The strike that drained the last bit of innocence from the NFL

You want to know a genuinely underrated moment in the litany of awful moments to be a Jets fan? This one: the evening of Monday, Sept. 21, 1987.

The Jets played the Patriots that night at the Meadowlands, and they were breathtaking. Ken O’Brien passed for 313 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown to Al Toon. Johnny Hector rushed for 75 yards and two scores. The defense had five sacks and a safety, and they clobbered the Pats, 43-24, and the score wasn’t that close.

They were 2-0, playing as well as they had played the year before when they had started 10-1 and won the franchise’s first non-strike-year playoff game in 18 years. They were alone in first place in the AFC East. It should have been as splendid a time as any to be a guy (or gal) wearing green.

Yet it wasn’t. It was three hours of misery. Because as the Jets’ lead kept growing — 6-3 to 20-3 to 29-10 to 43-24 — all that did was serve as a reminder that the moment the game ended — literally at the final gun, which would come a few minutes past midnight — the Players Association would launch a strike. And there was no telling what the football season would look like after that.

Giants fans were similarly despondent, but for different reasons. They had opened the season on one of the most anticipated episodes of “Monday Night Football” ever, a pairing with the Bears, a matchup between the 1985 and ’86 NFL champs that hadn’t occurred in the previous year’s playoffs because Washington had upset Chicago. Then, in Week 2, the Giants stumbled to a 16-14 loss to their old nemesis, the Cowboys. They had gone 14-2 the year before and were already 0-2.

And now the season was going away.

In some ways, it is impossible to explain to folks too young to have cared in 1987 just how devastating the ’87 football strike was. There have been other work stoppages that crushed the masses’ sporting soul. The ’94 baseball strike was long and ugly. The NHL once lost an entire season to a lockout. The NBA has had shortened seasons to accommodate protracted lockouts. All of them bring their own share of collateral damage.

None of them match what happened 30 years ago this month, though. For one thing, the solidarity that had marked prior strikes proved a sad joke in this one: fully 15 percent of the union membership would cross picket lines, including a number of high-profile Jets, including Lawrence Taylor, including Joe Montana.

That would have been dispiriting enough.

But the NFL’s owners, prepped for war, instituted something they called “replacement players,” something the rest of the world called “scab players,” and the images were awful: buses being attacked, players being egged and then, worst of all, the reality of scab football.

If Giants fans thought the real thing had started gross, they had no idea until they saw the Blue Scabs go 0-3 and look, quite possibly, like the worst assemblage of “pro” football players ever. Few NFL things ever have been sadder than watching LT play in Buffalo in the final scab game, which still was tied 0-0 midway through the fourth quarter and ended up Bills 6, Giants 3 in overtime. Taylor had two sacks and zero dignity for having taken the field that day.

Funny thing, too. This was just before fantasy football took off. There were a handful of leagues, but mostly they were gatherings of football nerds. This was long before the internet, which helped foster a fresh wave of NFL gambling. In ’87, it was all about the games, and when they disappeared, so did almost all of the sport’s innocence.

The strike lasted 24 days, and when it was over the players still didn’t have what they struck for: true free agency. That would take 10 years and 100 court battles, and the decertification of the union. The Giants never recovered from their 0-5 start, ended 6-9. The Jets never recovered from the fisticuffs that tore them apart when Mark Gastineau crossed (and other vets would soon follow). They finished 6-9, too, their hot start a distant memory. Week 16 featured a Jets-Giants game with zero meaning attached to it — the Giants won 20-7.

The announced crowd was 68,318. It sure seemed like less than that. Like 68,318 less.

 

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