Gary Plummer was a star linebacker with the San Diego Chargers during the 1987 strike and was one of the most forceful and persuasive voices during the 24-day walkout. He was also one of the most intractable — primarily because the strike was unlike anything he or the NFL had seen before.
It featured replacement players, angry fans, angrier players, demands for free agency and veterans crossing picket lines. And it was that last line item that infuriated Plummer and his striking teammates, all of whom held the line in San Diego and none of whom could understand why peers would break union ranks.
“It actually sucked,” Plummer said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast saluting the strike’s 30th anniversary, “when you’re getting phone calls from the coaches saying, ‘Hey, this guy who happened to be a sherriff in Solana County or something … he’s playing really well, and you could be out of a job in a couple of weeks if you continue with your histrionics.’
“It was bizarre to me how coaches changed their alliance in a heartbeat. Clearly, the ownership controlled them and signed their checks, so you have to understand that. But there’s so much talked-about loyalty in professional football and ‘we’re a family.’ But family went out the window real quick.”
At least it did in San Diego. But when Plummer changed teams, signing a free-agent contract with the San Francisco 49ers in 1994, he realized that family actually did exist in some parts of the NFL, and he found that family every Sunday in Candlestick Park. with Hall-of-Fame owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
And then he understood what he could not … and did not … seven years earlier.
“We were all ticked off every time we heard about a player crossing the line,” Plummer said, recalling the ’87 strike in San Diego. “It wasn’t even a question here in San Diego. The leadership was fantastic. It was a team of old veterans, and, truthfully, that’s why we weren’t very good.
“It was Don Coryell (who was fired the year before) hanging on to a lot of players from the ’70s and early ’80s who had seen better days. But what it enabled us to do … we literally had practices almost every day, with Dan Fouts running them, which wasn’t much different than when Coryell was there.
“But what was different was, when guys were crossing picket lines, we were just pissed off. And I just never understood it until I went and played for the San Francisco 49ers and understood what Eddie DeBartolo meant to the players. And literally there’s a 49ers’ family with Eddie DeBartolo. And the loyalty is unbelievable.
“Trust me, had I been with the 49ers when that strike happened, I would’ve crossed the picket line the first day. That’s a guy who was willing to do anything for his players, and you wanted to show your loyalty by doing anything for him.”
Asked if there wasn’t that feeling for Chargers’ owner Alex Spanos, Plummer laughed.
“Absolutely none,” he said.