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NFL PLAYERS STRIKE: DAY 23 : Raiders : Hilger and 10 Other Players Cross Line, Go Back to Work

October 15, 1987|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

Well, quarterback Rusty Hilger has led the Raiders back to the top of the National Football League, just as Al Davis had hoped he would.

Leading the league in strike defectors may not be what Davis had in mind, but it could be a start. The Raiders now have 26, at least two more than the runner-up Rams, and counting. The St. Louis Cardinals have 22 and the Dallas Cowboys 21.

Whatever the Raiders' commitment, it apparently isn't to the NFL Players Assn.

Hilger was one of 11 striking players who reported to El Segundo headquarters before Wednesday's 10 a.m. deadline.

Others rejoining the ranks were linebacker Jerry Robinson, kicker Chris Bahr, running backs Frank Hawkins and Steve Strachan, defensive ends Greg Townsend and Bob Buczkowksi, wide receiver Mervyn Fernandez, defensive back James Davis and two players on injured reserve--tight end Gene Branton and wide receiver Brad Tubbs.

Rookie guard John Gesek returned a day earlier.

The list includes seven starters. Another 12 of the 26 are on the injured-reserve list, although with restrictions waived for the strike, they could be activated as soon as they are healthy.

Most of the defectors didn't want to talk about it.

A moving pack of reporters and cameramen escorted Hilger the few steps from the dressing room to the practice field, but he never stopped walking and offered minimal insight into his return.

"It's the best decision for Rusty Hilger," he said. "That's why I'm here today."

Money has nothing to do with it, he said.

Fernandez walked past, eating a sandwich.

"Time to come back," he said.

Bahr declined to comment on the advice of his attorney--himself.

"I'm my own attorney," he said. "I'm in to stay. It isn't important what my reasons are. It doesn't matter to anybody."

Bahr, the only practicing lawyer among active NFL players, was an outspoken supporter of the strike, but Wednesday he said: "Normally, I talk a great deal, but that's all I'm going to say."

Townsend was more willing to discuss his switch. Only a week earlier, when Howie Long and Bill Pickel crossed the picket line, he called them "fake men" and "Hollywood."

Reminded of that Wednesday, Townsend laughed, shrugged and said, "That was just the pot calling the kettle black.

"I just had to think about their situation and put mine with it. They're my teammates, and the (defensive) line is the closest group in the whole organization, so I felt like I had to be back with them."

The arrival of Townsend, who has been used regularly on passing downs, leaves only one key member of the line outside--defensive end Sean Jones, the team's player representative to the union.

Jones seemed a sad and lonely figure Wednesday morning, unable to check the defections of his teammates. He still hopes that the NFL owners will negotiate a quick settlement.

"They want the players back to work, because after this week, they've got to pay two sets of players," he said.

Jones referred to the payments due on pension and medical plans and the severance program, and the fact that after they play their third game Sunday, the non-union players also will be eligible for those plans.

In addition, anyone playing three games is due a half-share of any postseason earnings.

But it appears the owners are getting the players back, anyway. The Raiders have almost as many union members inside, 26, as they have outside, 31.

In fact, when Townsend and the others arrived Wednesday, there wasn't much of a picket line.

"They were standing out front," Townsend said. "I didn't have to drive through 'em. They were in a little huddle over there. I went over to the huddle after I got out of my car and told the guys (I was going in) . . . just trying to be a man about my situation, let 'em know I was going in.

"I spoke to Sean twice. Spoke to him this morning on the phone and (later) in person. The conversation was about being strong and that type of thing, and I told him I had my mind made up, and he said, 'Well, do what you gotta do,' and that's what I did."

Inside, Townsend was welcomed by Long and Pickel, and last week's name-calling wasn't mentioned.

"I really made the decision right after the deadline last week, during the weekend," Townsend said. "You heard the strike was almost over, and then they jumped back to Square 1, and I said, 'That's it.' "

Management's rejection of the union's latest proposal for mediation and arbitration wasn't a factor, he said.

"To me, that was irrelevant because my mind was already made up," Townsend said.

"I can see the players doing what they're doing now--coming in bit by bit--the ones somehow not believing in what they're told they should believe in.

"I never was too clear and straight on what the whole thing was about. I was pretty much going with everybody else. This way I'm going with everybody else, too, so you can say I'm just following people."

Although the defections don't help, Townsend thinks the union can survive.

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