There aren’t many moments when I’m genuinely happy for someone I do not know.
Why? One member of the class is former receiver Louis Lipps, a man that may have been my favorite Steelers’ player growing up.
Let’s face it, he was.
Lipps was named to the class of 2021, along with Tunch Ilkin, Carnell Lake and Jon Kolb. I was happy for all four former players, sure, but Lipps, man, what a thrill it was to find out he’s going to be so honored by his former organization.
When you really think about it, the Steelers Hall of Honor was designed to pay tribute to players such as the four members who are being inducted in 2021. It is true that Kolb, a Steelers offensive lineman from 1971-1981, started 138 games in his career and won four Super Bowl rings. But does anyone really think of Kolb when they mention the many legends from perhaps the greatest sports dynasty of all time? How about Ilkin, like Kolb, a long-time starting offensive tackle in Pittsburgh? He came along just when the Steelers Lombardi run had ended. Yes, he’s beloved today, but is that because of his playing career or because of his broadcasting career? What about Lake, a Pro Bowl safety who managed to become a Pro Bowl corner when the team desperately needed him to switch positions due to the season-ending injury suffered by the all-everything corner who had just been named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team? I think people remember Lake fondly, but he’ll always be in the shadow of that all-everything corner he played most of his career with.
The one thing I will say about the three players I just mentioned, however, is that they all at least got to be part of the Super Bowl in one form or another. Kolb owns four rings. Lake got to play in one as part of the Super Bowl XXX squad. As for Ilkin, he had the thrill of covering three games in the broadcast booth—including two that ended in victory for the Steelers.
As for Lipps, the closest he ever got to the Big Game was his rookie year when the 9-7 Steelers managed to sneak into the playoffs as AFC Central winners and knocked off the Broncos in the divisional round to advance to the AFC Championship Game. Other than that, it was mostly mediocrity or worse for Lipps, the Steelers first-round pick out of Southern Mississippi in the 1984 NFL Draft. Lipps managed to rise above the mediocrity, at least early in his career when he was named the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (1984) and was voted a First-Team All-Pro in both 1984 and 1985.
What were the things that made Lipps so special?
Let’s start with that part of his game. You’d be hard-pressed to find many Steelers punt returners who have ever been better at that job than Lipps. If you want to quibble about that, how about this: Lipps may have been the best deep threat in the history of the Steelers’ franchise. Crazy, right? But the guy just had a knack for getting open deep, and it didn’t matter if it was David Woodley, Mark Malone, Bubby Brister or Neil O’Donnell throwing him the ball. Not even his lack of 4.2 speed—something that every top receiver MUST possess in today’s NFL—seemed to be a hindrance; Lipps just knew how to make big plays downfield.
Ever see Lipps execute a reverse or an end-around? Go find those highlights. He was damn good at it. Again, maybe low-key better than any receiver in the history of the Steelers franchise.
Perhaps more than the organization’s post-Super Bowl malaise of the 1980s, Lipps biggest obstacle to becoming an all-time great may have been his inability to stay healthy right when his career should have been taking off; Lipps played in a combined 14 games between 1986 and 1987 and caught a total of 49 passes. But even after his career resurgence that began in 1988, Lipps never again reached the same heights that he had over his first two years in the league. Lipps never caught more than 59 passes in a single season. He only eclipsed 1,000-receiving yards once. He finished his career in Pittsburgh with 359 receptions for 6,019 yards and 39 touchdowns. Not great by any stretch of the imagination, not even for a receiver playing for a run-first head coach—Chuck Noll—and doing so in an era when the offense had to be even less creative than usual thanks to the guys throwing him the football.
Had Lipps come along at a different time, maybe he’d be remembered more fondly than he is now. Heck, he was the original No. 83 who had fans screaming his first name after making a catch—“LOUUUUUUUUUU!”—before that tight end came along and made it his thing (or at least the fans did).
Sadly, fans don’t really care much about the past. They don’t want to read about Lipps; they’d much rather talk about someone named Rico Bussey. You might be saying, “Well, duh! We want to focus on today, Tony!”
That’s kind of my point to all of this. If not for the Steelers Hall of Honor, a player like Lipps, again, someone who didn’t so much as even participate in a Super Bowl and will certainly never get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, may get lost in obscurity.
There are thousands of players who come along and never impact the game. Then there are those that have really good careers but never achieve true greatness for one reason or another.
Lipps fits perfectly into the latter category.
One day, a kid may visit the Steelers Hall of Honor and say, “Man, that Louis Lipps must have been a darn good receiver.”
That’s really what the Steelers Hall of Honor is all about.