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NFL PREVIEW 1988 : Strike Legacy: Evans' Dream Season, Francis' Rude Awakening

September 02, 1988|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

Jon Francis was on vacation last September when his phone rang. It was his agent: "The strike is on. I've got three teams--the San Francisco 49ers, the New England Patriots and the Rams--that want you. You get $1,000 just to sign and more where that came from if you stick. Well, whaddya say?"

Francis couldn't believe it. A month earlier, while he was trying to earn a job as a running back with the Patriots, there had been talk of a walkout.

"But I was saying, 'They're not going to strike. They're not foolish enough; the owners are going to pay them,' " said Francis.

But they did strike, leaving all sorts of jobs open for dreamers such as Francis, who had been drafted by the New York Giants in 1986 and cut; signed by the Patriots last year and cut. Now this. Now another try at fame and fortune, or another F: failure.

Francis considered the risks, but that didn't take long. A couple of days later, he became a replacement Ram.

"Coach (John) Robinson got the whole team together and said, 'We don't know how long this is going to last. It may go on 10 minutes, 10 days or 10 more weeks,' " Francis said.

For Francis, it was 10 months or so. In the second-to-last cut of this exhibition season, Francis was waived. On Monday, he stuffed his belongings into his Honda Civic, said goodby to his Anaheim apartment and began the 15-hour drive home to Corvallis, Ore.

"You know, this year would have been the Jaguar or the BMW," he said.

Vince Evans, former phenom, had all but given up on the National Football League. One more letter to one more general manager and he'd get writer's cramp. One more phone call and AT&T would throw a party for him.

In 1985, Evans played quarterback for the United States Football League's Denver Gold. Before that, it was the Chicago Blitz. And once, it had been the Chicago Bears of the National Football League. Then in 1986 came the demise of the USFL and with it, the apparent demise of Evans' football career. Shut out by the NFL, Evans took a job with a Denver electrical company. And prayed for a second chance.

"I would compare it to someone . . . trying to stay alive in the desert," Evans said. "It's like you see a glimpse of an oasis, but it seems so far away. And then you realize it's a mirage. You think it's so close, but it's only an illusion.

"(I went) through that period for two years, man, going through that same kind of process. You're almost dying. The dying was symbolic of it being all over for me in the game of football. All of a sudden, the strike comes about and I get to the oasis. I've got new life again. I'm rejuvenated."

The Raiders finally returned a call. They wanted, needed a strike quarterback. Evans couldn't find his cleats fast enough. The date was Sept. 22, 1987.

Evans is still at the oasis. Monday, when the Raiders trimmed their roster for the start of the regular season, Evans was spared the unkindest cut. Until further notice, he is the team's No. 2 quarterback. And he can thank, among other things, the strike.

"A miracle," he calls it.

The players' strike of 1987 was like that--a miracle worker. In the midst of all the bargaining rhetoric, the accusations, the lost revenue, some unlikely guys received some unlikely opportunities. Guys such as Francis and Evans, players who had been rejected or ignored by the system, or who had slipped through it.

You want winners and losers? Try the replacement players. All they wanted was a chance to play football, to take a stab at the bucks and the ball. Evans won, Francis lost.

Not that Francis, 24, didn't try. When you cross a picket line to play football, you're trying.

Francis finished the 1987 season with two touchdowns, lots of memories--some good, some bad--and the privilege of telling friends that he finished third on the team in rushing, just 1,236 yards behind Charles White.

He played in nine games, none as a starter, and caught eight passes. He saw America from the windows of charter jets and classy hotels, and he was on "Monday Night Football" for one play. For all this, Francis earned about $50,000, which isn't too bad.

"I can't be upset," he said. "I made some money and I showed what I could do."

Against the Atlanta Falcons at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Francis scored his first professional touchdown. "But that was during the strike, so I really didn't count that," he said.

But seven weeks later, the strike over, Francis scored again. That time, he kept the football.

"I caught it and I was going to give it back to the ref," he said. "Then I said, 'Nah, I'm going to keep this one.' " His mother now has the ball at the family home.

The not-so-great moments occurred during the first days of the strike. Replacement players were bused into Rams Park. Standing near the entrance were striking Ram players, some armed with eggs, others with taunts. Francis heard their words and said he couldn't blame them for being angry.

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