Steelers insider: NFL has seen worse than replacement refs

| Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

As the Steelers prepared for their third game with replacement officials, they realized the on-field situation could be much worse. It could be the players themselves being replaced.

Twenty-five years ago this week, they were.

Worse still for the league, Americans replaced the NFL entirely 30 years ago by going outdoors, enjoying the weather, baseball, the Sunday paper, their families.

While he can occasionally laugh about it now, Steelers broadcaster Tunch Ilkin took part in each of the past two in-season labor disruptions that left the NFL without its regular players, in 1987, and without some games at all, in 1982.

Instead of learning opposing team depth charts and quarterbacks' tendencies, as he did before the Steelers-Raiders game Sunday, Ilkin said he “learned a lot about antitrust law and class-action suits.”

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No wonder Ilkin is glad the NFL — at the same time the NHL is involved in a second shutdown in less than 10 years — is expected to enjoy at least another 10 years of in-season labor peace to go with the quarter-century it already has experienced.

Given the billions of dollars and massive TV ratings the sport generates, it might surprise younger fans to learn there once was a fall — or most of one — without NFL football.

After the Steelers got off to a promising 2-0 start in 1982, the league shut down for two months when the players went on strike for better pensions and other benefits.

Those '82 Steelers didn't play from Sept. 19 until Nov. 21, turning the fall over to the then-No. 1 ranked Pitt.

Once play resumed, the Steelers finished 6-3 before losing to San Diego, 31-28, in the only Super Bowl tournament, a Dan Rooney idea in which eight teams per conference followed an NCAA basketball-like bracket.

“I remember (Craig Wolfley) and I were standing on the sideline, counting our Super Bowl money,” Ilkin said. “I really thought we were going to the Super Bowl.”

The NFL, determined not to stand for the No Football League when the players struck for free agency five years later, canceled only one week's worth of games and quickly assembled replacement teams. The movie “The Replacements” was based on that season.

The Steelers held an impromptu training camp in Johnstown to break in their new team, one that ultimately was joined for the three replacement games by picket line-crossers Mike Webster, John Stallworth, Earnest Jackson and Donnie Shell.

The kicker was David Trout, who also kicked for them in 1981 but was let go because he missed eight extra points (plus 5 of 17 field goal tries). All stats and scores counted in replacement ball, and Stallworth ended up making his 500th career catch against replacement defensive backs.

The players ultimately gained free agency but not until more than five years later. And all those replacements still are listed among the NFL's alumni.

“The funniest thing I remember (about the strikes) was the story Steve Courson told,” Wolfley said. “He and Gary Dunn had gone to a (1982) college game and had been hanging out most of the night. They were driving back Sunday, and they tuned into the radio, where they were replaying some old Steelers broadcasts. They thought they had missed the settlement and started freaking out. They were driving 90 miles an hour, thinking they were missing a game.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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