The Steelers 1987


The Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) at the Atlanta Falcons (1-1)

1987 GameDayIn Sunday’s addition of the Pittsburgh Press on the day of the game, journalist Gene Collier asked,  “Where do these greedy pro football owners get the detestable idea they can pass off these games between cuts and rejects as the real product and expect us to buy it.

Pittsburgh is the city that last year kept alive a long string of Steelers’ sell outs to see a team that had to rally to reach 6-10.

Somehow, in their own convoluted way of thinking, the owners, those dummies, figured this meant that to most people bad football was better than no football.”

Looking ahead to the first replacement game with Pittsburgh playing in Atlanta, Collier thought the teams were evenly balanced. He suggested his opinion was based on the fact that he didn’t know most of the players. That lack of roster knowledge also went for the fans.

Football turns over huge sums of dollars in Las Vegas, but the bookmakers’ business was reduced to an exhibition game trickle while the handicap line changed by the hour as around the country some strike-breakers were returning to camp.

For the Steelers first B team game, the coaches were hoping to put their A team’s disappointing 10-34 loss to the Browns behind them in week two while Atlanta were coming off a 21-20 victory over the Washington Redskins.

For coach Noll, it was evident that the challenge of putting a team of unknown and untried players together for the game was a responsibility that he enjoyed. That magical decade of the seventies, when Noll built a team from scratch through the draft, had been followed by the disappointments of the eighties.

This was the teacher at his best and in his element with a complete set of new students that were willing to learn from the master – and Noll was enjoying it.

After the game, Noll commented, “We had some fun out there today. The quality is like getting any football team that only has ten days to prepare on the field.”

Steve Bono started for the Steelers, but was ineffective during the first quarter while Atlanta took a 3-0 lead on a 27-yard field goal.

Larry Griffin media guide photoFormer Oilers cornerback Larry Griffin (pictured right), who came into the Steelers replacement camp late, seized the opportunity to show off his potential. He had two interceptions. His first one in the end zone prevented a Falcons score while his second at midfield in the second quarter set up the Steelers first scoring drive. Earnest Jackson completed the score with a one-yard touchdown run.

Former Pittsburgh Gladiator Russell Hairston increased the Steelers lead when he caught his first outdoors pro football touchdown with a 5-yard completion from Bono. The Steelers led 14-3 at halftime.

Bono was sacked in the end zone during the third quarter to give up a two-point safety, but at the start of the final period he made amends by adding seven points with a quarterback sneak through an almighty hole created by Mike Webster.

With Pittsburgh leading 21-5, Noll was now confident enough of the win to send in his second string quarterback Reggie Collier. Joey Clinkscales reaffirmed the good impression he made throughout the game with his 11-yard touchdown completion from Collier to increase the Steelers lead.

With the clock winding down, Atlanta scored a consolation touchdown through Jeff Van Raaphorst’s 19-yard completion to Milton Barney.

Larry Griffin intercepted two passes, defended three passes and had seven tackles. Noll remarked of Griffin, “He was a happy surprise.”

Steve Bono completed 12 of 22 passes for 164 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Bono said of his performance, “I started out a bit shaky. I tried to get the rust out, and I did and got into the flow.”

Noll commented, “I can’t say enough about Joey Clinkscales. He did a great job.” Clinkscales caught 6 passes for 150 yards and remarked, “I felt I had to show the coaches I could play in this league.”

When a reporter asked Noll if it was an NFL-calibre game, he quickly fired back, “It was today.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers 28 at the Atlanta Falcons 12
Fulton County Stadium October 4th 1987, 16,667

Attendances were hit everywhere. In Philadelphia, only 4,074 fans turned out, while Detroit saw just 4,919 seats full instead of their usual 80,000.

More frustrated Falcon season ticket holders received refunds (in excess of 17,500) than fans attended the game. The black and gold were evident in the seats, with one fan showing his opinion with a sign observing, “Malone Stay On Strike.

After that first weekend of replacement games, the resolve of the striking players was going to be tested thoroughly. The owners had managed to put together an assortment of former players and rejects, joined by a few strikebreakers and put on a show for their television audience.

There had been no movement in the negotiations between the strikers and the owners the previous week. The Pittsburgh strikers had been slow to create a picket line, but once they did, became enthusiastic and vocal in their labours.

Lupe Sanchez card imageThe sentiments facing the antagonists were both poignant and aggressive. Steve Bono and Lupe Sanchez (pictured right) shared an apartment in Pittsburgh. Sanchez was on strike while Bono was now the strikebreaking starting quarterback for the Steelers.

Bono observed, “We’re too good of friends to let this come between us. We have too much respect for one another.”

Sanchez remarked, “Steve’s been a friend for a long time. I can’t change just because of this. He wants the strike to be over as well. He doesn’t like the situation.”

The two players were facing the emotive effects of a strike that had affected every worker since the first withdrawal of labour. Both sides thought their cause was right.

Earnest Jackson thought he would have to run a gauntlet of bricks when he ventured across the picket line to training sessions. Instead, he was confronted with a barrage of doughnuts and the odd cup of coffee.

The scene was set in Pittsburgh. Both A and B team players practiced on the same turf. In the morning it was the strikers, in the afternoon their replacements. “It’s their field. So we are giving them prime time,” players’ representative Tunch Ilkin (pictured below) commented.

Tunch Ilkin Fleer card imageThe stumbling block to any agreement was the players’ pursuit of free agency. The players he represented had instructed Tunch that if the union gave up on free agency, they should get something in return. Tunch told the media, “Our guys are saying compromise, but don’t give it away. We’re not going back in without an agreement.”

There was some concern about repercussions for the players who were acting as the team’s union representatives, but coach Noll made it clear that wouldn’t be the case in Pittsburgh. “Tunch is not a problem. Tunch has a job that no one else would take and he took. I have no problem with Tunch at all. Tunch has been a super football player for us.”

Having missed a week of the season to get the replacement teams in a position ready to play some kind of respectable football, week 5’s scheduled game in Los Angeles against the Rams now became the fourth game of the 1987 season.

The Rams were 0-3 after losing 10-37 to New Orleans the previous week. The 2-1 Steelers were keen to keep their momentum going and were confident of improving their offense with the addition of Frank Pollard and rookie Dwight Stone when they entered the replacement training camp on Wednesday.

Pollard had been the Steelers leading rusher in 1984 and 1985, but had undergone knee surgery in July 1986 that, when re-aggravated during the season, placed him on injured reserve.

Jackson said, “It’s a good move for Frankie. He’s been the backup at running back and fullback and was being used in a rotation rather than regularly. Now he’ll get a chance to play regularly and re-establish himself.”

His return would provide more options for the Steelers. “We expanded the offense this week and he knows all the stuff,” said Bono. “We’re able to do more because Frankie’s in there than if he weren’t, so that’s a big plus. He can run, block, catch. He’ll make my job easier, that’s for sure.

Last week we were able to stick with a simple, basic offense because of Atlanta’s defense, but that wouldn’t necessarily be the way to go against the Rams. They have some of their regulars in there on defense, so we’ll need to do more against them.”

Frank Pollar media guide photoOffensive backfield coach Dick Hoak said that in Sunday’s game in Los Angeles, Pollard (pictured right) would start at running back and Jackson as fullback. Looking back to the win against Atlanta when Jackson carried 29 times for 104 yards, Hoak thought they had relied on Jackson too much.

Hoak commented, “We were probably wrong there. We probably should have used Rodney Carter, Chuck Sanders or Dan Reeder more often because when they got the ball, they ran well.”

Dwight Stone was a free agent running back who could also catch, and combined with his outside speed, it put him in the frame for kick returns.

The Steelers also added defensive tackle Jackie Cline to their roster. A 6’5”, 276 pounder who was a standout in the USFL. He was cut by the Browns in the summer. Cline turned down strong offers from Chicago, Cleveland, Miami, Seattle, Green Bay, Atlanta and the Rams in order to sign with the Steelers because he believed they would give him the best opportunity to make the roster when the strike ends.

As the gossip of an end to the strike increased in volume, Steve Bono was talked up as staying on the roster as an A team player. The Steelers offensive coordinator Tom Moore added weight to the argument by saying, “I take my hat off to him. He came back and had a great attitude, worked his tail off and has done everything he possibly could and has done an excellent job.”

Bono remarked that the situation was simply “a good opportunity, the same everybody has.” The Post-Gazette observed that in Pittsburgh that could mean the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Meanwhile, the negotiation talks took a turn for the worse as the union accused the owners of stalling the talks with a new and ridiculous demand for a six-year contract (as opposed to the original three-year term). A union spokesman suggested that management’s strategy was to force another weekend of scab games.

Doug Allen, the union’s assistant executive director, suggested, “It’s becoming more and more clear that the owners have made a decision to embarrass themselves and fans with that brand of football again.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) at the Los Angles Rams (0-3)

Playing in a steady drizzle, the Steelers gave up their six point favourite status at the start of the game when John Bruno had his punt blocked to allow Kirby Jackson to recover the ball in the end zone and give the Rams a 7-0 lead.

Dwight Stone Topps card imageThe Steelers should have replied immediately, but the Steelers decided to self-destruct. The special teams were the first to play their part. On the ensuing kickoff, Dwight Stone’s 100-yard return was called back for an illegal block in the back.

The Steelers eventually replied with Steve Bono’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Lyneal Alston, and at the beginning of the second quarter and managed to take a 14-7 lead with Bono’s 10-yard touchdown completion to Rodney Carter.

Instead of pushing on while they were on top, the Steelers decided to invent a new game of folly football.

The Rams quarterback Steve Dils handed off to Charles White, who pitched it back for Dils to complete the flea flicker play to Phil Smith. The play, but cornerback Cornell Gowdy who was defending the pass tipped it into the eager arms of Smith for a 51-yard completion did not catch out the Steelers.

Four plays later, White carried the ball in from the 2 for a touchdown that tied the game 14-14. With the initiative swinging back to the Rams, they took a 21-14 lead into the locker room at halftime after Dils completed an 84-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to James McDonald.

Maintaining their dominance at the start of the second half, White appeared to be stopped by the Steelers defense on his run up the middle, but he broke the tackle to continue his run 58 yards to Pittsburgh’s 11. Dils increased the Rams’ lead with his 11-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Moore.


The Steelers continued their self-destruction when Russell Hairston juggles, then dropped a certain 46-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter while David Trout sent a 32-yard field goal attempt wide.

With the score still at 28-14, Joey Clinkscales and Rodney Carter both dropped perfect pass as Steve Bono tried to rally his team.

The Rams extended their lead with a 39-yard field goal and with just a minute remaining, the Steelers scored a consolation touchdown with backup quarterback Reggie Collier’s 42-yard pass to Alston.

While the Rams Charles White carried 33 times for 166 yards, the Steelers’ veteran running back Earnest Jackson was given the ball just 8 times. The previous week Jackson had excelled with 104 yards on 29 carries. He showed his disappointment when asked why he didn’t have more plays against the Rams, “Right now, I have no reason. I don’t really know.” 

On a second and three play, Bono fired a pass over the middle. When the ball was batted back by Rams linebacker Kyle Borland into the hands of Bono who went two yards, the pass went into the record books as a Bono completion to himself.

Noll commented on the defeat, “They went into a power set I and ran the ball right at us and we had trouble stopping them.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers 21 at the Los Angeles Rams 31
October 11th  20,218


While the replacement games continued over the weekend, so did the negotiations, although the probability of an early return to work for the players evaporated when the owners walked out.

The usual, “It wasn’t our fault,” syndrome broke out. Management blamed the break on the continuing demand from the players for free agency. The unions claimed the owners’ walkout was a deliberate move to put more pressure on the players to encourage them to cross picket lines.

The first signs of compromise and sanity came from the NFL Players Association on Tuesday when they offered to end the strike immediately if the owners agreed to a plan that included mediation of all issues with the possibility of binding arbitration.

The players’ union executive director, Gene Upshaw, announced the proposal after meeting all 28 players representatives in Chicago on the Monday following the second weekend of replacement games.

Game Day carictureUnder the plan, all major disputes currently on the table – including free agency, pensions and management’s demand for a six-year, rather than a three contract – would be subject to mediation, a proposal that the union had previously rejected.

If the issues can’t be resolved in six weeks, they would then be submitted to binding arbitration, meaning both sides would have to accept whatever decision an arbitrator would make.

Dan Rooney (pictured left), who was a member of the NFL Management Council’s executive committee, said the committee would meet in New York to discuss the proposal.

Rooney said, “I think we should look at it. I do have some problem with arbitration in that I think we should be able to solve our own problems. Other than that, I think we should look at what they are talking about.

It sounds like they’re trying to find a way to get back, which is what we all want.”

Upshaw warned, “If the owners decline this, then we’re out for the duration, out for the year,” before offering that he would continue to seek negotiations even if the offer was rejected.

Dallas president Tex Schramm said, “It would not be acceptable to the Cowboys. We’re not going to turn our system over to an arbitrator.”

Cracks in the players’ solidarity were now becoming of seismic proportion. Reports of whole teams returning to play dominated the media.  In Pittsburgh, the rumour was strong of the Steelers returning as a team. Tuesday’s meeting of the strikers to hear Tunch report back from the negotiations was going to be important in setting the mood of the players.

Chris Sheffield 1987 media guide photoSteelers cornerback Chris Sheffield (pictured right), who the previous week had been talked out of reporting back to work by his striking teammates, said he had now made his decision about what to do before next weekend’s game.

Sheffield announced he would convey his decision to his teammates at their meeting. “Right now, it’s not in the best of my interests to stay out on strike for any length  - that goes financially and also as far as my career is concerned.

If the Steelers play on Sunday, I want to play. That’s the way I feel about it.”

Sheffield confirmed the players meeting would have a bearing on what they did as a team. “We’re trying to keep the Steelers strong, not only from the standpoint of a strike. We want to keep our unit solid.”

As the Steelers starting quarterback, Malone had the most to lose. He felt loyalty to Noll and the Steelers when he continued to work out at Three Rivers and attend minicamp even though he did not have a contract at the time. “It’s difficult for me because it’s a great organisation. Dan’s been great to me. I love it, I want to be here. I want to be in it as long as I possibly can. "

Malone was out on strike because his teammates were on strike and as long as they stayed out, so would he, even though he didn’t believe wholeheartedly in what they were fighting for.

“If I had to make a decision with no repercussions, no nothing, just ‘Mark, what do you want to do, do you want to go on strike or do you play under the existing contract?’ I’d be under the existing contract right now,” Malone said after the team meeting to discuss the issues.

I worked my way up through the ranks. I worked hard and I spilled my blood and my guts and done everything else I had to do and I don’t want to have to sacrifice that.

The reason I’m doing this is for the unity of these guys, what they stand for, what winning football is really all about – having a tight knit group of guys who believe in each other and sacrifice for each other.”

Long before the strike was called, Malone had spoken to Mr. Rooney about the situation. He told Mr. Rooney he thought he should stick with his teammates no matter what, and Rooney agreed.

Malone was the highest paid Steelers and was losing nearly $30,000 a week plus incentives. With the strike into its third week, he had already lost $89,062 in base salary.

Merril Hoge Panini card photoDefensive lineman Gerald Williams, running back Merril Hoge and offensive lineman Jerry Quick didn’t attend the meeting and reported to the Steelers bringing the total number of players who had ended their walkout to 7. 

Job security was the reason Hoge (10th round draft pick) gave for returning to work. He said he owed the Steelers as they gave him a chance to play football.”

On the new initiative, Tunch remarked, “There’s a lot of people throughout the league who are pretty committed to this. They feel pretty strongly about this.”

The owners agreed to all the terms except arbitration. Malone predicted the players could respond in two ways – giving up and returning to work or becoming more unified and remaining on strike because of the owners’ refusal to budge.

“In all negotiations, one side starts up here and the other here,” Malone said holding his hands far apart. “We’ve now moved here,” he continued, moving his hands to the middle, ” and the owners are still way up here.”

Ilkin expressed frustration, saying the players have tried everything to end their strike while the owners had stonewalled them.

On the Wednesday, the situation for the strikers appeared ominous with 11 players, including three of the four captains, deciding to return to the team. Dan Rooney said players who reported after Wednesday’s 1 p.m. deadline would not be paid and would not be able to play in Sunday’s game.

Chris Sheffield, who had been fighting his conscience throughout the strike, went back with Donnie Shell, John Stallworth, Gary Dunn, Ray Pinney, James Hansen, Kevin Middleton, Calvin Sweeney, Charles Lockett, Terry Long and Rich Erenberg.


While the largest lottery prize for North America of $46 million was being declared in Pennsylvania’s capital Harrisburg, the rewards of professional football remained solidly in the hands of the owners as the players strike began to fall apart.

The trickle of returning players began to turn into a flood. The striking Steelers voted to stay on strike, but around the league a different picture was being drawn. Seeing the strike falling apart, the players union, the National Football League Players Association had no option except to call the strike off.

The union leader, Gene Upshaw, commented, “the owners abused their monopoly powers to the extreme detriment of the players. It's unfair to the players to continue making the great sacrifices they have made in the face of this blatant display of monopoly power, The player reps therefore, voted today to send the players back to work.”

Tunch Ilkin put on a brave face when announcing the players’ return to work was a league wide decision by their union. The remaining striking Steelers reported back en masse at 1.37 pm on Thursday.

As the players began to return to work in Pittsburgh, about 8,000 season ticket holders were turning in their tickets for the game against the Colts, while substitute fans queued up for tickets to watch the substitute players. One of the fans queuing to purchase tickets remarked that he had been a fan for at least twelve years and that this was his first and only chance to get inside and watch his team.

Rich Ereneberg media guide photoWhile some fans were looking forward to seeing their team, some players were keen to rejoin their squad. Rich Erenberg (pictured left) was looking forward to his return after being off for ten months with injury. The Steelers running back coach Dick Hoak commented, “We’ll see how he practices and we’ll make a judgment on him at the end of the week.”

With 98 receptions in the previous three seasons, Erenberg’s chances of playing against the Colts were calculated as good, except for the match fitness that Rodney Carter offered.

Coach Noll was philosophical with his observation on the challenge. “We’ll have to practice and find out who is where in terms of physical and mental readiness. Right now I can’t tell you who is going to play and I can’t give you a starting line-up.”

The approach to Sunday’s game had suddenly turned dramatically for the good. From a team of replacement players, the coach was now spoilt for choice with a plethora of Steeler talent to choose from.

As the players streamed back to work, the Pittsburgh Press blamed inexperience and a series of strategic mistake by the NFLPU’s leaders for the failure of the strike. Those failures were listed as the lack of public support for the strike, the assumption the union could maintain solidarity and the unwillingness of some players to support the most precious gem of their dispute - free agency.

In addition, the union underestimated the owners’ resolve to hold down their costs meaning they would fight free agency to the finish while the major failure of the union was not to anticipate the replacement games being played. The strength behind the union should have been the powerful weapon of keeping the television screens devoid of pro football.

With the NFL able to continue their schedule with replacement players, the strikers steel offense had melted. The owners declared they were pleased with the outcome, but extended caution by retaining replacement games for a third weekend.

Despite their skulk back to work, the players union believed that it still held a trump card with an antitrust suit filed against the NFL. Gene Upshaw optimistically stated, “They are trying to exert the powers to try to crush the union even more and we understand that, but I don’t believe that the union is dead.”

On the three-week game of poker that had been played out, Steelers linebacker Bryan Hinkle (pictured right) declared, “They had a royal flush and we had a pair of deuces.

When they decided to play the replacement games, they had everything going for them. If the union was solid. if 1,600 players said they were not going back, we might have had more leverage.”

The owners’ Management Council announced that from the following Tuesday, rosters would be expanded to 85 players from the current 45, although only 45 will be able to dress for a game. The other 40 players will be in reserve providing an opportunity for the replacement players to compete with the returning striking players.

In a separate outcome, the National Labor Relations Board declined to interfere in allowing the returning players to compete in the weekend’s game. After the strike had been called off, the owners declared that replacement players would be used for the third consecutive week. The Labor Board had been asked by the players union to intervene in an attempt to get the strikers back onto the field.

Rich Erenberg said the players union had been weakened by the strike and whether it regained that lost power would depend on the treatment from the owners. “If things stay fairly constant, maybe the union won’t ever be as strong as it was,” Erenberg commented.

With the strike now over, the lines at the ticket office were now to purchase tickets as opposed to the previous days queues to offload them.

1987 Game 5
The Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2) vs the Indianapolis Colts (2-2)

1987 programmeThe Colts had gone 0-2 before the strike, but their fortunes changed with the replacement games with two wins, including the previous week’s 6-0 home win over the New York Jets. Former Steelers number one draft choice of 1979 Greg Hawthorne would line up for the Colts.

With replacement players still dominating the teams’ squads, the game began tentatively, although the Steelers played a ball-control offense balanced with a strong defense.

After a Colts fumble halfway through the first quarter, the Steelers recovered the ball on their opponents 11. On first down, Earnest Jackson drove up the middle for 8 yards. On second down, in the corner of the end zone, John Stallworth (pictured left) caught a Steve Bono pass over his shoulder for his 500th career reception. The Steelers were ahead 7-0.

The Colts only attempt to compete was their 6 play, 80-yard drive in the second quarter, completed with Blair Kiel’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Walter Murray. The score tied the game at 7-7 and the teams took the stalemate into the locker room at half time.

The third quarter was scoreless, but another Colts fumble as the period expired set the Steelers up to sparkle in the final period. Nine plays later, Bono threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Merril Hoge to put the Steelers 14-7 ahead.

Kiel’s third interception by Avon Riley gave the Steelers their final scoring drive, capped by Chuck Sanders’ 10-yard touchdown run, sealing Pittsburgh’s third victory of the season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 21 vs the Indianapolis Colts 7
October 18th, Three Rivers Stadium 34,627

A much-improved run defense held the Colts to just 75 yards on the ground, while on offense the Steelers accumulated 254 yards rushing.

Earnest Jackson carried 24 times for 134 yards and free agent Dwight Stone contributed 67 yards on 9 carries. Erenberg did not suit up.

Running back coach Dick Hoak commented, “The Colts had problems stopping the trap and they bringing the defensive end inside to stop it, so we just spilled outside him. We had them over a barrel.”


Mark Malone 1987 media guide photoWith the strike over and the season now continuing with a full squad, coach Noll indicated that Mark Malone (pictured right) was the likely starter for Sunday’s first post strike game when Pittsburgh host Cincinnati.

Pittsburgh usually had some king of quarterback controversy and now it was evident because of Malone’s poor onfield performances before the strike while his replacement Steve Bono led the team to a 2-1 record during the strike-breaking games.

Noll confirmed that it would only be Malone’s elbow problem that would prevent him from starting. Malone suffered the injury to his right elbow August 29 and had reopened the stitches during each game that he subsequently played in.

Noll made his decision to go with Malone after watching him throw during an impromptu workout by the Steeler ex-strikers on their first day back at work.

The offices in Three Rivers Stadium took on the appearance of Clapham Junction as replacement players were packing their belongings to leave while strikers were returning to reclaim their lockers.

Of the replacement players, twenty four players were shown the door while twenty of the free agents signed as replacements, were kept on. The Steelers now had a roster of 72, with room to acquire thirteen more to reach the mandatory limit set by the NFL of eighty five.

Quarterback Reggie Collier, who had shown some sparkle during the replacement games was one of those released. He never played in the NFL again. His memories were relegated to stories told to his grandchildren about wearing the black and gold.

The only winners from the strike were the replacements, who had lived the dream of being professional football players for three weeks, and those free agents that were retained and given an extended opportunity to show their potential.

Although there didn’t appear to be much animosity within the Steelers between strikers and strike breakers, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that in Buffalo, spray cans found in the lockers of at least two players were labelled “Scab Guard: Kills nasty Germs on Contact.”

The replacement players kept on by the Steelers and given the chance to continue their vision of being a professional football player were:

Steve Bono
Joey Clinkscales
Lyneal Alston
Rodney Carter
Chuck Sanders
Dan Reeder
Brian Blankenship
Jeff Lucas
Jim Boyle
Charlie Dickey (a probable for injured reserve)
Jackie Cline
Michael Minter
Tommy Dawkins (also injured)
Albert Williams
Joe Williams
Tyronne Stowe
Larry Griffin
Cornell Gowdy

Part III of the Steelers 1987 strike season>>>

History index>>>