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‘Year of the Scab’ debuts tonight, profiles Washington’s replacement players

Anthony Allen, Tony Settles and David Windham share their experiences from 1987 NFL strike in new ’30 for 30′

The games counted, but the players aren’t official alumni of the Washington football team. The three victories during the 1987 National Football League players’ strike gave Washington sole possession of first place in the NFC East, but the replacement players haven’t been invited to team-hosted events. And even though those wins put Washington on the inside track to reaching Super Bowl XXII, most of the “Scabs” did not receive a Super Bowl ring after the team’s 42-10 victory against the Denver Broncos.

Washington was one of three teams to win all of its replacement games, and with a 4-1 record when the strike ended, it held first place in the division. Fans who opposed the replacement players as they prepared for their first game were singing a new tune after they beat the visiting St. Louis Cardinals, 28-21, in RFK Stadium. The fans were really sweet for the players after they traveled to the Meadowlands and beat the New York Giants, 38-12.

The icing on the cake came when the team went to Texas Stadium and beat the hated Dallas Cowboys, 13-7. The Cowboys had many of their regular players because some refused to strike and others who had gone out initially decided to cross the picket line. Washington would go on to win seven of its final 10 games (one game was lost to the strike), take the NFC East title, claim playoff victories over the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings and win its second Super Bowl under coach Joe Gibbs. Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

Director John Dorsey revisits this short stretch in NFL history in ESPN’s new 30 for 30 film, Year of the Scab, which will air on Sept. 12, 10 days before the 30th anniversary of the start of the strike. The National Football League Players Association was upset with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and the lack of autonomy that players had in free agency. They set a strike deadline of Sept. 22 (after the second week of play). The owners countered by voting to play anyone who crossed the picket line. Week 3 games were canceled, and players across the league were on strike for 24 days during Weeks 4-6.

After unveiling the documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27, Dorsey brought the film to Washington, D.C., for the closing night of the American Film Institute Docs Festival on June 17. After the one-hour, 22-minute documentary, Dorsey discussed working on the film for the past three years.

Wide receiver Anthony Allen and linebackers David Windham and Tony Settles, replacement players from the 1987 season, were in the crowd, and each player received an ovation as he was introduced. Allen was one of the replacement players to receive a Super Bowl ring because he stayed with Washington after the strike through the 1988 season. He still holds the team record for single-game receiving yards for his seven-catch, 255-yard and three-touchdown performance in the replacements’ first game.

Settles and Windham played only in the three strike games for Washington.

In the film, each of the men discussed why he decided to suit up, the vitriol they experienced from the fans and striking players, and their thoughts in the 30 years that have passed. All three sat down after watching the documentary to reflect on the film and what they hope it will achieve.

What is the range of emotion you all have felt from those three games in 1987 to receiving that round of applause from the fans in the theater?

Allen: You go back 30 years, and you don’t see these guys for 27 years, and it’s a brotherhood. You see them, and it’s like love for them right away because of what we went through a lot dealing with that whole thing. Once you get into the interviews, you’re just telling a story and telling people what happened. Then once you find out what’s happening, everybody did not have the same experience, and a lot of people are still struggling with it afterwards.

Settles: I thought it would be fun. People who know me know I don’t bring it up in public conversations. … I reflected back, when I did tell people, the light that just went on. I said, ‘OK, a 30 for 30 film, what better way to do it to tell everybody about our story and struggle and different stories that all these guys went through and myself about that whole season.’ I thought it would just be a fun way of doing it. The way I kind of like to equate it is to reality TV before reality TV. When you’re bringing together 50-something guys and say, ‘OK, we have a certain amount of days to put you guys together as a football team’ and we have to go play somewhat on a professional level, and especially when we got to the third game, it was against that top-grade level. … The characters that came together.

Windham: I’ve been saying for years, I would do a film on us. And when I got the call — I’m a 300-pounder — I was ready to do a backflip. I should’ve put it down on paper, so I had honestly talked about enough for me and John [Dorsey] to be laughing about it. … This is a story that has to be told. … To get to the next level it’s a good ol’ boy network, and you have to be in the right spot at the right time and somebody’s got to like you. We all got skills, but a lot of us didn’t get kept.

What’s your response to Joe Gibbs saying in the documentary that he didn’t “have a response” to whether replacement players should get rings?

Settles: I would say as far as Joe is concerned, I was pretty shocked by that. The first time I saw the film at Tribeca in New York, that kind of set me back. After I processed it, although I understood why he said it, I thought with him being in the position he was, he still could have stood up for us some more. … I was still caught off guard with that answer. I was like, ‘Really, Joe? I thought you were with us and that’s why we laid it out on the line for you.’ … I think that if it came down to it, and he had a chance to have us in a players-only room, his answer would be different. No cameras around and we asked him that, I think his answer would be different.

Allen: It’s a political answer. I’m not going to fault him for it at all. He was in a tough spot. He had his team that was out, he protected us, gave us three weeks, some guys longer than three weeks, and gave us his best for three weeks. He did everything he could for us during that time. What happens after that, it’s a business. … Even for me going in, it was a business decision, ’cause at that point I thought it might be my last chance, and it gave me that year and two more years after that. I shouldn’t have anything to complain about — I got a ring, I got five years in the league, so to turn around and complain now, I have a different view of it, and I can see he was just trying to straddle the fence. He can’t have a right answer no matter what he says.

Windham: That answer that he gave was bigger than that. He had a logo on his shirt, Joe Gibbs Racing. … That answer if you think about it, it reflected that, because he is Joe Gibbs Racing, so if he comes back and flips it, he’s going to upset the real boys that make real money. Now, he knows we made him look like a genius as a coach. Take a bunch of nobodies — and we weren’t nobodies; a bunch of us were draft picks — ’cause he was able to coach us.

How do you all feel about your involvement with the replacement team?

Allen: Used? No. You go in with the expectation that you’re just going to play, however many games they’re going to let you play. Now the rest after that, you put on yourself. I should get this, I should get that. Things will happen. No one thought we were going to win the Super Bowl, so we get a 30 for 30 and it’s going to be shown on Sept. 12, more power to you, brothers, and keep it moving. Who thought we were going to be on TV at 57 or 52 years old?

Windham: My dad calls me and tells me to go get the USA Today paper. I say, ‘For what?’ Got Wilber Marshall holding my jersey number up. He just signed the first million-dollar contract with the Redskins, so I get on the phone and call Charley Casserly … and they say, ‘Oh, Dave, we’re glad you called. We were just getting ready to call to cut you.’ Y’all … [had] the audacity not to call me? Just call and tell me you’re going to cut me, don’t let me read it in the USA Today paper that y’all gave this cat my number. … They used to have shirts we would wear, ‘Property of … the Dallas Cowboys, the Redskins, etc.’ If you leave a team, you have first rights to refusal to their player. When they cut me, I go to Houston, they block me to play for Houston. They match the number for Houston and trade me to Green Bay. Yes, I got misused.

Settles: I was just happy with the opportunity. I give the Redskins credit for doing their due diligence to bring all of these guys together, when nobody was doing that. … I kind of keep it in perspective. … I think what would mean more to me would be acknowledgment and to say, ‘These guys are officially included with all rights of the Washington football team.’ If that were the case, I would be cool with it. Either way, I’m still happy whether they do it or not.

What do you hope the 30 for 30 achieves?

Settles: Lots of awards. A lot of airplay. I think a lot of people in the Washington, D.C., area would just appreciate to know what the whole thing was about and what was going on. … I think the story is going to be told, and I think that’s a great thing in and of itself.

Windham: Overall, I’m good with it. I don’t have any animosity. … I’ve always said scabs make stronger skin. … That’s what we were, we turned into stronger skin, and even the fans start saying, ‘Bring the scabs back,’ because we were playing quality football.

Allen: You know it’s a story that you were a part of. As they say in the movie, we were pretty much shamed into not bringing it up. It’s a very sore subject. Even me trying to explain the word ‘scab’ during the movie, I still don’t like it, and if you call me it, it might not be pretty. Then I try to say it doesn’t bother me, which I guess isn’t necessarily true. I think it’s going to do wonders. … Rings mean a lot. Ask LeBron, ask K.D. [Kevin Durant], ask anybody that ever won a ring or someone who didn’t like [Charles] Barkley. Rings mean everything. That’s why you play the game. Everybody can’t get one, but when you’re there and you should have one, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. You deserve it.

Absolutely, [I want my other teammates to get rings.]

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.