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

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.

"I would have been doing the same thing," he said. "It was just that we didn't even know if we were going to be playing a game. I didn't even feel like (playing)."

But then the strike went on, and on. One week became two, which became three, which became almost four.

It finally ended in time for the game against the Cleveland Browns Oct. 26. The hard feelings lingered, though, especially for Francis, who was 1 of about 13 replacement players retained by the Rams.

"A couple of guys would give you some little extra shots in practice," he said. "But that happens. And you got guys looking at you and they think you're in there trying to take their job. All you're trying to do is earn money for your family."

Francis became good friends with another replacement player, cornerback Kirby Jackson. The Rams had arranged for them to stay at an Anaheim motel, and often, Francis and Jackson would sit up late and discuss their futures. What would they do if things didn't work out? Where would they go?

Francis found out first. When the Rams acquired running backs Owen Gill and Greg Bell in the Eric Dickerson trade, Francis was released. Then Bell was hurt and Francis was re-signed. And guess who was cut to make room for Francis? That's right--Jackson.

Now Francis is gone, too, which surprised nobody. The Rams drafted Gaston Green and Robert Delpino; they had White and Bell and not much room for anyone else.

"This year, I felt they had their minds made up before anybody set their feet on the field," said Francis, who plans to go to Portland State to get his degree. "It bothers me I didn't get a shot, but I know what abilities the Lord gave me. I know I can play. The strike last year gave me that chance to play."

Among those belongings he packed in his car were some football shoes and some pictures. He thought about asking for his Ram helmet or even a jersey, but he didn't.

"What I should have gotten was my nameplate, the one they put above your locker," he said. "I could have put it in my bedroom, looked at it, someday told my grandkids about it."

Evans, meanwhile, doesn't need mementos just yet. He has a job, a nice paycheck and, best of all, some hope.

"The strike is really where it all started," he said. "Prior to that, I was in the wilderness, so to speak. I didn't know where my life was going. I had a desire to play football again, and I made a constant effort to get back into the league with letters, whatever. But it took a strike for me to get back. From my perspective, it was a miracle of God, the way things transpired."

For two years, Evans looked for an NFL team that would have him. That's a long time. Either you get the hint or you figure you have nothing to lose by trying.

Each day, Evans worked out. But each day, the phone was silent, the mailbox empty. He thought about giving up a million times.

"I don't know how much longer I could have held out," Evans said. "I was tired. I mean, I didn't take a week off for those two years.

"It would have been one thing if I could have seen there was something tangible out there, where I could say, 'I'm working toward this.' But I was getting real tired. I had to make a decision to go on with my life."

That's when the Raiders contacted him.

Evans went on to occasional moments of glory, although the Raiders (5-10) didn't. Evans started three games and finished with five touchdown passes and had a touchdown run. His most difficult job, though, may have been trying to explain to the returning Raiders why he had stepped across their picket line.

"What I did was just try to tell those who were obviously disenchanted with what I stood for why I did it and the circumstances under which I did it," he said. "I wanted them to personally know why. Some of them listened and some of them didn't really care.

"It was somewhat sensitive for a little while, but in the course of the year, things started to settle down. Time was starting to take over; guys started to have short memories."

And now?

"I don't feel like there's any repercussions at all," he said.

When training camp opened this year, Evans was considered a legitimate contender for a starting job. Jim Plunkett was 40, Steve Beuerlein was 23. Rusty Hilger was in trouble and Evans, 33, was in perfect position.

Beuerlein won the job fair and square. Evans was named the backup. This he can live with.

"I've kind of gotten to a point where I know so many crazy things can happen in this business," he said. "I kind of take it one day at a time."

Sure Evans knows about craziness. He lived it.

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