Bill here. First off, a disclaimer: some of you may be young enough as Redskins fans to not know who Wilbur Marshall is (in which case, you probably never understood the hoopla about Joe Gibbs, or why Green, Monk, and Grimm being HOF candidates is exciting). However, I actually have a … well, not personal link to Marshall, but a personal link to a person who has a personal link to Marshall; or rather, to the change that allowed Marshall to become a Washington Redskin, which I’m going to explain before I give you the real story here, so bare with me.
Wilbur Marshall was drafted into the NFL in 1984 by the Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears, and was one of the main cogs (with Richard Dent) of the fearsome Chicago Defense of the mid 1980s that propelled them to their only Superbowl Victory. Marshall was paid like the star linebacker that he was; however, that was in the mid 1980s; while there was no salary cap, per se, there was also no competition among teams for the services of a player. In those days, you were the property of the team that drafted you until and unless some other team traded for you. While there WERE such things as Free Agents, those were the players that were either not drafted, or had been cut by their team. Stars didn’t move
and the earth was the motionless center of the universe. In other words, that was a totally different era in building franchises: you traded to Win Now, Baby! or you built through the draft and shrewd undrafted free agent pickups. Marshall was not happy with that situation (well, almost no player was, but Marshall was a star who could do something about it). Along with one of my old friends, and a former High School Classmate, Minnesota Viking Running Back D.J. Dozier (the runner up for the 1986 Heisman from Penn State), which is my personal connection to this story, and one other player (who I’m sure someone will name in the comments, but who’s name escapes me now) sued the NFL over the issue of “illegal restraint of employment” or something close to that; basically, they sued the NFL when their contracts were up in 1988 to become unrestricted Free Agents… and WON. The resulting victory resulted in a short lived Free Agency that existed in most cases in name only, “Plan B”. Theoretically, Plan B Free Agency still exists, although it’s been vastly modified. In practice, it’s been replaced by the part of Free Agency that allows teams to declare Franchise and Transition Tags on players. Wilbur Marshall was the first Free Agent, signing with the Washington Redskins, who promptly and gladly paid the princely sum of two first round draft picks to Chicago. D.J. and the other player were not so fortunate; D.J.’s history of injuries limited whether any team would sign a running back, even a dynamic one such as him, for that kind of price, and with an incentive to “punish” those players who had created this potentially leaky franchise mechanism (and remember, in an era of no salary caps, this was a potentially back breaking loss by the NFL owners), the two of them were effectively blackballed out of the NFL; no team would contract them, even their former teams (which obviously would not have had to pay the picks). Don’t feel too bad for D.J., though, as he knocked around in the Kansas City Royal’s baseball organisation for a number of years after that.
But back to Wilbur Marshall. After Washington’s 1992 Superbowl victory, Marshall only played one additional year as a Redskin; with the advent of true free agency after the 1992 (and the loss of Coach Gibbs in the spring of 1993), Marshall moved on. He knocked around for an additional 3 years (never more than a single year per team, however), until he was physically too broken up to play…. and that leads us to why Marshall sued the NFL again. When he retired, Marshall’s physical condition was bad enough that he applied for, and was given, disability by the NFL two years later. However, after he had collected disability for a while, Marshall got caught in dueling doctor’s prognosis; at certain times, doctors confirmed his disabilty, at others, they claimed he could do sedentary work. The loss of income cause Marshall to declare bankruptcy (as an aside, why is it that these well paid athletes so often have monetary troubles ten years after their career ends? Marshall made millions while playing over his 12 year career) in 2002.
Eventually, Marshall got a lawyer and sued. And for the second time, he’s emerged from the courtroom vindicated. While the NFL has lost numerous court cases, Marshall joins Los Angeles Raiders owner Al Davis as the only man who’s won two different court cases against the NFL. This time, there’s no big contract for Marshall, just a check for $72,000 plus court costs and lawyers fees…. and the satisfaction of knowing that he’s right. Oh, and a big Redskin Report Salute to one of the 1980s classic Redskins…. and for my dad, who has always been a Redskin Fan and a Chicago Bears Fan, I’ll close with his favorite line everytime Marshall nailed a quarterback…. “WILBURrrrrrrrrr!”