40 years after NFL strike of 1982, Vikings players look back at ‘crazy, crazy year’
Star receiver Ahmad Rashad said work stoppage played key role in decision to retire and become broadcaster
In the fall of 1982, the NFL went on strike. Some players then didn’t know when they would get their next paycheck or even where to go to wait out the work stoppage.
Meanwhile, Vikings star wide receiver Ahmad Rashad headed to Rome, where he stayed at a luxurious hotel and played tennis every day.
It was 40 years ago that a strike lasted 57 days and led the NFL to downsize to a nine-game schedule, seven fewer games than normal. Looking back, Rashad, who came into the NFL in 1972, said that was when he decided it would be his final season.
That decision turned out quite well. Rashad, who had gotten into television work in the Twin Cities after joining the Vikings in 1976, went on to become a highly successful sports broadcaster.
The Vikings played their second game of that season on Sept. 16, 1982, losing 23-22 at Buffalo on a Thursday night to fall to 1-1. The NFL had games scheduled on the following Sunday and a game on Monday Night Football, on Sept. 20 between Green Bay and the New York Giants. After that, the season shut down as the NFL players union and the owners were locked in a stalemate over player salaries.
“All of a sudden, there’s a strike and the season shuts down,” Rashad said from his home in Jupiter, Fla. “I knew that I didn’t have many years to play anyway, three or four more years, but it just deadened my enthusiasm for football. You didn’t know when it was going to be over.”
In addition to broadcast work, Rashad, then 32, also had a side job as vice president of special events for Jeno’s Pizza, which was based then in Duluth. During the strike, the company sent him to Rome.
Rashad’s job entailed being in advertisements and, when in Italy, meeting with Jeno’s employees sent there as a reward for their stores’ high sales figures. Rashad, who had made four straight Pro Bowls prior to 1982, admits he wasn’t exactly working hard.
“I was a big tennis player at the time, so I took my racket so I could play tennis every day, and maybe twice a week I would host a meeting,” said Rashad, who said he had a Vikings contract worth about $200,000 a year then but made a similar amount of money from Jeno’s. “I was staying at a beautiful hotel. And during that time, I got to start thinking about life after football, and it was getting to be time to retire. I felt like I wanted to be on top when I retired.”
Rashad did return to the Vikings when the strike ended but suffered a season-ending back injury in a December game at Detroit, and then made his retirement official. Despite head coach Bud Grant pleading for him to consider a return in 1983, Rashad instead went directly into broadcasting and actually helped cover Minnesota’s 21-7 loss the following month at Washington in the Super Bowl Tournament.
Ah, yes, the Super Bowl Tournament. When the strike finally ended on Nov. 16, with games restarting on Nov. 21, the NFL decided a fair method for the playoffs was to have 16 of the 28 teams make it, an increase of six from 1981. So the eight teams with the best records in the NFC earned berths as well as the eight teams with the best records in the AFC.
“It was just a crazy, crazy year,” said Terry LeCount, then a Vikings receiver.
The Vikings finished with a 5-4 record, which actually was good enough for a home game to start the tournament at the spanking-new Metrodome, which opened in 1982 after many years of the team playing outdoors at Metropolitan Stadium. Minnesota defeated Atlanta 30-24 on Jan. 9, 1983 before losing at Washington on Jan. 15. Washington went on to defeat Miami 27-17 two weeks later in Super Bowl XVII.
Vikings players from 1982 have lots of memories from that season. Running back Rickey Young has a photo in his basement at his St. Paul home showing him celebrating after scoring the winning touchdown in Minnesota’s 31-27 win over Dallas in the final game of the NFL regular season on Monday Night Football on Jan. 3, 1983 at the Metrodome.
“I caught that crazy pass from Tommy Kramer on the ground, and I had to go down to catch it and I slid on the ground,” Young recalled about hitting the turf at the 8-yard line and getting up and running into the end zone to complete a 14-yard reception with 1:52 left in the game. “People ask me why I slid, and I said to make sure that I caught that low ball, and we laughed about that.”
Young and Kramer still laugh about that play, with Young calling it a bad pass and Kramer saying he had to throw it in that spot so the running back wasn’t “hit by that train that was coming at you.” Kramer was referring to Cowboys defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones.
But that game is mostly remembered for Dallas running back Tony Dorsett scoring on a 99-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to set an NFL record for the longest run from scrimmage. The record since was tied by Tennessee running back Derrick Henry in 2018.
On the previous play from scrimmage, safety John Turner scored on a 33-yard interception return to give the Vikings a 24-13 lead. To this day, he jokes about Dorsett stealing his thunder.
“To make that play was just a beautiful thing, and then Tony Dorsett made history with a 99-yard run,” Turner said. “But the thing people don’t remember is that they lost that game.”
Actually, Turner was happy the Vikings were even playing that night. After all, four months earlier, there was nothing but uncertainty about the season.
The NFL signed a lucrative television deal earlier in 1982, and players, believing they were underpaid, wanted salaries increased. The union, led by executive director Ed Garvey, asked for a guarantee of $1.6 billion over four years going toward salaries. The owners balked, setting the stage for the strike.
After coming into the league as a second-round draft pick in 1978, Turner said he was able to negotiate a salary that season for $32,000. But he said he initially was offered $20,000, and that was the minimum for rookies in 1982.
“Secretaries were making more than that,” Turner said. “Sanitation workers were making more than that. A lot of people were making more than that. And (football players) were putting their life on the line in a sense.”
Turner was on his second contract in 1982, and said it was for about $100,000. Still, he said he didn’t mind losing game checks that season if it meant helping all players in the future.
Sammy White, then a Vikings receiver who said he was making about $80,000 then, had the same view because “guys were underpaid big time,” Young also was willing to fight for all players.
“It’s tough to lose that amount of money, but sometimes you have to do it for the bigger things that are coming down the road for everybody,” said Young, who said his 1982 salary was $137,000. “We were a tight, close-knit team. We were unified.”
The Vikings were so unified that they actually conducted practices on their own during the strike. With Minnesota’s facility at Winter Park in Eden Prairie closed to players, they held workouts several times a week at various places in the Twin Cities, most often at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.
Kramer headed the offense in the workouts, and linebacker Scott Studwell led the defense.
“We had all the receivers and the running backs, and I’d take them down to Normandale, and we’d just go out there and practice for a good hour and run routes and just things to stay in shape,” Kramer said.
Grant wasn’t allowed to deal with players on football-related matters during the strike. Grant said he doesn’t remember much about what he did during the time off except that he “went hunting.”
The player workouts continued throughout the strike, but not all of the notable members of the team stuck around the entire time. Young said he wasn’t sure initially where to go when the strike started before he headed to San Diego, where he still had a home after playing for the Chargers from 1975-77. He kept in shape by running up hills, and played a lot of golf.
Rookie running back Darrin Nelson, who had been taken with the No. 7 pick in the 1982 draft out of Stanford, returned to California. He spent time working out with the track team at Pius X, his former high school in Downey, a suburb of Los Angeles.
“I was a rookie, so I was kind of going with the flow,” Nelson said about the issues related to the strike. “I didn’t really know what in the heck was going on.”
Money wasn’t an issue for Nelson when the paychecks stopped coming. He said his contract that season was for about $180,000 and he had received a signing bonus for between $400,000 and $500,000.
“A lot of guys on the team were mad at me,” Nelson said about being able to continue to live comfortably because of his signing bonus. “What I remember most about that season was, ‘Hey, this NFL stuff isn’t so hard. You’ve only got to play nine games.’ ”
Money was much tighter for second-year pro Leo Lewis, a receiver who said he was making about $25,000. He said it helped matters that linebacker Wendell Ray, who was Lewis’ college teammate at Missouri and had failed to make the Vikings after being a fifth-round draft pick in 1981, moved into his apartment to help with the rent. And Lewis also had family members who lived in the Twin Cities available for support.
“A lot of us weren’t making much money,” Lewis said. “And we had no idea that (the strike) would last so long.”
With the uncertainty about when it would end, if it would end, White was on a fixed budget.
“It was tough,” he said. “You couldn’t go out and spend every penny because you didn’t know when your next check was coming.”
Most players were quite relieved when the strike finally came to an end. The union fell short of its initial goals but did get the owners to agree to give players $1.313 billion over five years for salaries. Minimum salaries were raised for several different categories of players, including the bottom of the rookie scale increasing from $20,000 to $30,000.
White wasn’t all that thrilled with the final outcome, saying the owners “still owe us.”
And it didn’t do much for long-term labor matters. The NFL had another strike in 1987, one that resulted in three replacement games being played in what turned out to be a 15-game season.
“Well, you’re never really going to outdo the owners, but you do what you can,” LeCount said of the outcome of the 1982 strike. “I think we were all ready at that time to play football again.”
Some, though, were more ready than others. Rashad hustled back to Minnesota from Rome, but admitted he didn’t have the same feeling for football he once did.
“When the strike was over, my enthusiasm toward playing was gone,” he said. “It wasn’t the same.”
Some players gained weight during the strike. But Young, listed at 196 pounds during his career, actually lost nearly 20 pounds.
“I was out there in San Diego working out and running, and out there you eat fish and salad,” he said. “You don’t eat the good food like when you’re back here. (Offensive coordinator) Jerry Burns laughed when he saw me and said, ‘What the heck happened to you?’ ”
On Nov. 21, the Vikings took the field for the first time in more than two months, and it didn’t go well. They were walloped 26-7 at Green Bay to fall to 1-2.
The Vikings eventually got going, winning four of their final six games. But it took awhile for the fans to come back. For each of the first three home games after the strike, Young estimated there were between 15,000 and 20,000 empty seats.
“When fans don’t get their football, they can act a little ugly,” White said. “They’ll throw stuff and call out people. It just wasn’t a pretty time.”
White remembers signs in the stands calling the players “spoiled athletes” and other unflattering things.
But the fans mostly returned for the regular-season finale against the rival Cowboys, a game that wasn’t originally on the schedule until it was expanded by one week so teams would play nine games rather than eight. It was the first January regular-season game in Vikings history, and they wouldn’t have another until 1999.
The dramatic win assured the Vikings wouldn’t finish with a losing record and wouldn’t have to open the Super Bowl Tournament the following week at Dallas. And it sparked a huge surge in ticket sales for the game against Atlanta after only about 10,000 season-ticket holders had picked up options for playoff games.
“I wasn’t surprised, I was shocked,” Mike Lynn, who was then Minnesota’s general manager and died in 2012, said after a flurry of tickets had been sold. “That’s 50,000 tickets in 2½ days. I don’t think Frank Sinatra or The Rolling Stones could do that.”
The Vikings sent the fans home happy. Trailing 21-13 in the third quarter, they came back for the 30-24 win on Ted Brown’s 5-yard touchdown run with 1:44 left in the game.
“That game was kind of like back to the good old days,” Young said. “It was very satisfying to be back out there and the crowd being back.”
The Vikings ran out of gas the next week in the loss at Washington. They couldn’t stop running back John Riggins, who rushed for 185 yards on 37 carries and scored a touchdown.
As it turned out, that would be the last playoff game coached by the legendary Grant, who headed the Vikings from 1967-83 and in 1985. Minnesota wouldn’t make the postseason again until the 1987 strike season.
And it was the first playoff game worked for television by Rashad, who would go on to become better known as a broadcaster for the NBA rather than for the NFL.
“We were in the rebuilding stages, and I wasn’t prepared to go through rebuilding,” Rashad said of not wanting to come back for the 1983 season. “And I had offers to go into television. I quit (the NFL) right at the top even though Bud tried to talk me out of it.”
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