Lee Calland, Steelers Cornerback, 1969-1972
First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days?
I’m retired now. I coached Division II and Division IA football for a while. I helped a lot of kids get to school, and get through school.
How did you do that?
I had to convince the kids and coaches that they are there for their education and are paying for it in sweat, toil and injuries. They all have designs for the NFL but few get there. You have to convince the coaches and the kids that if they don’t perform in class they won’t get on the field.
Good students make good athletes. If you don’t perform in school why should I give you the reps?
How do you work with the coaches?
Well, everyone wants a better battleship – they all want their best talent on the field. But a good coach can win without the best players – with light battleships (laughing). You also go to the classes and see if they are there and let them see you. The teachers appreciate you trying to help the kids – they are trying to get the kids through school too.
What coaches and coaching lessons have helped you as a coach?
All the coaches in Louisville. Camp and Woods – I love those guys dearly. Carson in Pittsburgh too. And Chuck – he was a super guy.
Tell us about your first days in the league?
I came into the league as a free agent in ’69. I was disappointed. I got letters if not every week a few times a month from Dallas telling me they wanted to draft me. But it never happened – I never got drafted.
So, after the draft Minnesota called me and I told them to come on down and I signed with them. Then Dallas called and I told them to come on down. When they did I told them I had already signed with Minnesota. They asked me why I told them to come down and I asked them why they told me they were going to draft me!
How were those first seasons?
Under Von Brocklin I was the first player to start as a rookie comeback in the NFL. He took a risk starting me but saw something in me and trusted me.
When I signed as a free agent with Pittsburgh, I learned that the NFL was not always just a business. It was a family in Pittsburgh under Mr. Rooney. I remember talking to Dan - he’d talk to me before lunch for so long I didn’t even gret the chance to eat (laughing).
What did he talk to you about?
Oh, they were heated talks about money! We had lots of those heated talks but we always knew once it was over it was over. It was family and they were people who cared about their athletes and backed us 100%.
In your second year in Pittsburgh (1970) you had seven interceptions – what was working for you that season?
That was a good year for me. It primed Dan to offer me a raise! I told Dan I know you don’t like me but I had a good year (laughing).
But really, those interceptions came from those guys up front – they put so much pressure on the quarterbacks – they had no time. Those lineman caused a lot of bad throws.
Chuck put a super bunch of guys together, Great players and guys. Chuck Beatty, Edwards, Rowser, Sheriff Henry Davis…lots of talent. Chuck always played his best guys.
I also went up against some of the top receivers in the NFL in practice. The guys we played in games weren’t that tough after the guys we faced like Shanklin and Lewis in practice.
What was the defensive mindset in those years?
Teams could drive between the 20′s but they’d get nothing but field goals after that.
The design was just like it is today really – keep all the plays between the twenties and don’t let up big plays. Teams had to march the ball against us. Once you got near the goal line we would play differently. Receivers back in my day though would have loved today’s passing NFL.
Speaking of those new rules, what do you think of today’s NFL?
You can’t touch receivers now within five yards and can’t touch them – they’d love the rules (laughing).
I understand the changes. Concussions and injuries weren’t a concern then. It’s a horrible thing now, we just didn’t know better then. I think the rules protecting players do great things for safety’s sake. I think officials take it too far sometimes though it’s hard. It’s a collision sport – that’s why people come to watch.
Guys like Goodell and Rozelle are super guys. I was on an elevator with Rozelle as a player in California. He was talking to me about all kinds of stuff about the league. I never met him before. How did he know me? Of course I knew him but not sure how he knew me. That was the kind of guy you have to have.
I know you can’t please everybody. But in the end you have to take care of your players and the league. You can overdo it but it’s better top be on the side of safety.
Is the NFL doing enough for the older players?
I wish I was making just part of what they are making today (laughing). I wonder if they appreciate the game like when we played. Guys before us…what they went through is horrendous. They made nothing then. The game has changed and football is now the number one sport.
Who took you under their wing when you came to the Steelers?
The guy that did the most to make me feel at home was Noll. I was a wide-eyed rookie in Minnesota. I was all about money then. In Pittsburgh it was about more. I was about the person, It’s still that way today. It’s more than dollars and cents. It’s family – they keep up with you later in life.
Any examples of how Coach Noll made you realize it was more than just about money?
I learned about Chuck right away. Chuck Hinton and Ben McGee were still there when I got there. Chuck called a meeting with the team in ’72 and told us he did the hardest thing he ever had to do in releasing them both. I knew right there, that was the place for me. He had compassion. There was more to him than x’s and o’s.
Who were some of the guys that kept the team loose?
The one guy I remember was Chuck Beatty – he laughed and joked a lot. We all called Chuck Coach Noll. He’d always call him Charles (laughing).
What was your most memorable day as a Steeler?
I had a great game against the Jets and Joe Willie (Namath). Coach Carson must have gone out with the Jets coaches the night before or something. He told me they decided they were going to pick on me in that game – that I was old and slow. Well I intercepted three passes that game and got the game ball. Joe Willie said I should have been wearing green and white that day (laughing).
Did you have good hands as a defensive back in college?
I was a running back and played the monster position on defense in college. I played both ways – never came off the field. I actually led the nation in rushing for eight weeks before the coach moved me to wide receiver.
I thought I’d play on offense in the pro’s but the coaches in Minnesota saw me play against Wichita State in college – I made a lot of tackles and knocked out a couple players and they must have liked that.
My first year in Minnesota I didn’t have any interceptions but I forced six fumbles.
Who were the big rivalries then in Pittsburgh?
Houston was the real rivalry then. When the Houston wars were over, win or lose, you had no one to play with the next week.
Then the Raiders were because we started meeting them in the playoffs. The Raiders were tough guys. We were too – we were mano y mano with the Raiders. Houston were the tough Texan guys too.
You were traded after four years in Pittsburgh. What happened?
I asked Chuck to trade me….I knew it was coming to the end. I hurt my back and didn’t want the team to suffer having to carry me. Soup (Mel Blount) was coming up, as was Anderson. They had great athletes coming up and I didn’t want to hold them back, so they traded me to the Raiders.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I enjoyed playing in Pittsburgh and being around those coaches and players. It’s a super organization – they prove it every year. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only player that says that.