NFL Fortunes Rise and Fall : Kramer Earned His Wings During Strike, Foster Had His Clipped

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

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.


“When the Saints cut me I knew it was coming from the first day I was there,” Kramer said. “I was there so they could have longer practices and keep their real players rested. They never even looked at me. It was, ‘Here’s your room, here’s your shoulder pads, now don’t bother anybody.’ I was there as a camp body. It was a tough couple of weeks for me, very demoralizing. I never felt that bad before.

“But I’ve also never felt this good before.”

For Foster, it has just been bad on top of bad since leaving CSUN, where he anchored the Matadors’ secondary in 1983 and again in 1985 after sitting out a year because of an injury. He worked as a security guard at the Los Angeles Coliseum--where he played for the Raiders during the NFL strike--and he worked in a bank and at a health spa. But always there was the NFL dream. He got his chance, but it only lasted as long as the walkout.

Foster, 23, made nine tackles as a starting safety for the Raiders in the first two strike games but lost his job before the third game. On Monday, when the returning players trudged back into camp, the non-union players were brought into a separate room. A list was read, a list of players who would be moved up to practice--and possibly play--with the real Raider team.

“They read the list and I wasn’t on it,” Foster said. “A few guys were invited to a meeting with the returning players, but I wasn’t invited.”

And when two replacement players--Greg Hill and Ron Hill--who also played in the secondary were asked to stay, that’s when Foster knew he was gone.

“What hurts is that I know I’m good enough to play at this level,” he said. “I know I can play here. I learned a lot about people the past three weeks, how people you thought were your friends treat you because of economics, how people get resentful when you’re doing something they would have done, too, if they were in your position. Guys I got to be friends with during the regular camp treat me like dirt now. That’s taught me a lot.

“But the most important thing I’ve learned in these three weeks is that I can play in the NFL. I can play pro ball. If I don’t catch on with somebody this year, then I will next year. I’ll find my spot.”

He might. He is a solid, accomplished football player. But maybe he’s not quite good enough.


“Ron Foster is a good football player, a damn good football player,” Raider executive Al LoCasale said. “And he’s a good kid, a really fine young man. But it’s a numbers game. Playing in the NFL isn’t like getting your master’s degree at Cal Lutheran, it’s like getting your master’s at MIT. There’s a big difference.”

For Kramer, his master’s degree was awarded Monday when a Falcon coach met him in the locker room, extended his hand and welcomed him to the team. The real team. He has made it. At least for the rest of this season.

“It just goes to show that you have to be good, but maybe more importantly you have to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I’m the same quarterback who the New Orleans Saints wouldn’t even glance at. The whole thing is what the coaches see in you, or what they want to see or what they think they see. When you get your chance you’ve got to go in and do it, but getting that chance depends so much on things that are sometimes out of your control.”