The ritual was performed regularly in 1987, when Rams offensive linemen Jackie Slater and Dennis Harrah shared a ride to the team’s Anaheim facility during the NFL players strike.
After emerging from the car, and before they walked the picket line, Slater and Harrah exchanged a nonverbal pleasantry.
“He’d bend over, and I’d kick him right across his butt,” Slater said, laughing. “And then I would bend over, and he’d kick me right across mine.”
It was the second time in five years the longtime teammates were in the midst of a season that began amid uncertainty and ultimately was shortened because of a strike. The kicks to their backsides were reminders to remain committed to the cause.
Now, 33 years later, Slater, Harrah and other Rams players and coaches who endured NFL seasons impacted by unforeseen events are watching to see how teams prepare for and deal with a season already affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
How does that affect players?
“It’s apples and oranges,” former Rams quarterback Jim Everett said of comparing strike-shortened seasons to one affected by a pandemic. “But the same factor is, it’s a distraction.”
In 1982, Rams receiver George Farmer was coming off knee surgery that had sidelined him for what would have been his rookie season. Despite the prospect of a looming strike, he said he was “on a quest to prove myself,” and he prepared accordingly.
“The real pros are doing their thing, grinding and figuring I’m not going to let the competition get ahead of me.”
Former Ram Jackie Slater, on current NFL players dealing with coronavirus limitations
Farmer said he worked out twice a day, and ran 10 miles on the beach every other day. He and other players also did passing drills at Santa Monica College.
“I wanted to be able to run all day and never be tired, to be in better shape than anyone on the team,” he said.
NFL teams played two games before a 57-day strike. The Rams finished the nine-game season with a 2-7 record. Farmer caught 17 passes, two for touchdowns. The performance helped set the stage for 1983, when he caught a career-best 40 passes.
“Some of these guys,” Farmer said of players today, “if they’re on the bubble in any way shape or form, they better be working out and better be doing what they need to do.”
In 1987, the Rams were optimistic they could build upon the season before, when they finished with a 10-6 record and made the playoffs for the fourth season in a row.
But the threat of another work stoppage loomed. The Rams started the season with two defeats before NFL players went on strike. Coach John Robinson and his staff, including first-year special teams coordinator Artie Gigantino, assembled to plot strategy.
“Coach Robinson said you can’t allow a strike that you have absolutely no control over … to stop you from doing the best you can,” Gigantino said. “You can’t sit around and go drink beer at night and bitch.”
Robinson eventually instructed Gigantino, a former USC assistant, to help assemble the team of replacement players.
“Was it a great team? Absolutely not,” Gigantino said. “But it was a team that was able to get by.”
Everett was in his second pro season. Slater and Harrah were in their 12th and 13th seasons, respectively. None of them crossed the picket line. But several veteran players joined the replacements, causing a fracture, Everett said.
“It really started pitting the older guys against the younger guys,” Everett said. “It really affected our leadership in an adverse way. And it affected us maybe more than other teams because we were an older team.”
The replacement roster went 1-2. When the strike ended, the regular players returned, and the Rams lost to the Cleveland Browns. A few days later, the Rams traded star running back Eric Dickerson to the Indianapolis Colts. They finished with a 6-9 record and missed the playoffs.
“I look back at it as kind of a wasted year,” Everett said, “and it was unfortunate.”
The 1987 season marked Harrah’s final season. The six-time Pro Bowl player said he lost about $100,000 of his $330,000 salary because of the strike.
“I had to support the union and thought, ‘Hopefully, this will one day benefit me or my teammates and the guys coming in behind me,’ ” Harrah said. “It’s pretty obvious they benefited.
“The $330,000 I was going to make? Now the guys are making $13 million a year for my same position. I think something must have worked!”
Farmer, Everett, Slater and Harrah said that in the wake of COVID-19, players must find ways to stay on point despite the absence of on-field organized team activities. They must be ready for whatever happens before and during what will be among the most unusual NFL seasons in history.
“The real pros are doing their thing, grinding and figuring I’m not going to let the competition get ahead of me,” said Slater, a hall of famer.
Regardless of the environment when the season begins, focused preparation will be the key, Harrah said.
“I don’t care if there’s anybody in the stands or nobody in the stands,” he said. “There’s always someone across from you that wants to kick your ass.”