With so much uncertainty surrounding sports these days, it can be difficult to keep track of what each league is doing.
The pandemic has overturned everything we know about sport seasons, player movement, playoffs, and awarding championships.
MLB should be in the middle of their fourth month of competition.
Instead, they are set to begin the 2020 season in a few weeks.
Sports figures from every major professional league have been apprehensive in joining their clubs or have opted out of the season all together.
Currently, the NFL plans to resume its fall schedule as normal, but even that might change.
It is very possible that the season goes on as planned, but without several key players.
A number of NFL stars such as the Texans JJ Watt, have expressed concerns about playing due to the coronavirus.
With the possibility of some NFL athletes skipping the 2020 season, we may see teams filling their rosters with temporary replacement players.
It’s not like this hasn’t happened before though.
During the 1987 players strike, team owners decided to punish the strikers by signing replacement players.
Many of these athletes were has-beens and never-will-be’s.
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) September 12, 2017
However, a few stuck around after the strike ended.
For three glorious weeks these replacement players realized a dream by playing in the NFL.
This is the story of how the Browns fared with their own fill-in athletes.
The Players Strike
As the 1987 NFL season got underway, there was tension bubbling beneath the surface.
The NFL players wanted to make significant changes to the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement.
NFL owners weren’t too keen on some of those ideas and openly decried the players’ wishes.
During an early season bargaining session between owners and the NFL Players Association, Dallas president Tex Schramm let his opinion be heard.
“You guys are cattle and we’re the ranchers,” Schramm supposedly told NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw. “And ranchers can always get more cattle.”
Upshaw was noticeably irked when he responded to Schramm’s comment.
“Tex Schramm made it very clear,” Upshaw told reporters at the time. “The owners are the stewards of the game and the players are only transients. That’s like saying they’re the ranchers and we’re the cattle, and they can always get more cattle.”
Among the changes the players wanted were: Complete free agency, better pension benefits, severance pay, and ridding stadiums of artificial turf.
The owners pushed back, especially when it came to talk of free agency.
Their position was that free agency would actually eliminate competitive balance in the league and make labor costs unaffordable.
Of course, the way owners spend money today, that notion seems laughable now.
The players union believed they had a strong position and threatened to strike if their demands weren’t met.
Meanwhile, they had no idea that the owners had a plan of their own, just in case.
Unbeknownst to the players, the owners had secretly put together a list of potential athletes to bring in as temporary players.
In their minds, they would be sending their own message to the players.
Basically, by Schramm’s standards, even professional football players can be replaced.
When the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement, the NFLPA officially went on strike after Week 2.
— GreyFlannelAuctions (@GF_Auctions) December 12, 2019
The owners then enacted their plan by first cancelling the games scheduled for Week 3.
That reduced the 1987 season from 16 to 15 games.
Next on their list?
Grab the Rolodex and begin dialing numbers to their replacement players.
Meet Tony Robinson. He led an upset as a QB for the Redskins during a game against the Cowboys (who still had most of their star players) in the midst of the 1987 NFL Players’ Strike
He was also in prison at the time. This was the only game he played in before returning to jail. pic.twitter.com/RnSztzQgtP
— Stark Raving Sports (@StarkRaveSports) April 9, 2020
Browns Replacement Players
Cleveland owner Art Modell and his crew got to work bringing in and signing their temporary players.
Each team in the league had to get their hustle on as their coaching staffs needed to get their newly assembled squad up-to-speed.
It would be imperative to sign the best possible players as the games during the strike would count toward their regular season record.
So, after the smoke cleared, and Modell’s staff relaxed their cramped dialing fingers, the Browns had their people in place.
Entering team headquarters to begin their accelerated tutoring, the coaching staff greeted a motley crew (not the band) of assorted misfits.
Into history stepped men with household names such as: Keith Bosley, George Swarn, Perry Kemp, Larry Mason, Major Everett, David Grayson, and Billy Robinson.
There was no time for pleasantries, however.
The replacement Browns had to get ready for the Patriots.
October 4, 1987, Cleveland at New England
With replacement players filling the rosters of every NFL team, fans, understandably, were less than thrilled.
The attendance at old Sullivan Stadium in Massachusetts was announced as 14,380.
However, watching old film of the game, whoever made the announcement must have also counted the concessionaires, ushers, birds, coaches, and players.
The fans that actually were present witnessed a sloppy first half.
Of course, it is safe to assume they expected it given the product on the field before them.
The Patriots fumbled on three of the plays during their first drive of the game.
The fumbles were made worse when the home crowd saw that the gaffes came from Tony Collins.
Collins was a New England regular who was the first Patriot to cross the picket line earlier in the week.
“I couldn’t run, everything was off,” Collins said after the game. “I was pretty disappointed with my performance.”
The Browns weren’t much better, losing three fumbles of their own during the first half.
At halftime, the Pats were blanking Cleveland 10-0.
Slowly, but surely, the Browns got on track and the players began to click.
Larry Mason, a running back who was one of the last Browns cut during training camp, began to tear off large chunks of yardage.
Also contributing to the effort was Cleveland kicker Brian Franco, who made field goals of 28 and 21 yards in the third quarter.
Franco was a stand-in who had played college ball at Penn State.
The Browns kept feeding Mason the ball and he found the end zone twice during the fourth quarter, both on plunges from a yard out.
By the end of the game, Cleveland had returned the favor and shut out the Pats in the second half to win 20-10.
The highlight of the game was Mason, who ended the day with 133 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
— Pats Historian (@PatsHistorian) October 4, 2017
Although they got off to a rough start, Browns head coach Marty Schottenheimer gave his replacements “praise” after the game.
“Overall there was a lot of enthusiasm and it was enough to overcome less than perfect execution,” Schottenheimer said.
October 11, 1987, Houston at Cleveland
As the players strike dragged on, the animosity of the regular players toward the replacements was palpable.
Even the fans lashed out against the replacement players, though some still continued to attend games.
Just before the matchup against the Oilers, witnesses state that some of the Browns regulars drove their cars in front of the ‘scabs’ team bus at three miles per hour.
Just to get into the heads of the replacements and delay their arrival time at the stadium.
At that point in time, Houston had not won a game in Cleveland since 1981.
However, the Oilers had done their recruiting well and signed some respectable players.
Houston’s head coach at the time, Jerry Glanville, loved to throw the ‘ol pigskin around and he was considered a bit of a maverick.
He enjoyed bringing in players that matched his personality.
The normally high flying Oilers met their match in Cleveland that Sunday, however.
Just like the previous week, the play was sloppy on the field.
However, the cause this time was the weather.
Playing in muddy conditions, Franco and the Browns struck first with a 26 yard field goal.
Then, Houston answered with a touchdown to put the score at 7-3 at the half.
After the Oilers mustered two field goals in the third quarter, Cleveland responded in the fourth.
Mason took a pass from a former Bengals draft pick, quarterback Jeff Christiansen, and scored from five yards out.
Later, the Houston defense tackled Christiansen in the end zone for a safety to end the scoring.
The result was a slightly respectable 15-10 Cleveland loss.
October 18, 1987, Cleveland at Cincinnati
The owners plan appeared to be working by the time Week 6 rolled around.
The players began caving and started crossing the picket lines.
After two career NFL games, Franco was sent packing as Browns kicker Jeff Jaeger returned.
Receiver Brian Brennan and backup quarterback Gary Danielson were also some of the notables to end their strike affiliation.
Although the game was in Cincinnati, there was a considerable Browns presence as old media reports tell of a large number of Cleveland faithful.
Apparently, this show of solidarity from Browns fans could be heard throughout the game as the sound of barking serenaded the team after big plays.
With Danielson and Brennan back to pace Cleveland, the game was a snoozer.
The pair hooked up for a six yard touchdown in the first quarter.
In the second, Danielson found tight end Derek Tennell for a three yard score.
After a Jaeger field goal, Danielson then found scab receiver Perry Kemp for a 22 yard touchdown.
Jaeger kicked another field goal in the third and Danielson found Kemp again in the fourth from 19 yards away.
The final score was 34-0 and the Browns were in good position as the strike ended with a 3-2 record.
Browns Keep Some of their Replacement Players
When the strike ended, Schottenheimer and Modell were pleased with the play of some of their replacements.
Cleveland kept about 15 of their scabs including Mason, Kemp, and Tennell.
One of the players that stuck around, nose tackle Mike Rusinek, was ecstatic to become a bona fide NFL player.
“I had hoped to get out of here with a Cleveland Browns sweatsuit,” said Rusinek. “Now, I’m getting a chance at keeping the uniform. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m grateful.”
Schottenheimer was candid in his assessment of the holdover replacements.
“These are players who might well be contributing players to our football team,” Schottenheimer said. “On that basis, they were selected. They’ll be able to work with us and practice, and might well reach the point of efficiency where they can help us win.”
Of course, Schottenheimer knew that there was a very real chance that the returning Browns players would not be too kind to the remaining scabs.
In anticipation of just such an encounter, he sent a message to his regulars through the media.
“I think our regulars know our philosophy. I think these (replacements) can help us reach our goal, which is to win,” Schottenheimer said. “The lines of communication are good. The players in this organization understand.”
The Aftermath of the Strike
Cleveland’s replacement players went 2-1 during the three week strike.
With the canceled Week Three games factored in, the Browns ended the ‘87 season with a 10-5 record.
They would go on to the playoffs and defeat the Colts 38-21 in the first round.
The following week, Cleveland running back Earnest Byner was stripped of the ball before running in for a game tying touchdown.
“The Fumble” ended the Browns’ season.
After the season, Mason was sent to Green Bay where he played one year with the Packers, rushing for 194 yards.
He would not play in the NFL after the 1988 season.
Kemp headed to Green Bay along with Mason in 1988.
He ended up playing four years with the Pack before hanging up his cleats after the 1991 season.
Tennell played two more years with Cleveland and then bounced around the league before finishing his career in Minnesota in 1993.
Rusinek, who was grateful for his opportunity, did not play in the NFL after the 1987 season.
Although the striking players eventually crossed the picket lines, some good came from their demands.
The players eventually decided to decertify their union so that they could sue the league on antitrust grounds.
This threat later led to what the NFL currently has in place, free agency, and a salary cap.
So, for three weeks during the 1987 NFL season, there was football with replacement players.
It was ugly, but it was football and the fans could still watch the games if they wanted to.
Are we headed in the same direction in 2020 with replacement players taking over for COVID-infected regulars?
We shall soon see.