Goodell has said the possibility has not been discussed.
The lessons of 1987 might discourage a replay.
‘Spare Bears’ time
What we know from what happened 24 years ago is the introduction of replacement players would have the effect of kerosene on the hot coals that separate the league and its players.
In 1987 those replacement players in Chicago were called Spare Bears, Near Bears, or simply, scabs.
They came from everywhere.
Eddie Phillips was working part-time for UPS and part-time as an assistant coach at Simeon High School when he was asked to play running back. Defensive end Sean McInerney had to put his career as a doorman on hold.
Mike Hohensee was tending bar at a hotel in Rockville, Md., one day. The next, his jersey was hanging in the locker that used to belong to Jim McMahon.
When he saw the message from his roommate that someone from the Bears had called, he initially thought it was a joke and dismissed it. He later realized it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
When he and the other Spare Bears arrived at the old Halas Hall in Lake Forest, they were told to get to know one another and their playbooks in a little more than one week.
Hohensee remembers staying up late into the night studying his playbook with his roommate and fellow quarterback Sean Payton, now the head coach of the Saints.
“Three or four days into it, we had no idea what we were doing,” Hohensee said. “Some of the coaches were into it. Some weren’t. Finally, we went to (offensive coordinator Greg) Landry, and he gave us some points, and it started to turn around.”
The Spare Bears arrived at their hotel in Philadelphia on Oct. 3 before their debut against the Eagles the next day. At 3 a.m., they received a surprise wake-up call. Team management decided to sneak the players into Veterans Stadium in the wee hours, before union protestors could cause a stink.
“That’s one city you don’t want to be in as a strike-breaker,” said Mark Rodenhauser, a center on the replacement team. “Some of the people were driving around with shotguns. We were thinking, ‘What did we get into?’ ”
In the locker room, not a single light bulb glowed. Secluded from the madness that surrounded the stadium, players slept on foam crates.
And somehow, they got ready to play. They beat the replacement Eagles, 35-3, in front of 4,074 brave souls.
Hohensee called an audible on a blitz and connected with receiver Glen Kozlowski on a 20-yard touchdown pass even though Kozlowski was a late addition to the team who had never been to a practice.
Kozlowski had been cut by the Bears before the season. When the Bears called, he was working in construction, trying to make a living for his pregnant wife and three kids. He had been conflicted about returning to the team under the circumstances, and he turned down their initial overtures.
Eagles coach Buddy Ryan, the former Bears defensive coordinator, didn’t seem to care much about what players like Kozlowski were going through. He coached the game with indifference after earlier in the week calling his team, “the worst bunch of guys together I’ve ever seen as football players.”
Bears coach Mike Ditka, meanwhile, ran off the field yelling, “Sock it to ’em, baby! You’ve got to love it!”
He gave a game ball to every player.
Low point for ‘Real Bears’
The real Bears did not picket, wave shotguns, throw eggs at replacement players or sit down in the path of buses as some of their brethren from other teams did.
While 89 players from other teams, including 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, crossed the picket line, the Bears remained unified.
Bears players decided to hold three practices a week at a local high school. When Ditka heard about 12 players failing to show up for one of the practices, he was not happy, using the words “egomaniacs” and “prima donnas.” At another point, he had called the replacement players the “real Bears.”
Before the first strike game at Soldier Field, the real Bears held a rally outside the stadium. Forty players signed autographs and tried to convince fans not to attend the game.
They didn’t do a very good job, as 32,113 fans watched the replacement Bears beat the Vikings, 27-7.
“That was the low point, having fans take our autographs and then go in and watch the scabs play,” former Bears safety Gary Fencik said. “That was a really tough day for us.”
Four days later, the strike was over, but the real Bears were told to take the rest of the week off. They also were told they would not be paid for that week. The players later filed a grievance and won their paychecks.
Upon returning to Halas Hall, the real Bears had to meet in the parking lot across the street because team management didn’t want the players from the two teams mingling. But when Hohensee, Payton and Mike Stoops tried to leave the facility, they found their car was parked in the middle of the real Bears’ meeting.
There were a few choice comments directed at the three, each of whom would go on to become an accomplished coach. And there was a word from Walter Payton. “Hey, Hohensee,” he said, making eye contact. “You did a good job.”
That Sunday, the real Bears stayed away from Soldier Field, and the replacement players, minus the injured Hohensee, lost to the Saints, 19-7.
The NFL was allowing teams to keep some of the replacement players as roster additions. Ditka said he would leave it up to the real Bears to determine if any of their replacements would stay. By a 44-1 vote, they were against the replacements staying.
So Ditka overruled them.
“I let them vote because I thought they’d be realistic about it,” Ditka said at the time.
The Bears kept five of the replacement players and put five others on injured reserve. Ditka threatened to cut any of the real Bears if they took cheap shots at the replacements during practice.
Things never the same
The real Bears went 7-3 the rest of the season, which was enough to win the NFC North. They were upset 21-17 by the Washington Redskins in the divisional round of the playoffs because they were unable to overcome Darrell Green’s 52-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Something was missing.
“The problem with the 1987 strike is to some of the players, what Ditka said and did as far as embracing the scab guys, was a deal-breaker,” Hampton said. “It was never the same after that.”
To this day, Ditka has no remorse over how he handled things.
“What was I supposed to do?” he said. “If I had my players there, I would have coached them. If I had somebody else’s players there, I would have coached them. I was loyal to the old players. But I also was loyal to the game of football and the Chicago Bears more than I was to the old players.”
When the regulars came back, the strike players were moved downstairs to the dingy rookie locker room, where they remained for a good portion of the season. One of the replacements, Rodenhauser, was pressed into duty in the regulars’ first game back in Tampa.
His perfect snap with 1:28 remaining set up Kevin Butler’s game-winning field goal.
“The snapper—I don’t know his name—but we shook hands today,” said safety Dave Duerson, who had been an outspoken critic of the replacement players.
Rodenhauser and several other replacements gained acceptance over time and proved they belonged.
“I still look back at it sometimes and say, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ ” said Rodenhauser, who went on to play 12 NFL seasons. “I don’t think I would have had a career if not for the strike. I was 26 years old, and I had never been in an NFL camp before that.”
Kozlowski played six years for the Bears, becoming an outstanding special teams player before embarking on broadcasting and coaching careers in the area. Replacement players John Wojciechowski and Lorenzo Lynch also had nice runs in the league after the strike.
Other replacement players, such as Hohensee, never played in the NFL again. But the experience stayed with them.
“It was just a blip in our lives, but it was an opportunity,” said Hohensee, who is in his 17th year as a head coach in the Arena League. “Maybe it gave me belief in myself again. And being able to observe Mike Ditka, with the way he could take over any meeting in that organization, that left an impression.
“I thought if I ever became a head coach, I wanted to have total understanding of every phase like he did.”
So the impact of the 1987 strike goes on.
The hope, from all involved, is that 24 years from now no one will be recalling the 2011 work stoppage.