Steve Bradley remembers Sean Payton. How could he forget? Kind of dinky. Bad haircut. So-so arm. But the little guy knew his football, you had to give him that. He knew the Chicago Bears' 1987 playbook like he had written it himself. And he didn't just know who did what on every play, but he knew why they were supposed to do it. Payton was always big on the whys.
Bradley, second to Antwaan Randle El on the all-time passing charts at Indiana University, and Payton, the Division I-AA quarterback from little Eastern Illinois, were replacement players during the 24-day NFL labor strike in 1987. The Chicago papers mockingly referred to those guys as, "the Spare Bears." The real Bears, such as safety Gary Fencik, preferred the word "scabs."
Whatever. By the time the strike was settled and the regulars reported back to Halas Hall at the team's headquarters in Lake Forest, the Spares had won two of three games. Payton was released, as was Bradley, and just about every other replacement player on the roster.
About 12 years later, Bradley was watching a New York Giants game on the tube when he noticed that same bad haircut again.
"Wow, there's Sean," Bradley said to himself.
Yeah, it was Payton. The same Payton whose professional playing career spanned exactly one year as a Chicago Bruiser of the inaugural Arena Football League, an Ottawa Rough Rider of the CFL and as a Bear (sorry, I just can't count his 1988 season with the Leicester Panthers of the UK Budweiser League). The same Payton who began inching his way up the coaching profession at San Diego State (twice), Indiana State, Miami (Ohio), Illinois, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Giants, the Dallas Cowboys and now the New Orleans Saints. From virtual football nobody to 2007 NFL Coach of the Year. Go figure.
"I didn't even know he went into coaching, to be honest with you," said Bradley, a home builder who now lives in Knox, Ind. "I didn't really ever expect for him to end up where he is, but it doesn't totally surprise me."
It doesn't surprise anyone because Payton's two favorite letters in the alphabet have always been X and O. It was that way at Naperville (Ill.) Central High School, at Eastern Illinois, at the Spares and every stop since then.
"I guess back then I could tell he would be a coach," said Durwood Roquemore, something of an Arena Football League legend who played with Payton on the Bruisers and now lives in Orlando, Fla., where he is a substitute teacher and runs a YMCA camp. "I could tell he was a very smart player. He was small, but he always had a quick delivery and he always knew what was going on."
Draw a line from the beginning of Payton's football career to now, only a few days removed from the NFC Championship game against the favored Bears, and 1987 becomes the exact point where a player decided to become a coach. He had the football mind, but that year showed him he didn't have the football body. Had he been a few inches taller and more than a few pounds heavier (he was generously listed at 5-11, and, cough, 200 pounds), "[Payton] would have been playing in the NFL a long time," said Bradley.
Instead, he played briefly and sparingly for the Bruisers, where Roquemore earned about $500 for each of the team's four games. Later Payton found himself on the Bears' replacement roster, where Bradley earned about $8,000 per game. Mike Ditka, only two seasons removed from a Super Bowl victory, was their coach. And they stayed in the Hyatt Hotel, just off Chicago's Michigan Avenue and only a short cab ride from Soldier Field.
Payton roomed with former Minnesota quarterback Mike Hohensee, who started and helped win the first two games for the Spares. When Hohensee injured his knee, Bradley replaced him in the starting lineup for the third and, what turned out to be, final replacement game.
Hohensee was a bartender in Germantown, Md., when the Bears tracked him down. He was renting a room from a friend, and a note was waiting for him when got back at 4:30 a.m. "The Bears called you," it read.
Hohensee, who had played in the United States Football League, the CFL and the Arena League, thought it was a practical joke. It wasn't.
"We were just a bunch of guys from a lot of different walks of life just trying to make a dream come true," said Hohensee, now the head coach of the Arena League's Chicago Rush, whose owners include Ditka. "There weren't a lot of people rooting for us. We wanted to make sure we represented the Bears organization as well as we could. So we listened like school kids. Yeah, Ditka yelled at us, made us feel about a foot tall. But then he brought us back up."
There was no training camp. The Sept. 27 game at Detroit was canceled, which gave the replacements little time to learn the playbook for the Oct. 4 game at Philadelphia. Payton and Hohensee stayed up late in their hotel room trying to memorize the formations and calls.
"To think, that kid, sitting in the other bed, looking through the playbook," said Hohensee. "He's got those big eyes. What a time ... We had the 'C' on our helmet and we took it for real as far as being a Bear."
Watch Payton on the sidelines this Sunday at Soldier Field. Rarely will his expression change. Touchdown or interception, tight game or blowout ... it won't matter. Regardless of what happens in the NFC Championship, he has helped guide a Saints team (and to a lesser extent, a hurricane-ravaged city) to a season to remember. But then again, he's had practice with chaos, beginning with that '87 road trip to Philly.
So terrified were Bears officials and local police of the possibility of a violent incident with picketing protesters (including Teamsters Union members), that the players and coaches left their team hotel for Veterans Stadium shortly after 5 a.m. "We slept on the locker room floor," said Hohensee.
Only 4,074 fans dared cross the picket line set up by demonstrators. Eggs were thrown. So were four-letter words and threats.
Meanwhile, Ditka's replacements, led by Hohensee (Payton started the second half, but only because Hohensee was out briefly with an injured ankle), beat the Eagles' replacements. Bradley, who last played two years earlier in the East-West Shrine Game, arrived the following week. Payton helped tutor him on the playbook.
"The best way to describe him?" said Bradley. "I'd have to say, 'exact.' He knew right where everybody was supposed to be."
The Bears beat Minnesota on Oct. 11 and the strike ended later that week. But the regulars weren't allowed to play again until Oct. 25 -- meaning one more replacement game. In a tiny irony, the game was against the same Saints franchise that would one day be coached by Ditka, and later, by Payton.
Hohensee was a late scratch against the Saints because of an injured knee, so Bradley started. At halftime, with Chicago leading, 17-10, Hall of Fame Bears linebacker Dick Butkus walked into the Soldier Field locker room.
"It was like Christ walked in," said Bradley. "He walked into Ditka's office and put his shoes up on the desk. It was probably the biggest thrill I've ever had. By the way, he's bigger than he looks on the commercials."
Ditka rotated Bradley and Payton every other play during the second half. "I was trying to save their lives," he told reporters after the game.
Makes sense. Bradley and Payton were sacked a combined five times and completed only 9 of 29 passes for 66 yards and four interceptions. But Bradley said the real reason for the tag-team QB system "was because when the game got tight, our receivers couldn't remember the plays they were bringing in."
The Bears lost, 19-17, and that was that. A week later Jim McMahon was back as the Bears' starter and Payton, Bradley and Hohensee became NFL footnotes. In the Bears' media guide, the three replacement quarterbacks aren't even listed on the 1987 season statistics page for Passing. Instead, it says, "Others."
Every replacement player received an autographed football and his jersey. Bradley still has the football, but his ex-wife threw the jersey away. Don't ask.
Hohensee's football is on a shelf in his son's bedroom. But his favorite memento, strangely enough, is the memory of the day he was released by the Bears.
As he left Ditka's office that day, Hohensee purposely tried to avoid any eye contact with the returning Bears players. But then he heard the distinctive, high-pitched voice of running back Walter Payton.
"Hohensee," said Sweetness, who would retire after the '87 season, "you were good."
Hohensee thanked him and kept walking, but the words still seem like they were spoken yesterday.
You were good.
Meanwhile, Payton found his way to Leicester, England, and now, almost 20 years later, to the brink of a Super Bowl appearance.
Bradley and Hohensee said they will watch Sunday's Bears-Saints game, but there will be no confusion about their allegiances.
"Of course, the Bears," said Bradley.
"I'm rooting for the Bears," said Hohensee. "They're the only NFL team to give me an honest-to-goodness chance. But I'm ecstatic for Sean. He's sitting on top of the football world right now. This is one guy who has paid his dues. There's not a more deserving guy out there."
"If you talk to Sean Payton with the New Orleans Saints, tell him I'm looking for a job as a defensive backs coach," Roquemore said.
Consider it done.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.