After the second game of the 1987 season, NFL players went on strike to demand higher salaries and a more desirable form of free agency.
At the same time, Craig McEwen got the phone call he’d been anticipating.
The Redskins signed McEwen as one of the replacement players who filled in for the regulars while they were on strike. Then in his rookie year, the undrafted tight end had tried out for the squad but was released just before the season began. Upon letting him go, the Redskins asked him if he’d be willing to return should the regulars walk off the job.
McEwen told Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard to definitely give him a call.
“It was hard for me because you form friendships,” he said. “I’d only known the guys four months since minicamp and stuff, but you still have an alliance and an allegiance and loyalty to whom you form that friendship with and the things you do for them. It was probably one of the tougher decisions I’ve ever made, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
McEwen, who played his college ball at Utah and Santa Ana Junior College, starred on Washington’s replacement team. He made a few catches in the first two games, wins over the St. Louis Cardinals and the Giants, then realized his dream of playing in the NFL in front of a national television audience.
McEwen shined, in fact, in a Monday night clash against the Cowboys at Texas Stadium. He caught seven passes for 108 yards in a 13-7 Redskins win. Four of his receptions, including gains of 30 and 42 yards, came on third-down plays in the second half.
It was one of the greatest upsets in NFL history. While no Redskins crossed the picket line during the three-game period, Dallas played with at least six regulars, including quarterback Danny White and two future Hall of Famers, running back Tony Dorsett and defensive tackle Randy White.
McEwen was the go-to man that night for quarterback Tony Robinson, a former Heisman Trophy candidate. Robinson, who played nearly the entire game after replacing injured starter Ed Rubbert, completed 11 of 18 passes for 152 yards.
“Me and Tony just had something going,” McEwen said. “(Coach) Joe Gibbs saw it. I wasn’t fast enough to get to the end zone on one breakaway, but the guy I was playing against, I just had his number.”
That performance, as McEwen put it, solidified his promotion to the regular roster. He was one of 10 replacements integrated with a frustrated group of regulars who had failed to convince the NFL owners to meet their demands.
Those replacements were in a precarious position. During the strike, the regulars picketed outside Redskins Park, and many of them resented the “Scabskins,” as the team’s replacements were mockingly known. Starting defensive tackle Darryl Grant once slammed and cracked the window on a bus carrying the replacements.
McEwen said long-time Redskins trainer Bubba Tyer once told him that one or two of the replacements who made the roster got roughed up by the regulars. The rookie, for his part, kept quiet, went about his business and earned the respect of his more established teammates.
“Guys would look at me, they wouldn’t talk to me, and I think by seven, eight, nine games into the year they started to see that I was very grateful to be there,” he said. “I understood my position, I understood my role, and I took it very seriously. Some of the old-school guys giving me the nod, the wink, the little elbow. It was like a big brother letting you know, `Okay, just keep doing what you’re doing, you’re okay.’ ”
After the strike, McEwen played sparingly the rest of the season. He appeared in 14 games as a Redskin in 1988, catching 23 passes for 323 yards, then spent his last three seasons in San Diego. In all, he posted 108 receptions for 1,310 yards and six touchdowns.
McEwen cherishes the lasting friendships he maintains with his Redskin teammates from the past.
“Everything just like right now, seeing Charles Mann and Mark Rypien, Jay Schroeder, Ricky Sanders, Timmy Smith, like we never missed a beat,” he said at last year’s alumni reunion at FedExField. “It’s a thing you’ll always hear from every single one of us, the camaraderie and the friendships that you form.”
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. His web site is redskinshistorian.com. Check out his Facebook Friend and Fan pages and follow him on Twitter.