NORTH HAVEN — Anthony Sagnella hasn’t spoken much about his time as a replacement player for the Washington Redskins; an unforgettable four weeks that began with a phone call to his parent’s home in September 1987.
But when a film production company reached out to gauge his interest in a documentary about the experience, Sagnella agreed to participate.
The film debuted on ESPN last week, part of the network’s acclaimed “30 for 30” series. Its title, “Year of the Scab,” is fitting. Most pro athletes are eager to discuss their glory days. The replacements, treated with contempt by striking NFL players, media and fans, don’t necessarily view their experience as a badge of honor.
“People close to me knew what I’d gone through,” said Sagnella, the football coach at North Haven since 1997. “But the experience, you were conditioned to move forward. I had a little trepidation about participating in the film because of digging up those old wounds.”
For the record, Sagnella is pleased with the film, which gives perspective from all sides involved in the ’87 strike. Sagnella is prominently featured and he provides some of the documentary’s most compelling moments.
Sagnella had given up his dream of playing in the NFL after being cut from Jets training camp in July 1987. A former star at Hamden High and a three-year starter on the defensive line at Rutgers, he returned home to work construction while pondering his next career move.
Two weeks into the NFL season the player’s union, protesting the league’s free agent policy, voted to strike. Owners countered with a plan to find non-union players to continue the season.
Sagnella had previously been in Washington’s training camp. Charley Casserly, general manager of the Redskins, called with an offer, much to Sagnella’s surprise. He’d still have to try out. But the money, and another chance to achieve his dream, was too much to bypass.
It wasn’t until he arrived in Washington that Sagnella realized making the roster was merely a fraction of the battle. In breaking the picket line the replacement players were now scabs, viewed as pariahs to the union, media and many fans.
During an early ride to the practice facility, the replacements encountered striking Redskins. Defensive end Darrell Grant pounded the bus so hard a window shattered.
Sagnella understood the anger. But he has trouble equating the NFL players union to American working class labor unions.
“If there wasn’t a strike, and the Redskins decided to pick me up off waivers and bring me in and give me a chance to compete, and in doing so a veteran player lost his job, that’s the way it goes,” Sagnella said. “It’s not like that in other unions. I didn’t want to take bread off of anyone’s table. But I didn’t have any options. It was either play or not play.”
Sagnella made the Redskins roster, an eclectic group of former college players and marginal professionals.
Mark Carlson, a Clinton native who played at Southern Connecticut State, was cut in training camp but invited back to play. Westport’s Skip Lane, son of former Staples coach Paul Lane, left a six-figure job in commercial real estate to sign. Tony Robinson was furloughed from prison to play quarterback.
Washington, in its first game with non-union players beat St. Louis. A week later it crushed Bill Parcells’ Giants on the road. The final game for the replacements came a week later in Dallas, a strong team bolstered by stars like Randy White, Tony Dorsett and Ed “Too Tall” Jones. All crossed the picket line to play.
The Redskins were the only NFL team made up exclusively of replacement players. They stunned the Cowboys 13-7 in what would be the last game before the regulars returned. A handful of replacement players were signed. Most, including Sagnella, were released never to suit up in an NFL game again.
Washington went on to win the Super Bowl, a 42-10 rout of Denver in January 1988. Sagnella was entitled to a half-share of the playoff bonus money, a tidy $28,000.
Yet none of the replacement players, so crucial to the playoff bid with three divisional wins, received a Super Bowl ring from the Redskins. Not even Eric Coyle, signed to an NFL deal after the strike and on the roster through the following season.
Team employees, from locker room attendants to office secretaries, were awarded rings. Purchasing more for dozens who suited up and won games during the championship run was deemed too expensive by ownership.
“Yeah?” Sagnella says. “How much money did they save paying me instead of Dexter Manley? How much money did they save paying Tony Robinson instead of Doug Williams? Or Anthony Allen instead of Art Monk? They saved millions in the three weeks the strike went on. Where’d that money go? They could have bought us two rings with the money they saved.”
Sagnella insists there’s no bitterness on his end about not getting a ring. It was never his expectation, and not something he thought about until seeing the documentary.
What has bothered him was being disparaged as a scab for 30 years. As a training camp player in Washington in 1986 and 1987, before the strike, he walked side by side with the unionized players on a daily basis.
The end of the movie included empathetic comments from several of the Redskin regulars that won the Super Bowl. Manley, Williams and Mark May are among those who said they believe the replacement players should be recognized for their efforts and contribution to the championship.
That moment, Sagnella said, meant the world to someone who merely wanted to play football.
“My only recollection of them prior to the film was seeing them on television saying derogatory things about our experience,” Sagnella said. “That always stung, because all I ever wanted to do was be them. I was only playing the hand dealt to me. I wasn’t creating this mess. I was just a piece of it.”