As I attempt to absorb and integrate the news of the death of Steelers scout and personnel man Bill Nunn, my feelings run along two parallel tracks.
First, I am deeply saddened by the loss. Though I knew Nunn was long in years and this moment was certain to come sooner rather than later, unlike the other losses we are required to deal with, players and other personnel moving on in one manner or another, even in some cases dying, for a select few, their role and personalities have been so foundational to the success and very identity of the franchise that the organization and their most ardent fans feel mutilated by the loss.
Players, to use the most obvious example, no matter how unique and powerful their impact will eventually, must eventually be replaced; a Bradshaw by a Roethlisberger, a Franco Harris by a Jerome Bettis, a Mike Webster with a Dermontti Dawson There cannot and will not be a replacement for a Bill Nunn, just like there cannot and will not be a replacement for an Art Rooney Sr. Their losses create holes that can never be filled. This is not to say that there will not be great personages in the future of the franchise, it is just that they will be most certainly men or women of their time, responding to a different set of challenges and opportunities.
My second feeling is one of profound gratitude. I had the opportunity to meet Nunn, to ask him questions and absorb his wisdom. I would have been honored to have met the man if I were just generally a fan of the game. But there was much, much more than that. I am one of what Homer J has called the "winter soldiers". A coworker recently spoke respectfully of Steelers Nation as having a strong "bandwagon" following, based on a consistent winning tradition. This is in full view when it is clear that for many fans in Steelers Nation winning is more than just a nice thing to have, but essential to their loyalties. There is an inevitable clash with those of us whose loyalties are grounded in the fact that for all intentions the Steelers are family. And you don't embrace or discard family based upon the superficiality of success. Some of us have been involved with the team long enough to remember when an 8-8 season would be thought of (with a straight face) as a great year.
But, more pointedly, Nunn was the product of the same world that produced me. He walked on the same streets, played at the same playgrounds, went to the same high school that I stared at from my backyard for the first seventeen years of my life. If he (or Art Rooney Jr.) thought himself better or beyond me you wouldn't know from how he treated me. But that's Pittsburgh. For an ex-pat who has been away for his entire adult life conversing with Bill Nunn was more that having the opportunity to tap into the experience of a great football man, it was a homecoming, a validation of a way of life that he and I and many who are reading this share.
As I alluded to in part one of this tribute, my reason for speaking to Nunn was in service of an article that I wrote for MSP Steelers Annual entitled Nunn Better: Conversations with an NFL Scout linked below.
If there was a problem with Nunn it is a set of qualities that he shares with Chuck Noll, and probably Dan Rooney as well. Though figuratively and literally a giant (Nunn is a former basketball player), he camouflages himself well. Schenley Heights is a bit deceptive to begin with. Officially part of the Hill District, it deviates from the images of Wylie Avenue or Centre and Kilpatrick that most people imagine the Hill to be. This area is green, tree lined and quiet. But it is still a far cry from what you might think would be the likely abode for one who has been at the top of his profession for over forty years. His home is not some gentrified creation, it is the house he grew up in at a time when the possibility of his achievements could scarcely be imagined. The house looked, like most Pittsburgh houses do to one who has been away; small. His residence is reflective of a certain quality of humility, not bringing too much attention to himself. Like Noll and Rooney, he is very good at this, and consequently, though he may have been one of the most influential individuals of the modern era of professional football he is passing from the scene in virtual anonymity. As Noll is rarely mentioned in the company of the Walsh's, Johnson's, Belichick's and Landry's, who will sing the praises of Bill Nunn?
Like Yoda who made his home in a swamp, I find myself sitting at the feet of a sage on a back porch in the Hill District. While it is refreshing to not be subjected to self absorbed, ego driven behavior, there is a real danger that the architects of one of the greatest sports dynasties the world has known will not get their due, even within much of Steelers Nation.
Let me conclude with a story that was not part of the article that speaks to a misconception about the Steelers operation. Hombre de Acero has written a piece about Dan Marino where he mentions the fact that there are those who would believe that Dan Rooney is a "softie" in his professional dealings.
Nunn mentioned he had been offered a new contract by Dan Rooney and thought he could negotiate a better deal. He went to Rooney and complained that what was being offered wasn't adequate. Rooney's response was 'If that's the way you feel about it then forget the whole thing'. Not what Nunn was expecting or hoping to hear. He waited a few days and then went back to Rooney and reported that he had a change of heart and decided that he would accept the contract after all. Rooney said 'Okay, fine...minus 20 percent.' That ol' softie.
Steelers Nation has always been comfortable with the spiritual and mysterious. So let us consider the timing of this for a moment. After wondering,commenting and complaining about the wisdom of moving the NFL Draft to this day can we call this just an interesting coincidence that the Steelers organization will be celebrating Bill Nunn's life over the next three days sitting in the room in the South Side facility named after him selecting those who will propel the team into the future? Maybe the Chief has something to do with this.