A new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary looks back on the the Redskins' replacement players and their untold stories during the Redskins' 1987 Super Bowl run. It airs at *8 p.m. ET Tuesday, Sept. 12 on ESPN.
If the only thing you remember about a Washington football team and replacement players is the 2000 cult classic The Replacements, starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman, it wouldn't be tough to blame you.
The movie glorifies the group of men tasked with breaking a player's strike for the Washington Sentinels, the fictitious team in an alternate professional football league, and follows their improbable run of success. What is lesser known is the movie's direct inspiration, the NFL's three-week player's strike during the Redskins' Super Bowl-winning season in 1987, which doesn't exactly give off the same Hollywood glow.
Enter The Year of the Scab, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April for the 30th anniversary of this relative footnote in history. Directed by John Dorsey, the film gives a voice to "the scabs," as they were unceremoniously called, who suited up in burgundy and gold while the professional members of the Redskins picketed with the rest of their peers.
Earlier that year, Gene Upshaw, the head of the NFL Players Association, demanded a better labor deal for the players, specifically on the issue of unrestricted free agency, which wasn't allowed, a topic NFL owners didn't want to negotiate. This remained a sticking point from the entire offseason through the first few games into the season until a strike officially formed. By late September, NFL owners and teams were scrambling to find replacement players, eager to keep the season in tact in order to maintain leverage.
What made the Redskins a worthy subject throughout this forgotten period in time – besides the fact that the team would eventually win the Super Bowl – was the way it managed those three weeks of league-wide chaos. Unlike other teams, which eventually saw several of their star players cross the picket line to collect their paychecks and play again, the Redskins fielded a team comprised of replacement players for the duration of the strike – and to the surprise of everyone, they won all three of their games.
"I realized there was this irony in valuing team cohesion as a methodology to survive the strike, and ultimately that philosophy paid dividends in the Super Bowl run," Dorsey told Redskins.com. "It was pretty clear that Washington was the only team to focus on during the strike."
Head coach Joe Gibbs remained at the helm during this period, working swiftly with general manager Bobby Beathard to comprise the best group of scrap players they could find before the third game of the season. Beathard, aware a strike was imminent, had already gotten started scouting players the team had previously cut and began a broader search in earnest.
Some were former college stars, others were unsigned rookies. They included quarterbacks Ed Rubbert and Tony Robinson, wide receiver Anthony Allen, running backs Lionel Vital and Wayne Wilson, tight ends Craig McEwen and Joe Caravello, punt returner Derrick Shepard, offensive linemen Darrick Brilz and Eric Coyle, and defensive linemen Dan Benish and Steve Martin, many of which lend their voices to the film.
They came to the old Redskins Park in buses, ready to occupy the same locker room and fields the pros had just exited and were met with some hostility. Darryl Grant was one who acted on his displeasure, breaking one of the bus windows, dressed in army fatigues, as the makeshift squad unloaded and attempted to fulfill their own dream of becoming professional football players.
"I never, personally, had a hard feeling towards them at all, because I understood what you were dealing with," Doug Williams said. "You were dealing with guys that would have loved playing football in the National Football League, and it gave them an opportunity to do that, but also it gave them an opportunity to earn some money… You're mad at the situation. I think our team was more pissed at the situation than individual guys that were out there playing."
This was only the beginning. Even as the replacements practiced and played, they faced the stigma associated with breaking a strike, an unpopular act, especially in a major city of working people. The film captures archival footage of fans protesting their entry into RFK Stadium on their first game against the Cardinals, one they would win and turn wide receiver Anthony Allen into a replacement star. The animosity was understandable. It also informs the way these replacements have lived the rest of their lives, burdened with guilt for fulfilling a lifelong ambition.
"They thought they had the golden ticket but it ended up being a scarlet letter," Dorsey said. "That kind of emotional whiplash left them emotionally tender when it came to the memories of their experience. The indignity of being cast aside and forgotten largely en route to a Super Bowl and not getting rings is something that many of them just wanted to forget. They never really had the forum to present their accomplishments in the proper context."
Dorsey had some initial challenges tracking a majority of them down for the documentary. Some refused to participate, now wanting to open old wounds, but the pitch to broadcast their experiences wasn't too challenging if only because it would share the accomplishments that helped pave the way for a championship.
"For the most part, they've gone on to live lives of quiet dignity, and aren't raising their hands to say 'Hey, I was a replacement player,' because they've been conditioned by life not to bring it up," Dorsey said. "You would think you would be able to celebrate it at least at like a cocktail party, and just say 'Hey, I had this really cool three weeks on the biggest stage in sports.' They're not even really able to bring that up without being taken down a peg, and without the experience of a lifetime being diminished. People say 'Oh, you were just a scab,' not knowing they were playing Tony Dorsett and they were blocking Randy White, first ballot Hall of Famers."
They were indeed. The film's climax hinges on the third and final game before the strike ended, when the Redskins faced the Cowboys in Dallas. At this point, many Cowboys had crossed the picket line – including Dorsett and quarterback Danny White – while the Redskins remained firm in their unity. This had understandably caused tension and divisiveness between Dallas players, and highlighted a dynasty in decline under general manager Tex Schramm.
Gibbs and the Redskins had played everything the opposite from their rival, and would be better for it.
"The worst thing to do is to break up the team," said Williams, who would lead the team at quarterback to the Super Bowl that year. "If the team is together, going on strike in support of what's going on, there's no sense of one, two or three guys saying forget this, I'm crossing the picket line. Then you cause a whole lot of disturbance in the team. I think the reason why we were able to do what we did was mainly because we stuck together as a team."
The Redskins eventually pulled the upset on Dallas – using two quarterbacks, including Tony Robinson, an ex-convict who now runs a house painting company – and put the team into first place as the regular professionals returned to the facility the next Monday.
In a matter of moments, the celebratory mood shifted to the grave realities that the replacement players would return to their regular lives, and ultimately lose out on sharing the glory of holding the Lombardi trophy.
"The decision was made not to elevate the scabs," Dorsey said. "They were second class citizens and never recognized as full contributors even though the games counted. I'm not exactly sure why that is."
A couple of the replacement players managed to latch onto the team. Allen made the playoff roster as did Dennis Woodberry, who played in the NFL previously but got another chance during the strike and was good enough in Gibbs' eyes to play cornerback.
The rest of them, however, returned to their daily locales, holding the memories close but rarely speaking about or celebrating them. External recognition shouldn't define you, Dorsey and the movie argue, something that remains a challenge for them to believe.
"I think when you look on it in history, those guys deserve a feather in their cap, or whatever you want to do, they deserve a celebrated opportunity, because they kept us in that position," Williams said. "It was kind of like, in a way, handing over the baton, and we kept the thing going forward."
"Year of the Scab" *airs at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, Sept. 12 on ESPN. *