How easy it is to forget what life in the NFL used to be. Salaries aren’t what they used to be. Doug Plank, safety for a not so great Bears team was once tongue lashed by his head coach for missing a tackle on an aging OJ Simpson, playing his final season with the 49ers- “Plank, we pay you $65,000 to make that tackle.” Plank replied, “Coach, the 49ers pay OJ $450,000 to break that tackle.” Most players back then not only had to think about what they would do to feed their families when their careers came to an end, but also had jobs during the off-season.
I’m not sure if the idea was cooked up to make some easy cash, as a low-budget off-season training program, or just a way to kill time, but in those days a band of Steelers would hit the road not to barnstorm football, but basketball. And one year they came to my little town, Ligonier, PA, population, 1500 souls. Their competition that night consisted of a group of teachers from the local high school.
In the crowd was me, roughly ten years old. The quality of the basketball was, well let’s just say neither team could have challenged the Pittsburgh Pythons. But I wasn’t there to watch basketball. I was there to get closer to my heroes, to collect a few autographs, to make a few memories. I don’t know if I got any autographs. If I did they got lost along the way.
The memories I have, however, were not what you might expect. I don’t recall seeing LC Greenwood dunk. I don’t even remember if he was there. I didn’t see Donnie Shell bring down some teacher fool enough to take it into the paint. What I remember was one lonely sad looking little fellow at the end of the bench, Roy Gerela. For those of you too young to remember Roy was Pittsburgh’s place kicker in the early years of the 1970s dynasty. It was his missed field goal in Super Bowl X which led to the punk Cliff Harris’s patting him on the head, which led to Jack Lambert shoving said punk to the ground which led to the Steelers winning the game.
Ten year old kids are not terribly socially astute, but I couldn’t miss the fact he was all alone, and seemed really sad. Which taught me an important lesson I have carried with me since that day. Being a member of the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers doesn’t make you superhuman. You are still vulnerable to rejection, to insecurity.
Which I hope will inform me as I continue to write about the Steelers. I am drawn toward snarky humor. Sometimes I jump in up to my elbows. But I am doing a better service when I remember that these men have hearts, have families, have goals, have fears. And yes, some of them even read BTSC. I’m hoping that as we spent the first quarter of the season airing our complaints, we will not only have more to celebrate in the coming weeks, but that even if we end up disappointed or let down, we will express ourselves with some level of understanding and compassion.