Saints Coach Got His Start Crossing a Picket Line
(Column by BOB KRAVITZ, The Indianapolis Star)
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- There is one line on Sean Payton's football resume, one line that doesn't get much attention but ought to raise the eyebrows of every man who plays for him and roots for the New Orleans Saints.
In 1987, he was a replacement player for the Chicago Bears, or, as they were called at the time, the Spare Bears.
Actually, a backup scab - he played quarterback behind starting scab Mike Hohensee - who undermined the NFL Players Association and crossed the picket line so he could chase some kind of dubious dream of wearing an NFL uniform.
Some decisions can be forgiven as youthful indiscretions, lapses in judgment. This is not one of them. Payton is getting a lot of cheers this week for his coaching acumen - all of them are deserved - but his entrée into this league came at the expense of the same union members who now put their bodies on the line for him and his staff.
"I'll be honest: For a time, I thought all those (replacement players) were scabs, rats who were sticking a knife in us and our union," said Dan Hampton, the former Bear who walked the picket line in 1987. "This guy came in and played and replaced Jim McMahon, I mean, c'mon. His only entrée into the league was by being a scab.
"But you know, over the years, I've softened toward those guys - mostly because I can't stand our current union and the way they've turned their backs on the older players. They've flashed a giant, 10-foot middle finger at us. The way I look at it now, the guys who really (angered) me were the Howie Longs and Randy Whites, players who crossed the line for themselves and for monetary gain. Kids like Payton, they were chasing a dream. I can't be too hard on them. And the important thing is, he used that opportunity and was fearless about it. Look what he's become. I look at the union now, and it only enhances (Payton's) stature in my eyes."
How big of a deal was Payton's three-game stint as a replacement player, during which he completed 8-of-23 passes for 79 yards? - I asked McMahon, the man Payton replaced, what he thought about the Saints' head coach, noting that he was a scab on that '87 team.
"Really? I didn't even know that," McMahon said. "Makes no difference to me."
Either these guys have bad memories, or they're a lot more forgiving than I am. That, or I just happened to reach out to two Bears who don't have much, if any, issue with Payton's previous incarnation as a replacement player. It's possible if I talked to Gary Fencik or Steve McMichael, I would get a very different answer.
As it was, I went to the Saints and asked two players in particular, union activists Drew Brees and offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb, about their head coach's resume.
"We've had conversations about that, but not necessarily on the union side of things," Brees said. (The same day, Thursday, the NFLPA was holding a saber-rattling press conference outlining their strategy in what figures to be acrimonious collective-bargaining agreement negotiations). "I don't think our generation looks at those (replacement players) like it was their fault or anything like that."
Stinchcomb was equally forgiving, perhaps suffering from convenient amnesia.
"How are you going to ask somebody to give up an opportunity to play in the league that otherwise they might not have?"
I wonder, how would Brees or Stinchcomb react if replacement players are brought in for the 2011 season to take their spots? Think they would be quite so magnanimous?
For his part, Payton said the other day that becoming a replacement player was "an easy decision," a no-brainer for a former Eastern Illinois quarterback who would go on to play in the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League before pursuing a life in coaching.
"I think that first year out of college, I knew I wanted to coach and I certainly was grateful for the experience of the tryouts and the workouts," Payton said. "It was clear that I was going to have to get into this profession in a different area."
Said Hampton: "I didn't like what he did or what any of those other (replacement players) did. But he used the opportunity and you see where he is now. Those guys were the American dream."
My version of the American Dream doesn't involve crossing a picket line. But that's just me.
So here's the question: Should there be a statute of limitations on something that happened roughly 23 years ago? Talking to several players, including two old Chicago Bears and two Saints who are major players in the players union, it doesn't seem to be a terribly big issue. Whatever hard feelings existed have dissipated over time. For some of us, though, there are certain life choices that speak to a man's essential character, whether he's 23 or 53.
It's a line on his life's resume that Payton can't erase. He is now the leader of the same kinds of men who he sold out for a quick buck and a chance back in 1987.
There are a host of feel-good stories surrounding this year's New Orleans Saints.
This isn't one of them.