As Bruce Matthews boarded a plane for a red eye flight from California to Texas, his mood was as dark as the night sky.
One November day gave way to the next back in 1987 (the 3rd into 4th, to be exact) and the offensive lineman for the Houston Oilers had come to the realization that nothing was going to change for him professionally.
It was not that his options were limited. They effectively were nonexistent. Hours earlier he stood in a courtroom and listened to a judge summarily rule against his attempt to become a free agent.
“It was a real interesting dynamic,” Matthews recently recalled. “I was a young kid. I was 26 and I thought I understood how things worked in the league, and I got a huge dose of the business side of the game. That was very frustrating for me. And I was angry.”
On Tuesday afternoon, roughly 600 NFL players will become free agents and begin to shop their services among the league’s 32 teams. Based on circumstances, primarily the lockout that ceased all offseason business for more than four months in 2011, it will be the largest pool of talent ever available at once.
Some will sign contracts that will all but guarantee financial freedom for themselves and generations of their family that follow. Others will feel they are forced to settle for less than they’re worth.
All of them owe a debt of thanks to a series of pioneering players whose victories in court over several decades helped create the system that is now in place. There was Mackey v. the NFL in 1977, Powell v. the NFL and McNeil v. the NFL in the 1980s and finally White v. the NFL in 1993 — all of them triumphs for the players and their union.
Then there was Matthews’ case, which he filed prior to the 1987 season.
“I was the only one on that suit. … I was solo,” the current Tennessee Titans offensive line coach said. “It was not my intent to do anything earth-shattering or ground-breaking. It wasn’t so much that I felt like it was about the money, but I felt like I brought a certain set of skills and I just wanted to get what I thought was fair.”
A first-round draft pick (ninth overall) by the Oilers out of USC in 1983, Matthews had played out his rookie contract and had started negotiations on another. At that point, he had not made the first of his 14 Pro Bowls or earned any of his seven first-team All-Pro honors.
He had, however, played every game — and started all but one — during his four seasons. As such, he was part of an offensive line that included two other first-round picks, including the team’s top choice in 1982, Mike Munchak, who already had been to two Pro Bowls.
“I wasn’t looking to break the bank,” Matthews said. “Really, the system was such that Munch had been to the Pro Bowl and it was basically, ‘Hey, we can’t give you what we’re giving him. He’s been to the Pro Bowl a couple times and you haven’t.’
“I’m not trying to knock Munch’s ability or what his value is as a player. I’m just saying he should be paid more.”
A quarter century later, Matthews said he cannot recall exactly what he was paid or what he was offered in a new deal. It is clear, though, that he found the numbers insulting.
Although altered by at least one victory in court, the so-called Rozelle Rule, which mandated compensation in the form of draft picks from a team that signed a free agent to the team that lost the player, was still in place. That meant he basically belonged to the Oilers, no questions asked.
“I was a free agent, but it really didn’t mean anything,” Matthews said.
When the collective bargaining agreement between the players and the owners expired in August 1987, he saw an opportunity.
While Matthews waited for his case to be heard, the players went on strike after the second week of the regular season but returned to work 24 days later — still without a CBA — after the owners conducted three games with replacement players or “scabs.”
In all, seven games — the only seven games Matthews missed over a 19-year career — were played before he got in front of a judge on what he recalls was “a beautiful day in Southern California.”
“I went in there very optimistic because it made perfect sense to me: ‘What, I’m bound forever by this system that’s expired?’ ” Matthews said. “The judge ruled in about 30 to 40 minutes that no, you’re still bound by the old system.”
With that, he and his agent, Howard Slusher, reviewed his options.
“He said, ‘You can appeal.’ I said, ‘No. I’m done,’ ” Matthews recalled. “I took the red eye that night, unannounced. Came in to [general manager] Ladd Herzeg’s office on the morning of the 4th, ‘I’m ready to sign.’
“It was the last offer they had made.”
That day he took part in practice and the following Sunday he was on the field for “about half” of a 27-20 loss at San Francisco.
Matthews eventually became a free agent in 1995 but never sought deals with other franchises throughout the remainder of his career.
He ultimately landed a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as someone who helped change the way the game is played. He most definitely did not, however, change the way the game works. That was left to others.
“Once I got back to playing, it never was about the money — I enjoyed playing so much,” he said. “I always thought that was interesting because I was ticked, but once we started playing it was, ‘Let’s go. Let’s have fun and get after it.’
“Because the money has gotten so much more, I think there’s less of an appreciation for where you’re at right now. Guys are forever looking to that big payday and being a free agent, which I guess is only natural.”
It seemed perfectly natural to him back in 1987, too.