The genesis of The Helmet began in 1994, the year I was married. In one of my "Steeler conversations" my wife and I talked about how neat it would be to start collecting autographs of all-time great Steelers. I knew that time was slipping away from the Steelers’ dynasty of the 1970s and that autographs from real old-timers would become harder to acquire. That Christmas she gave me the perfect gift, an authentic Steelers’ helmet. The journey began.
The Helmet is not in mint condition, nor can it possibly be having now traveled about the country in quest of each signature individually. You will read about some of the interesting situations The Helmet has been put through. The Helmet is now like a vintage pick-up truck: in great condition, not pristine mint, and with the character of toughness and usage. Of course, I could never claim The Helmet to be the Mecca of Steelers autographed items, but frankly, it’s hard to imagine its equal.
There’s not always an interesting story to accompany each signature; many were obtained rather routinely after purchasing a ticket at a sportscard show and waiting in line. I actually have short write-ups for each signature, but in order to take up less of your time, I will just list the following:
Rod Woodson, The Inaugural
Surely a future Hall of Famer, Woodson was drafted by the Steelers and played 10 of his 18 years with us. A prolific defender and All Pro regular, Woodson intercepted 71 passes in his career and, as a non-offensive player, scored a remarkable 16 touchdowns. Woodson was the first signature on The Helmet, acquired Sunday, March 19, 1995. I felt a little stupid asking him to sign a "small" signature, but felt it necessary. With a blank helmet, most athletes believe they are doing you a favor by signing large. I told him there would be many others to follow him and he smiled and obliged. His autograph set the tone.
Ray Kemp, Original 1933 Pittsburgh Steeler (then called Pirates)
A small piece in the Plain Dealer in August of 1998 pointed out that a fellow named Ray Kemp was the last remaining living original Pittsburgh Steeler (founded in 1933). I didn’t know at the time that Kemp was African-American, the only Black on the team and one of only two in the NFL 14 years before Jackie Robinson. I was excited to learn he was living in nearby Ashtabula. I called the Plain Dealer to track the source and learned that Kemp was living at the Gran Signora Manor Nursing Home. I called the home and asked to be connected to Mr. Kemp, and was, to Room 407. He was decently coherent, understood my quest, and agreed to meet me on a Saturday. He was a delightful man hanging on to the few faculties he had left at the age of 90. He told me some stories of how difficult it was to be a Black athlete during the Great Depression and how wonderful Art Rooney treated him. I was concerned about some shaking he had in his hands, worried that the paint pen might end up all over the place on my precious Helmet. Thus, I had the unmitigated gall to ask him to sign a few "practice runs" on a sheet of paper. Convinced he could do the job, I entrusted him with The Helmet after carefully seating him in comfortable position. His demeanor in putting up with me was the same tolerance he had some 66 years earlier while fighting the color barrier.
Dan Rooney, The Owner
I read in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Mr. Rooney was going to speak at Cleveland’s Gilmour Academy on February 19. I knew getting his signature would be extremely difficult at such an academic affair, so I took The Helmet two hours early to scope out the plan. I learned he was eating dinner in a building attached to the Chapel (where he was to speak) only by an underground hallway. Waiting in that hallway for two hours holding a football helmet didn’t sound sensible; as I was afraid my autograph mission would get aborted by some school official. So I stood by a large trash container with a lid on top where I carefully set The Helmet so that garbage wouldn’t smear or smudge it. After about an hour or so I finally heard Mr. Rooney and others coming through the underground hallway, so I took The Helmet out of the trash and stood in perfect position. I politely handed him my paint pen asking for his autograph, and before officials could admonish me, Mr. Rooney marveled at The Helmet and took great delight in reading all the names. "Holy cow, how did you get all these," he asked. "Many have stories," I responded, "and I’m sure you don’t have time to hear them, sir, but your signature will add yet another one." Mission accomplished.
Terry Bradshaw, The Toughest Quarterback Ever
Terry Bradshaw came from Louisiana Tech, where his career before the Steelers was good enough to earn him a place in the College Football Hall of Fame. His induction was Saturday, August 17, 1996 in South Bend, Indiana. I had reason to be at the ceremonies since I was a Chapter president in the National Football Foundation, which oversees the College Football Hall of Fame. As Chapter president my suggestion to greet Bradshaw at the airport from a small private plane was welcomed. Of course, I happened to have The Helmet in hand standing on the runway when the plane landed. I made sure to shake the paint pen and apparently shook it too much. When Bradshaw took off the cap, gold paint sprayed onto The Helmet while he jerked back to avoid getting paint on the clothes he was wearing to the induction ceremonies! Thankfully, miraculously, he didn’t get angry with the crazy fan who met him with a football helmet as he was getting off an airplane. He cheerfully signed. As a postscript, I had to buy a little blank paint to touch up The Helmet where the gold pen had leaked; another example of The Helmet not being mint, but certainly having character.
Byron White, Supreme Court Justice
Byron "Whizzer" White, a United States Supreme Court Justice, was drafted by the Steelers in 1938. He only played one year for the Steelers (then known as the Pirates), since his higher aspiration of studying as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford didn’t begin until after the season! Art Rooney then sold his contract to the Detroit Lions, convinced he would never return to football. When the war broke out in Europe in 1939, however, Americans overseas, including White, fled back to the United States where he resumed his football career with the Lions. In his one year with the Steelers, and then again with the Lions, he led the NFL in rushing, scoring, total offense and all-purpose yards. Of course, his career after football is what made him famous. He became John F. Kennedy’s first appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he sat for 31 years. When I read in USA Today that Justice White was being honored by the GTE Hall of Fame in Washington on April 23, 1996, I decided to befriend someone, anyone, on the GTE Board. My hero was a fellow named John von Stade, an account executive in charge of the awards dinner, who was overly kind in not only understanding my plight, but actually taking delight in helping me. I sent him overnight mail The Helmet, paint pen and a $10 bill for return shipping. He got the job done. Thank you John von Stade, a friend for life!
Bill Dudley, The Amazing Athlete
One of the most talented athletes ever to play for the Steelers, "Bullet" Bill Dudley ended up in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Drafted by Pittsburgh in the first round in 1942, Bullet Bill played only one season before heading off to World War II. After a two-year stint in the war he resumed his nine-year career. Dudley never left the field. He scored 18 touchdowns as a receiver, 44 as a runner, threw six touchdowns as a quarterback and scored four as a return man. On defense, he intercepted 23 passes and scored on two of them. He successfully kicked 33 field goals and 121 extra points. Bullet Bill was honored by the National Football Foundation at its annual banquet at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City on Monday, December 6, 1997. As a Chapter president in that organization, our paths crossed and of course, The Helmet happened to be on the same path. He proudly signed.
John Henry Johnson, a Chance to Say "Thanks"
Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987, Johnson was drafted by the Steelers in 1953, but didn’t play for them until 1960. He was a fullback, practically extinct nowadays, and could block, receive, run inside and out. A four-time Pro Bowler, I best remember Johnson on that October night in 1964 when, watching my first-ever Steeler game on television, he piled up 200 rushing yards and three touchdowns against the rival Cleveland Browns. He came to Youngstown on March 23, 1996 to attend a card show. I thanked him for giving me that October night, the start of my "Steeler career," and thanked him for signing The Helmet.
Lynn Swann, Amazing Grace
When Swann got into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, it was not because he racked up unusual regular-season statistics. Perhaps no receiver has ever performed his craft with more grace than Swann, and he always came up huge on the NFL’s biggest stage. His nine-year career with the Steelers (drafted in 1974) included four Super Bowls, one of which he became the first receiver to ever win the game’s MVP Award, by compiling 161 receiving yards against Dallas (Super Bowl X). He also scored touchdowns in Super Bowls XIII and XIV. Swann attended the College Athletic Directors Convention on June 16, 1998 to speak about Big Brothers and Big Sisters, his post-career passion. Being an Officer of that organization, I and The Helmet had access to the VIP Room where he "gracefully" signed his name.
Mike Webster, Iron Mike
You can’t blame Chuck Noll for waiting for the fifth round of the 1974 Draft to select Webster; after all, he was busy drafting Swann, Stallworth and Lambert ahead of him. Webster became the fourth Hall of Famer in that class, unprecedented in NFL history. Webster played 15 years with the Steelers, a franchise record to this day. He played in nine Pro Bowls and started 150 straight games. Webster attended the National Sports Collectors Convention on August 7, 1997, the year of his induction, to sign autographs.
Ernie Stautner, The Lone Jersey
The only Steeler to ever officially have his jersey (#70) retired (though unofficially we have not seen the likes of #12 Bradshaw, #32 Harris, #58 Lambert and #75 Greene) was drafted by Pittsburgh in the third round of the 1950 draft. For the next 14 years, his entire career was played in Pittsburgh as a defensive lineman. Though undersized, he made nine Pro Bowls and in 1969, his first year of eligibility, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Stautner and many other Hall of Famers were invited back to Canton on Saturday, August 1, 1998 to meet fans and sign autographs during the annual induction ceremony. It’s great to live so close to Canton. The Helmet and I made the easy drive and met, according to Dan Rooney, "One of the greatest players ever to wear a Steeler uniform."
Ernie Holmes, The Steel Curtain
One of the best front four defenses in NFL history, the Steel Curtain won four Super Bowls (Holmes was replaced by John Banaszak and Steve Furness for the last two). Their 1976 record is legendary. Giving up only 138 points during the entire season, the Steeler defense pitched five shutouts over the last nine games, gave up only three points in two other games, to end the season better than anyone in modern history. During the 1976 Super Bowl against the Vikings, the Steel Curtain allowed just 17 yards rushing and zero points (Minnesota’s six points came on a blocked punt). Interestingly, Chuck Noll and the Steeler braintrust found all these guys from smaller colleges who do not typically send players to the pros: Greene came from North Texas State, White from East Texas State, Greenwood from Arkansas AM&N and Holmes from Texas Southern. On February 17, 1996 all four of the vaunted Steel Curtain attended a card show in Austintown, Ohio where The Helmet added four more treasures.
Carnell Lake, Quiet Humility
On February 9, 1997, Sears Department store in Youngstown, Ohio celebrated a grand re-opening at the Southern Park Mall. The store invited Carnell Lake, a safety for the Steelers, to attend for autographs. Toward the front of the line it was evident that Lake was quiet and polite to everyone. When it was my turn and I handed him The Helmet, he took several seconds, much more than usual, to look at each signee. He then did something unique and humble – he started to hand The Helmet back to me! "Are you sure you want me to sign this," he asked? "Carnell, you’ve just played in three consecutive Pro Bowl games," I responded, "You belong." This polite and humble man went on to play in two more Pro Bowls, exactly five in his 10 years in Pittsburgh, while scoring an impressive five defensive touchdowns.
Other Steelers greats who have signed The Helmet include:
Sorry if this piece is too long. I tried to shorten it as best I could.