Over the years, a thousand football coaches have gathered their players before the big game and implored them to "play like you've never played before." A fan in Buffalo brought a brilliant yet cruel twist to that plea last Sunday as the replacement Bills took the field for the third and--yes, there is a God--final performance before the regular NFL players returned from their strike.
"Play Like You'll Never Play Again," read the giant sign held high by the fan.
For the vast majority of the non-union players, the sign was all too prophetic. For as the regular players filed back into camps the next day, the non-union folk were sent packing, their NFL dreams shattered as suddenly as an expensive glass vase mistakenly left on William Perry's dining room chair.
One of the casualties was Ron Foster, formerly of Cal State Northridge, who endured the sound of silence on NFL draft day both in 1986, when he first became eligible, and again this year. He was invited to the Raiders' training camp in the spring and invited back in the fall for another look, but he was cut three weeks into that session. When the regular Raiders walked out Sept. 21, however, Foster was summoned back by the Raiders for an indefinite stay and a chance to play strikeball.
Now, Foster is again out of the Raider camp and out of work. His story is a common one these days as hundreds of replacement players have been given the boot.
One who was not, however, is Erik Kramer, the former Burroughs High and Pierce College quarterback who went on to be named the 1986 offensive player of the year in the Atlantic Coast Conference for North Carolina State. He also played as an irregular, but when the strike ended he wasn't given the boot. He was given a contract by the Atlanta Falcons.
If Foster's dream of playing in the NFL hasn't been snuffed out, it has, at the least, been left barely flickering.
"Maybe another NFL team saw enough of me in the two games I played to give me a chance," Foster said the day before his impending release. "If not, I'll go somewhere else to play. There's a league in Italy now, or I could play in Canada. I just really want to play."
But Kramer's dream, a dream that also was rekindled by the NFL strike, now burns brighter than several recent earthbound comets.
He tried out briefly during the fall with the New Orleans Saints but was cut after the first exhibition game. Now, he is secure as the third quarterback for the Falcons behind Scott Campbell and David Archer, who have been compared to Joe Namath and Y. A. Tittle, but just as a joke.
"They won't throw me in right away, but if somebody gets hurt I'm right there as the No. 2 quarterback," Kramer said. "There are some things those two guys do better than me right now, mostly because they've had more NFL experience. But I definitely believe I could do just as well or better than them. I'm here to win the starting job. I don't care who's the quarterback right now. If I get the chance I know I can do it."
In the Falcons' first two non-union games, Kramer turned in mediocre performances while sharing playing time with Jeff Van Raaphorst--who stood out only because he was the only NFL quarterback with three names. Kramer came back with another dud in the first half of last Sunday's game against the Rams in Atlanta. The loudest sound in the Atlanta locker room at halftime of that game was the sound of a zipper as Kramer opened his travel bag and prepared to pack for the trip back to North Carolina, where he was working and studying as a graduate assistant when the NFL strike gave him a new life.
"The breaks didn't go my way in the first two games," Kramer said. "I thought I was playing OK fundamentally, but I just came up short with a few throws here and there. The same thing happened in the first half against the Rams. I just never made the big play when we needed it."
He did, however, make the big play when the Rams needed it, lobbing two interceptions in the half. If this guy had NFL written all over him, it was in extremely small type. But football games have second halves, too, and because of the second half against the Rams, Kramer is now a Falcon instead of a dead duck.
He took the Rams apart in the final 30 minutes, completing 19 of 30 passes for 232 yards and 3 touchdowns, bringing the Falcons back from a 17-0 halftime deficit to a 24-20 victory and prompting Ram Coach John Robinson to compare him favorably to Miami's Dan Marino.
It should be pointed out that when Robinson gets excited he also might make a favorable comparison between the guy in overalls who texture-coated your garage and Picasso, but in this case, Kramer deserved the big-time praise.