The Last Work Stoppage

The Packers have yet to come together during the NFL lockout to hold informal practices. That wasn't the case in 1987 when the owners and players were feuding over labor issues. Matt Tevsh takes a look back at the scene in Green Bay during the league's last work stoppage.

As part of his legend in Packerland, Don Majkowski has the distinction of being one of only two quarterbacks since the merger to play in a tie game in his first start. The year was 1987, and after a winless preseason and a 20-0 drubbing in the season opener at Lambeau Field, the Packers found new life even without a victory.

Finishing 17-17 at Milwaukee County Stadium that Sept. 20 day, the Packers had hung toe-to-toe with the defending AFC champion Denver Broncos. Well, sort of. The final statistics told a lopsided story:

First downs: Broncos 29, Packers 14.

Total yards: Broncos 478, Packers 234.

Turnovers: Broncos 6, Packers 1.

Individually, Majkowski was dwarfed in passing yardage by John Elway, 285-121. As strange as his starting debut turned out, however, the Packers' season, and the NFL's for that matter, was about to get even stranger.

"Like a scene from a movie"

The NFLPA's executive director, Gene Upshaw, made the announcement at halftime of the Week 2 "Monday Night Football" game between the Jets and Patriots. What had been talked about for weeks was now reality — the players were going on strike.

Free agency was the big topic on the table for the union among other issues. Players wanted to be able to freely choose where they could play after having served four years in the league. But it was a complex issue that could not be decided in a matter of weeks. In fact, it took six years before the players got what they really wanted.

The owners wanted none of it. Instead, they were determined to let the games play on, one way or the other. Unlike the NFL's first strike five years earlier, in which no games were played, they would use replacements players if they had to. And that is exactly what they did.

The Week 3 games were the only ones on the schedule cancelled outright, giving teams time to line up replacement rosters. That led to some of the most bizarre weeks in the history of the NFL, including in Green Bay.

As replacement players filtered in and began practicing at the Oneida Street practice field across from Lambeau, the union players stood by and picketed. And they let their voices be heard. Verbal insult after verbal insult made a mockery out of the first day of practice for the replacement players.

"It seemed like a scene from a movie," Majkowski recalled.

It hardly mattered that some of the replacement players had once been in training camp with the union players. The union players did not approve of "scabs" taking their jobs.

There were even reported incidents of eggs being thrown at cars and bottle rockets interrupting practice. Packers coach Forrest Gregg, once a proud NFL player himself, understood the frustration of the union players. But at the same time he knew he had a new team to coach, and for the remainder of the strike, he closed practice, holding it either inside the stadium or in the team's indoor facility. As to avoid any other trouble, the replacement players were transported to practice in a bus with tinted windows, traveling a discreet route to avoid the picketers.

With no games to prepare for, the union Packers spent much of their free time at St. Norbert College (the training camp home of the Packers) in nearby De Pere. Like some other teams around the league in 1987, they were not about to used the off-time as vacation. Instead, the majority of the team stayed in town and used the college's athletic facilities to stay in shape and hold informal practices.

The union players first met in the weight room on campus the Tuesday following Upshaw's announcement to set a course of action. For rookies like Majkowski, it was reassuring.

"I really didn't even understand a lot of the labor agreements and all that stuff," he said. "We were just following all the veterans' recommendations. We were just kind of the new kids on the block. Just really clueless."

The time away from the games, however, brought the Packers together even more. While center Mark Cannon emerged as a strong leader off the field as the union representative, others, like Majkowski, gained a new respect during the team's informal practices that were held five mornings a week at the school's outdoor sports complex.

"I was helping organize practice," said Majkowski. "I had a script of plays to run, pass plays and stuff, and plays to go through from the coaches. We were practicing the best we could just by ourselves.

"For me, to organize practices as a rookie quarterback, I was running the offense and everything, I was taking on a leadership role. And I think I got to know a lot of the players fairly well through that time."

Majkowski, just days removed from his first NFL start, was right there with veterans John Anderson, Ezra Johnson, Jesse Clark and Ron Hallstrom as one of the "coaches" in this new environment. They ran seven-on-seven drills. They ran wind sprints. There were no helmets. There was no blocking or tackling. There were no trainers, ball boys or "real" coaches. Only a few St. Norbert staffers lent a hand by providing refreshments for the players.

Away from practice and the picket line, the Packers used pickup basketball games to feed their competitive outlet. And to keep the fans on their side, they held a kids football clinic and autograph session at a local high school. There was no admission charge.

Though the numbers of players attending the informal practices dwindled a little near the end of the 24-day strike, only one player on the active roster, Keith Uecker, crossed the picket line. Otherwise, the Packers represented solidarity like few other teams in the league — a notion not lost on one man who would someday become the most powerful person in the organization.

The "president" makes a visit

Long before Mark Murphy ever had any direct ties to the Packers or any conceivable thought of becoming the franchise's top man, he was having an impact in Green Bay.

In a small classroom at Schuldes Sports Center at St. Norbert, the 32-year-old Murphy paid a visit to the striking Packers as the assistant executive director for the NFLPA (a role he served from 1985-88). His mission on this day, during the second week of the strike, was to update the players with the latest information.

The meeting, which lasted two hours and was attended by the majority of the team, was a beneficial one. By all accounts, it appeared to strengthen unity. It cleared up any questions, especially among the younger players. And it reinforced the idea that the players were doing the right thing.

In a Green Bay Press-Gazette article, Murphy praised the Packers. Here are some of his published comments on the strike:

— On staying united: "If the players stay solid, the owners will come forward and bargain. The owners thought the threat of scab games would cause the players to fall apart. It hasn't happened and I don't see it happening."

— On the owner's decision to play scab games only strengthening togetherness: "They (owners) forgot the players are probably the most competitive group of people in the country. What they've done is make it clear who the enemies are. You put somebody up against a wall and you're going to fight. … The owners are basically saying, ‘The players aren't the game, the uniforms are.' It's an insult to the fans and an insult to the players. I just don't see how they can pull off quality games."

The Packers cancelled their informal morning practice that day just for Murphy's visit. Murphy had similar visits to other NFL teams as well. Just more than 20 years later, he would be named the Packers' president and CEO, succeeding Bob Harlan.

Replacement team leaves an impression

Just like the Sept. 20 Packers-Broncos game before the work stoppage, the union chose to end the strike without a winner, resuming the "real" games on Oct. 25 — Week 7 of the season. The replacement Packers went 2-1 and won their final game, 16-10, in overtime over the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau.

Packers fans, who had mixed feelings about the strike throughout, actually gained some affection for the replacement team. The postgame setting following the Oct. 18 win over the Eagles was a jubilant one. Fans shouted chants of "B Team! B Team! B Team!" referring to one of the interchangeable nicknames that the replacement Packers had been called. Signs thanked the B Team for two wins, and some players responded in kind by circling the stadium's bowl at field level to deliver some high fives.

Other fans, however, chose to stay away or turn in their tickets. While attendance for the replacement games at Lambeau was higher than most stadiums around the league, it was odd to see the historic stadium nearly half-empty on a game day. The home crowds of 35,779 and 35,842 were the smallest (besides the 1985 Snow Bowl game) since the stadium's capacity was just 32,500 in the late 1950s.

The "real" Packers would return the next day. But in the end, the "scabs" left a scar of sorts, including on the man that led them.

"I'll always remember these guys," said Gregg.


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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