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Esiason drops back

Boomer Esiason

Boomer Esiason may have been the face of the 1987 strike, but it was his backside that went down in history when he sat in front of a bus at the Spinney Field gate. With the NFL and NFLPA set to go to court Wednesday in St. Paul, Minn., as the players try to lift the owners' 25-day lockout with an injunction, Esiason hopes both sides don't throw each under the bus and reach a compromise.

His message for the players sitting through this work stoppage is as clear as one of his audibles:

"Keep your mouth shut, save your money, and stay in shape."

Two out of three ain't bad if you're Meat Loaf and Norman Julius Esiason, once one of the most influential leaders of the NFL Players Association and now one of the biggest voices of the mainstream media who balances both in the next generation.

"I had to put my money where my mouth was and my mouth was pretty big," says Esiason, the former Bengals quarterback now somehow and suddenly two weeks shy of the big 5-oh. "I was 25, 26. Hothead. Emotional. I was running amuck. I was proud of some things I did then and not very proud of some others."

Esiason is looking at this one from under center and not from either side of the line. He hopes a decision in the St. Paul court that figures to come next week gets the wheels moving again toward an agreement.

"It looks like (DeMaurice) Smith wants to take this case to the Supreme Court; that's unfortunate" Esiason says of the NFLPA chief. "And the owners think they gave the players too much in the last deal. Well, who wants to give back anything? I can understand that. We can just look at what's going on now in unions across the country. No one wants to give back what they already have."

That may sound a little too middle of the road for Boomer Esiason. Almost like Samuel Gompers joining the administration of William McKinley or a contingent of air traffic controllers stumping to re-elect Ronald Reagan. But like Esiason says, "As the years go by, the anger goes away and it becomes what everything else is; an experience."

And yet, there is still a union firebrand wearing the rights-holder blazers of CBS and Westwood One. Esiason says "the players don't trust the owners and they never have."

A month before the players went out on strike in September 1987, the Bengals made Esiason, 26, coming off the first of three Pro Bowls, the highest paid player in football at a stunning $1.2 million average for the next five years. When the players struck after the second game, Esiason did what quarterbacks do and led his teammates to a local high school to practice during the three weeks the owners tried to lure the players past the picket lines with games between replacement players.

So he saved his money and kept in shape. But as for keeping his mouth shut …

The strike's Polaroid Moment (cell phones were one more work stoppage away) clicked when a group of Bengals were huddled outside the Spinney gates standing in front of a bus that had arrived to pick up the replacement players and take them to their hotel. Esiason suddenly sat down in front of the bus. His center, Bruce Kozerski soon joined him.

"I love that moment. One of my great moments. Both positive and negative," Esiason says. "Cris Collinsworth was standing next to me and said, 'I'm moving because I don't want to be in that picture.' I've seen it characterized so many different ways that I don't even try to correct it any more. It was supposed to be going 100 miles per hour and I jumped in the way. Or Sam (Wyche) was supposed to be telling the driver to hit me. Everybody has been on the bus from the Brown family to the replacement players.

"But no one was on the bus and it was parked. I just sat down. No way did I plan it. Are you kidding me? Nothing we did was planned."

But he's not very proud of those days at Riverfront Stadium he stood on boxes with a sign that said, "I'm On Strike."

"I mean, there I am standing together with West Virginia coal miners," he says. "I know that's the message the union wanted to send at the time, but how ridiculous did that look to Bengals fans? There's this guy making 1.2 standing up there like that. I'm not very proud of that."

But don't let Esiason undersell his role. To a rookie like safety Solomon Wilcots and veterans who lived the '82 strike like Collinsworth, Esiason was a daily, unflinching inspiration and ultimate team leader planting the seeds for Super Bowl chemistry that sprouted out of that locker room the next season.   

And 24 years later Esiason is proud of his teammates, particularly a guy like cornerback Louis Breeden, and what they accomplished.

"Ninety-five percent of that team didn't cross the picket line, but I told guys like Louis Breeden that they should go in if they thought this was going to be their last year. It's his last year. He should get paid," Esiason says. "But he said, 'I'm not crossing that picket line for anything,' and that's somebody I've always held in high admiration. Yeah, the owners embarrassed the players with the replacements and we came in without getting free agency. But it set the stage for Plan B (free agency), and the Reggie White case, and full free agency and the agreement that has worked out so well for both sides."

Esiason says there are still plenty of issues that he feels the players have to fight for beyond the revenue split.

"How the commissioner can talk about player safety and concussion awareness and then try to push through an 18-game schedule isn't right," Esiason says. "The players have to stand together on that. Look at the brain injuries. Play 18 games? They can't even get through 16."

But everyone knows, especially an '87 firebrand, that this is coming down to the revenue split and the salary cap. From what Esiason understands, the difference in the negotiations is $9 million per team.

"OK, you say, 'That's just nine million,' " he says. "But multiply that by 32 teams over a six-year deal. That's almost $2 billion. The players want to know why the owners need to take back so much. I don't blame them. But if I'm the owners, why should they let them see the books? I wouldn't. There's got to be some compromise."

Here is Esiason's idea of some give and take, not unlike when he brokered a trade to get out of Cincinnati a year before the deal was actually triggered:

"I'm like everybody else. I think there should be a rookie wage scale. I don't care what the agents say. It's ridiculous that guys like JaMarcus Russell make 30, 40 million before they even come into the league. You've had a bunch there. David Klingler, Akili Smith. What about Andre Smith? But the players ought to get something in return for that. There should be no franchise tag or transition tag (for free agents) and you should be able to get to free agency sooner."

But Esiason says he also understands the economic nuts and bolts of what makes the NFL special ("So the Pittsburgh Steelers don't become the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Kansas City Chiefs don't become the Kansas City Royals.") have to stay relatively intact.

He thinks if the two sides got a deal then, they can get a deal now. Esiason is amazed how the venom has gone viral via Twitter and Facebook, but it wasn't exactly Sesame Street in '87 when violence simmered on some picket lines.

"I remember those pictures from Kansas City and some of the Chiefs looking like Libyan rebels without the anti-aircraft guns," Esiason says.

But he is almost the big 5-oh and he doesn't use Twitter or Facebook. Imagine the power of punctuation in his 26-year-old hands.  

"If I had Twitter, oh my God, I don't know what would have happened," he says. "Sam and I would have been going at it every minute. There have been some stupid things said the last few weeks, but we had that, too." 

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