DALLAS -- The memories are not fond ones, Doug Cosbie explains.
They are tethered to one of the darkest periods in his professional football life, when he was forced to swallow a sobering bit of truth and accept that the harsh realities of business had separated him from the game he had grown to love.
For more than four weeks, Cosbie didn't play a down of organized football. Instead, the three-time Pro Bowler spent hours on the phone and early mornings toting placards, watching a group of impostors enter his workplace.
All the while, he could feel the bonds that held the Cowboys together strain and snap as he temporarily relinquished a source of income he estimates would have yielded hundreds of thousands of dollars later in life.
With the NFL facing its first work stoppage since Cosbie and the players launched a 24-day strike during the 1987 season, the former Cowboys tight end has contemplated whether the sacrifice he made was worth it.
"From a personal standpoint, it definitely wasn't," Cosbie said. "But at some point, you've got to do what you think is right."
As the Cowboys' union representative, Cosbie believed the cause was justified, even as he sensed he was fighting a losing battle. Back then, the NFL Players Association was clamoring for unrestricted free agency resembling the system that existed in Major League Baseball.
During the initial negotiations, the owners were willing to make certain concessions but wanted to maintain the right of first refusal and lower compensation levels for certain players.
Once the sides reached an impasse, the NFLPA initiated a strike Sept. 22, two days after the Cowboys defeated the New York Giants in the Meadowlands. When the union took similar action five years earlier, in 1982, the owners stood by as seven games were erased from the regular-season schedule.
This time, however, the owners were determined to continue the season and forged ahead with replacement players. One of them was Rayotis Perkins, a 6-5, 242-pound defensive lineman who joined the Cowboys and promptly commandeered Herschel Walker's cubicle at Valley Ranch.
Earlier that month, Perkins had been cut by Dallas after slogging through training camp as an undrafted rookie. But as Perkins was leaving for an uncertain future, Cowboys coach Tom Landry told him the team might want him back should a strike unfold.
Not long after Perkins re-enrolled at the University of Virginia to complete the remaining credits for his degree, the Cowboys called. Perkins listened to the pitch and jumped at the opportunity to play alongside 43 other men with unfamiliar names. For three games, he was a member of the team he followed as a child.
"I had my career ahead of me," Perkins said. "It was a great experience. Of course, you knew you were there to serve a purpose. You knew what you were signing up for."
That's because Cowboys president Tex Schramm didn't disguise his mission. From the moment the labor unrest began, he attempted to foil the resistance staged by his team's players.
Much to Cosbie's chagrin, Schramm's efforts proved successful. And in retrospect, it's easy to see why. Texas was a right-to-work state, and unions didn't wield much clout in the Dallas area. Consequently, fans showed little support for the strike or the cause.
Then again, there were veteran Cowboys who didn't seem too invested in the movement, either. Long before the strike materialized, the Cowboys showed signs that they had weak union membership. Cosbie said he became the players' representative because nobody else wanted the job when former Cowboys fullback Robert Newhouse relinquished his post in the early 1980s.
Around that time, the Cowboys had started a slow descent. In 1986, Dallas finished with its first losing record in 20 seasons, and a year later, the Cowboys' prospects seemed just as bleak. By then, many of their stars had receded into the twilight of their careers and could sense their earning potential was dwindling by the day.
"It was a bad combination," Cosbie remembered.
THE TENSION MOUNTS
To maintain solidarity during the strike, the Cowboys' veterans conducted informal practices and regular meetings on SMU's campus. But soon after they staged the walkout, future Hall of Famer Randy White and fellow defensive lineman Don Smerek crossed the picket line. Entering Cowboys headquarters, White brazenly steered his Ford pickup past a group of players who shouted, "Scabs!"
As each day passed, the tension and external pressure mounted. While Landry remained detached during the entire process, Schramm became increasingly engaged. Derisively nicknamed "the commissioner of replacement football," Schramm sent a letter to several players, explaining they could lose a sizable portion of their annuity if they didn't return to work by a certain date.
Among the recipients were Cosbie and running back Tony Dorsett, who had staunchly criticized quarterback Danny White for breaking ranks with the union members. Faced with a dilemma, Dorsett opted to preserve his financial security and rejoined the team.
"I did it," he said. "But I didn't want to do it. My hand was forced."
Many teammates, including assistant players' representative Jim Jeffcoat understood, saying "it was a situation that they couldn't control.
"Tony stayed out as long as he could."
But he wasn't the only one to capitulate. Dorsett was one of six starters and among 21 Cowboys players who returned to work during the strike. In contrast, no member of the Washington Redskins crossed the picket line before the walkout ended Oct. 15.
Four days later, on a Monday night, the Cowboys played the Redskins' patchwork team and lost, 13-7, suffering their only defeat in three games involving replacement players. Dorsett fumbled twice, and White threw an interception.
The next day, Perkins was released and returned to Virginia with his girlfriend. He would never play another NFL game. The Cowboys' veterans went back to Valley Ranch, hoping to salvage something in the wreckage left behind by the strike.
Their season was interrupted, their locker room temporarily divided, and the NFLPA's goal of unfettered free agency wouldn't be realized until 1993. For a Cowboys team finished 7-8 in 1987, the strike created collateral damage.
"It wasn't fun," Cosbie recalled. "It wasn't enjoyable, and we were all happy when it was over."
But looking back, he said it was worth the sacrifice because the players would soon win their freedom.
NFL 1987 STRIKE FACTS
Duration: Sept. 22-Oct. 15, 1987
What was at stake: Players wanted free agency. The owners wanted right of first refusal and lower compensation levels for certain free agents
The aftermath: The strike ended without an immediate resolution. Players eventually received Plan B free agency in 1989, but the teams are allowed to protect 37 players and have the right to match offers for free agents or receive compensation in return. The union was decertified before reforming. In 1993, the NFLPA and the league came to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement that featured unrestricted free agency.
At Valley Ranch: The Cowboys signed 47 free-agent replacement players, 40 of whom would never appear in a game after the 1987 season. The team would win two of three games featuring replacement players. Eventually 21 veterans would cross the picket line, including six starters. Among the notable Cowboys who returned to work before the end of the strike were quarterback Danny White, running back Tony Dorsett and defensive lineman Randy White.