While there is still debate over the chicken and the egg, Derek Bunch has no question on what came first – the eggs or the diamonds.
Bunch – once an all-city football and basketball player at Meadowdale High School and then a linebacker of note at Michigan State – remembers those early October days in 1987 when he and his Washington Redskins teammates were being driven into the team’s practice facility before the upcoming game with the St. Louis Cardinals.
As they passed striking NFL players, fans and union members from other jobs, the replacement players were pelted with eggs and spit and profanity.
Darryl Grant, the Redskins veteran, 275-pound defensive tackle who wore camouflage pants and anger on his sleeve – charged the bus and pounded a window so hard he shattered the glass.
Now, 30 NFL seasons later – on Tuesday at the team’s headquarters in Auburn, Va. outside D.C. – Bunch and the others on that bus finally will be awarded those bulky, diamond-encrusted Super Bowl rings the Redskins went on the win in that ‘87 season after routing the Denver Broncos, 42-10, in Super Bowl XXII.
While the effort of the fill-in players – who surprisingly won all three games they played for Washington — was featured in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary last year entitled ”Year of the Scab” and was the inspiration for the 2000 movie “The Replacements” starring Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves, they were denied Super Bowl rings until now.
And today one of their biggest supporters is Grant.
“If they get rings,” he told the Washington Post, “I’m very happy for them.”
Dexter Manley, the celebrated defensive end who is a member of the Redskins’ select Ring of Fame, offered even more glowing support to the Post:
“I have to say, they were Redskins. They wore the burgundy and gold, they wore the uniform, and I think they should be able to have their day in the sun.”
Their shining moment, though, only comes because dark clouds of labor strife rolled over the NFL in the fall of 1987. In mid-September the league’s unionized players walked out when team owners refused to give them unrestricted free agency.
Five years earlier there had been a work stoppage as well, and it was costly for the owners. The 57-day strike caused the cancellation of seven weeks of games and a loss of over $325 million.
This time the owners had a plan to ensure the weekly games – and the revenue that comes with them – would not stop.
They would field teams of replacement players.
Some NFL teams – like the Dallas Cowboys under the direction of president and general manager Tex Schramm – played hardball with the players. Stars were told they’d lose their annuities if they missed one game.
Telling reporters that meant a $6 million loss for him, Tony Dorsett, like 20 other Cowboys, crossed the picket line and played for Dallas.
Other teams—including the Buddy Ryan-coached Philadelphia Eagles – simply went through the motions when it came to fielding a replacement roster.
The Redskins though had a well-planned approach that eventually paid the ultimate dividend – an NFL crown.
Knowing strike games would count like any other on the schedule, Coach Joe Gibbs, general manager Bobby Beathard and his assistant Charley Casserly had scoured the waiver wires for a month looking for talented players cut from other NFL camps.
That’s how they got Bunch, who had made it to the final cut of the Minnesota Vikings. The year before he led the San Francisco 49ers in preseason tackles before being cut just before the opener.
With an eye on the future, Gibbs also refused to let any protesting players leave the picket line and rejoin the team. He knew if some broke ranks and others did not it would polarize the locker room after the strike.
And so, during what would be a 24-day walk-out, the Redskins were the only NFL team not to have players cross the picket line.
Around the league, 227 of 1,585 union players – including stars like San Francisco’s Joe Montana, Seattle’s Steve Largent and the New York Giants Lawrence Taylor – did quit the strike and play for their teams.
Replacement players – dubbed scabs by striking players and their supporters – often were vilified.
Their presence on rosters caused critics to twist team nicknames into denigrations like the Los Angeles Shams, San Francisco Phony-Niners, Miami Dol-Finks and Washington Scabskins.
The other day the 56-year-old Bunch – who now lives in Atlanta – was asked if the “scab” tag bothered him back then. After a few seconds of silence over the phone, he admitted quietly:
“Aaah… yeah…It’s certainly not a very appealing name for you. But anywhere in America, if you cross a picket line, that’s the kind of name you get.”
But winning can be a potent tonic for trouble and, quite unexpectedly, the Redskins replacements, in their very first game, beat St. Louis, 28-21, at RFK Stadium, even though the Cardinals had 14 regular players in uniform.
The following Sunday the Redskins went to the Meadowlands to play the longtime nemesis New York Giants who had drubbed Washington in the NFC Championship game the year before.
The substitute Skins ran roughshod over the Giants, 38-12.
And a week later Washington went to Dallas – where the 21 regulars in uniform included stars like “Too Tall” Jones, Danny White, Randy White, Mike Renfro and Dorsett – and edged the hated Cowboys, 13-7.
A day later, striking players returned and most replacements were unceremoniously shown the door.
Although they had accounted for three straight wins against NFC East teams and suddenly had the Redskins in positon for home field advantage in the playoffs – an edge that paved the way to the Super Bowl crown – the replacement players were denied a Super Bowl ring.
“We certainly had played an integral part on the way to the championship and we played enough games to qualify for a ring.,” said Bunch. “But the team owner then, Jack Kent Cooke, decided he didn’t want to give us one.”
As replacement cornerback Skip Lane told ESPN:
“You know the guy who parked the cars at Redskins Park? He got a ring. The girl up front who answers the phone? She got a ring, too.”
If it sounds like a country song, well, it is.
As Chuck Mead sings it:
“She got the ring and I got the finger.”
A surreal time
Bunch grew up on Baywood Street in West Dayton, starred at Meadowdale and ended up with multiple football offers, including, he said, one from Pitt, Minnesota, Kansas, most Mid-American Conference schools and Michigan State.
He lettered as a freshman for the Spartans, was plagued by injuries the next two years and then put together a senior season and a redshirt fifth year that got him drafted by the Portland Breakers in the United States Football League (USFL).
Told by some folks supposedly in the know that he would be a mid-round pick in the NFL, he declined the USFL offer.
He ended up undrafted in the NFL.
“Man… ooooh…. if I could redo that decision,” he laughed.
He joined the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted player in both the 1985 and 1986 preseasons and was cut both times. In ’87, it was the same with Minnesota.
Soon after, when teams began formulating strike rosters, he got offers from several teams and chose the Redskins because he was living in D.C. at the time.
Although his dad was a union laborer at Inland back in Dayton, Bunch said he wasn’t questioned at home about his decision:
“I had been cut three times already. I figured I had to do what I had to do. They were going to pay me something like $7,000 a week and there was nowhere else I could make that.”
While many of the Redskins replacements recently had been cut by NFL teams, some already had moved on to other jobs:
Tackle Willard Scissum was a security guard at a 7-Eleven in D.C. Lane was working in finance in Connecticut. Long snapper John Cowne had been a high school teacher in Virginia.
And then there was quarterback Tony Robinson, who had been a Heisman hopeful at Tennessee and had made the cover of Sports Illustrated after he outshined Bo Jackson in a game against Auburn.
A month later he was arrested for distributing cocaine and his chance at a pro football career seemed lost.
But the Redskins got him released on a work furlough from the Knox Valley Penal Farm under the stipulation that when his football foray ended, he would return to finish his sentence.
It was a surreal time all around.
A pair of striking Kansas City players showed up on their picket line with shotguns. There were fights in Philadelphia. And, early on, the most outspoken Redskins veteran was always Grant.
“I look at these guys as guys who would steal shoes off a dead man,” he told UPI.
Gibbs, though, treated the players well.
“He treated us like men,” said Bunch, who mainly played on special teams. “He let us know we were there to do a job and told us. ‘Until the other guys come back, you are the Washington Redskins.’”
The replacement players responded, none more so than receiver Anthony Allen who, in that first game against St. Louis, set a single-game Redskins record that remains. He caught seven passes from Ed Rubbert for a whopping 255 yards.
And that’s when a remarkable transformation took place. At game’s end many fans chanted at the protesting players: “Stay on strike!..Stay on strike!”
After they throttled the Giants, the replacements outdid the Cowboys in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history. Robinson took over for the injured Rubbert at quarterback and excelled while Dallas’ Danny White was sacked six times and threw an interception, Dorsett fumbled twice in the first quarter and the Cowboys never crossed midfield in the first half.
By then even some Redskins regulars were behind their replacements.
“We hated the Cowboys,” lineman Mark May told ESPN. “For the replacement players to go out there and kick their (butts), there could have been nothing finer.”
Even Grant came around: “It was the ultimate insult. It was a beautiful thing to watch.”
‘Bitter about football’
As the jubilant Redskins had carried Gibbs on their shoulders across the field in Dallas, a Washington fan held up a sign that spoke for many:
“Scabs… We’ll Miss You!”
The strike ended with a whimper and, as has so often the case with the owners, there were no concessions from management.
Soon after the team plane landed back in Washington, the replacements were sent packing. A few were kept on the roster, but they were never fully embraced in the dressing room.
Robinson went back to jail for 4 years and 10 months
Bunch simply walked away from football.
“I had offers, but by then I’d had enough,” he said. “I’d been cut three times. I had a child and I was moving on with my life. I just wasn’t willing to chase it anymore.”
While the players wouldn’t get Super Bowl rings, they did get half shares of the team’s playoff money, something akin to $27,000.
Even so, Bunch doesn’t remember watching Doug Williams, the first African American quarterback to start a Super Bowl game, lead the Redskins in a romp over the Broncos and win MVP honors.
“I was bitter about football,” he said. “My career hadn’t worked out the way I’d hoped.”
The fact that he didn’t get a ring didn’t bother him as much as it did some of the other guys.
He said he had made some lifelong friends in fellow replacement linebackers Anthony Settles and David Windham. Over the years he also kept in contact with former teammates like Allen, Lane and Danny Burmeister.
Bunch worked 22 years with a rental car agency and has three children. Kristin was a women’s basketball player at Belmont University in Nashville. Derek Jr. was a high school athlete.
With his wife Pyper, Bunch now has a 9-year-old son, Dominion.
When ESPN released its “Year of the Scab” documentary last September, it helped launch another push to finally get Super Bowl rings for the replacement players.
Three months ago, two of the former fill-ins – Robinson, his incarceration long over, now working and coaching youth football, and defensive lineman Anthony Sagnella — were brought to the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond and presented with a copy of House Joint Resolution No. 151, which commended the replacements for their “critical role in the team’s Super Bowl winning season.”
After over 30 years, the #Redskins replacement players of the 1987 season will be getting rings, recognizing their contributions during that championship year. Congratulations! pic.twitter.com/1aNSIVdNJB— Redskins Nation (@NBCSRN) March 7, 2018
After that, Redskins president Bruce Allen announced all of the replacement players would be getting Super Bowl rings.
“Their contributions are part of Redskins history and are an integral reason why a Lombardi Trophy for the 1987 campaign resides in our facility today,” said owner Daniel Snyder
Initially, Bunch – who has never been to another NFL game since his last replacement game and had declined requests by ESPN to talk about those days – planned to skip the ceremony.
But he said his wife, his brother Dwayne, who lives here in Dayton, and other family members and friends convinced him to reconsider.
He has and now he and Pyper will be there.
“They all told me I should be proud of what I’d done,” he said. “Whatever you want to call me – a scab, a regular player, just a Redskin – I’m credited with a year in the NFL and nobody can take that away. I played in the NFL and most people never get that chance.”
“It’s just with all the injuries and the cuts, I was upset about the game. I felt I gave so much along the way and I really hadn’t gotten much back.”
Tuesday that changes.