Striking up memories
By JOEY JOHNSTON of The Tampa Tribune

The story is part-hyperbole, all-Hollywood. Imagine a group of has-been and never-was athletes. Imagine plucking them from construction sites, office cubicles, unemployment lines, even out of prison. Imagine transforming them into a professional football team, one that hastily replaces a group of legitimate players who are on strike.

That's the premise of ``The Replacements,'' which opened Friday in the Tampa Bay area. Jimmy McGinty (portrayed by Gene Hackman), coach of the fictional Washington Sentinels, summed up the spirit with his closing line. ``Every athlete dreams of a second chance. These men lived it.''

The scenario seems preposterous. Except for one little fact. It actually happened. ``I remember it well ... because I was there,'' said James Ramey, 43, now a night supervisor for Pepin Distributing Co. ``For most of us, it was another glimmer of glory. I had no delusions that I was going to make a Warren Sapp-type impact. It was like a dream sequence, just wild stuff.''

Ramey, a defensive lineman, was among the replacement players who formed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the month-long NFL players strike in 1987. Ramey had the signature quote: ``We are the Scabaneers.'' The replacement Bucs went 2-1 and were somewhat cohesive, considering many had played for the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits from 1983-85.

Coach Ray Perkins and his assistants scrambled to locate potential players. Replacement games counted in the standings, so recruiting became serious business. One worked for Sears. Another was a UPS driver. Still another was working on the freight docks and playing semi-pro football. There was an aerobics instructor, a real estate broker, an aluminum salesman and a bill collector. Two were Hillsborough County deputy sheriffs. Rick Neuheisel, now coach at the University of Washington, passed through One Buccaneer Place before landing with San Diego's replacement team.

``Some of those guys were horribly out of shape,'' said Bucs television broadcaster Doug Graber, who was Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator in 1987. ``I remember our first game in Detroit. One of our linemen comes running out in football pants and a half-shirt. He's got this huge gut. I mean, huge. He's laying on the field stretching. And I'm thinking, `My gosh, what is going on here? Is this really the NFL?' ''

Yes and no. ``It's a little different going from jogging two miles after work to running gassers in the heat of a football practice,'' said real estate executive John Reaves, 45, the former NFL and USFL quarterback who joined the replacement Bucs. ``I remember it as a lot of fun. But back then, it was survival.''

The replacement games were widely panned. Some looked like they were happening in slow motion. But NFL ownership, which endured a 57-day strike without games in 1982, was determined to break the players' union this time. Replacement games were sparsely attended (the Bucs-Lions gate: 4,919) and portrayed with a combination of derision and humor. The San Francisco 49ers (dubbed the Phony-Niners) ran the college-style wishbone offense during a Monday night game. ``These point spreads are changing faster than Jessica Hahn's life story,'' ESPN analyst Pete Axthelm said during one pregame show.

Graber said Bucs' coaches worked just as hard, if not harder. This wasn't a joke. ``I had been out of football for two years,'' Ramey said. ``Remember, the USFL dried up and blew away. Many of us couldn't walk away from the game on our own terms. The game walked away from us. ``It was another chance. It was good money [Ramey said he pocketed about $14,000 for the replacement games]. I know I was out there at practice hitting people, running around, feeling good about myself. The next day I tried to get out of bed and the only thing that didn't hurt on my body was my nose. I knew it was temporary for me. I was a few weeks from getting booted back to reality.''

Other players viewed the opportunity as false hope. Most were summarily released when the real NFL players ended their strike. The fringe players, maybe those who once lasted until a final NFL cut-down date, again had their hearts trampled. Now they are a footnote. Yes, the results did count. You can look it up.

But the individual statistics quickly were forgotten. Most teams list replacement players at the end of their all-time rosters with qualifiers and asterisks. ``I don't think we'll see anything like it again because those players aren't going to walk away from that type of money again,'' Ramey said. ``There's always going to be enough ex-football players walking the streets who will do anything for another shot at that adrenalin rush. ``I don't think the [real] Bucs were threatened by us. They knew the score and so did we. But we were different. I remember one of the [equipment] men saying, `I love you guys. You laugh and have a good time. You don't treat it so seriously. It's a breath of fresh air.' ''

That's how Graber remembers his experience. Some coaches might cringe at losing an entire team and working with inferior, perhaps unprepared, replacements. Graber's memories are fond. ``I was really sorry to see those guys go, mostly because of their attitudes,'' Graber said. ``They worked their butts off. We didn't take it easy on them. ``Football is a fleeting thing. It can be yanked from under you in a heartbeat. When you start playing football, you have a dream, like these guys did. Now they're probably sitting across the bar, saying, `Hey, did you know I used to play for the Bucs?' It's a bizarre story, all right.''

Bizarre, but true.