Gordon Gravelle, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 1972-1976
First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days and how you got involved in this new venture?
I am President of Suncrest Homes, a Northern California based homebuilding, development, and financial services company.
Ever since my retirement from the NFL in 1979 I have been involved in real estate development. We started Suncrest Homes in 1996.
How did your time in Pittsburgh help in any way – any coaching or playing lessons help you? If so, how?
My time in Pittsburgh was very beneficial to my growth and development as a person and future businessman. I learned more life lessons from the Rooney family, the Steelers management team and the Steelers coaching staff than I had before or have since those few years I spent there.
I was exposed to and learned (through no fault of my own) how a first class organization was run and how Rooney’s had established a culture of “people first” where all of the employees, including the players, were treated with dignity and respect. I also learned quite quickly after I was traded that it was not the same at other teams.
You were drafted by the Steelers in ’72, just as the team was realizing it’s potential. Were you aware of the team’s recent struggles and did you have a sense that the team was turning itself around from those poor 60′s teams?
I remember thinking that the Steelers had not shown any pre-draft interest in me and I was surprised they drafted me. I was also excited to be coming to Pittsburgh because they had put together two consecutive seasons of improvement and had drafted some great young players like Joe Green, Bradshaw, and others.
Who on those teams – players and coaches – helped mentor you as a rookie, and how did they do so?
Franco and I were two weeks late to camp because we played in the Chicago All-Star game, and when we arrived I thought it would be hard to fit in and get to know my teammates. It was the opposite because both the offensive and defense players helped us get settled in.
There was an attitude of determination to improve as a team and we all knew we had to improve as individual players and help the other players improve their game. The most helpful were the veteran offensive linemen , Ray Mansfield and Bruce Van Dyke. They really taught me how to be a professional football player and friend. Coach Noll was the best head coach I ever had the privilege to play under and he helped mentor me , even after practices he would work with me on my techniques.
The best position coach I ever had was Dan Radakovich. He came to the Steelers in my third year and I really improved under his tutelage.
What was your biggest adjustment as a rookie, and how did you ultimately prove yourself to the team and coaches?
The unbelievable speed, size, and talent of the players and the game was the biggest adjustment I had to get used to. How can anyone explain a player like Mel Blount, a cornerback who was 6’3” 225lbs, ran a 4.5 forty, and could rip your head off..
I very quickly learned I had to work harder, never let up, and never back down..
Who were the toughest guys you faced in camp and what made them so?
I practiced every day against L.C Greenwood who is 6’8” with six-foot long arms and very quick off the ball.. He should be in the Hall of Fame.
Joe Green because he was Joe Green, one of the best defensive tackles to ever play the game. Joe had unbelievable natural talent and a very serious attitude when playing the game. He is in the Hall of Fame.
Mel Blount, who I mentioned above. He is in the Hall of fame. There all too many more to mention. Many of them are in the Hall of Fame. I’m just glad I only had to practice and not play against them!
Many players spoke about the need to keep things loose in the locker room and the hi jinks that occurred between players? What do you remember about those antics and were you involved in those as well?
Can’t mention any. What happens in the locker stays in the locker room.
We were a team that had developed a special chemistry of camaraderie and respect for each other, like brothers. We also had the attitude of hard work and confidence that kept everyone focused but loose. It started with Coach Noll who would preach to us to work hard all week in preparation for the next game and then “have fun on Sunday”.
You hear so much about “Super Bowl hangovers”. How did the team stay on an even keel through all the success and talent?
Coach Noll was more of a teacher than the stereotypical coach in the NFL. He had an uncanny ability in keeping us humble. One of my favorite Coach Noll saying went something like this: In life and football you can never reach the peak and stay there by resting on your laurels. There is no plateau, you need to improve even if you have reached the top. If you don’t you will be going downhill because your competitors are working harder than you and therefore will be better than you.
You moved on from the Steelers in ’76 to the Giants. What prompted the move and how difficult was that for you?
Unfortunately, during my career I had a few injuries that required surgeries. After my fifth year with the Steelers I was slowing down a step and Coach Noll was able to trade me to the Giants for a second round draft choice.
It was a very difficult time for my young family and I to uproot from Pittsburgh and the Steelers to a new city and an organization that was in total disarray. The Giants of the late 1970’s were the most dysfunctional organization in the NFL with two factions of the Mara family fighting against each other on a daily basis for control over the team. It filtered down into all aspects organization and really effected the performance of team.
My experience with the Giants, especially after being with the Steelers, was a nightmare. As I mentioned above, the Steelers are the epitome of a first class and model organization where an environment has been created in which their employees (players) can excel and perform at their best.
You were going to retire in ’79, but got a call from former Steelers line coach Dan Radakovich to come play for the Rams. What made you decide to come back?
I played for the Giants for two years, 1977 and 1978. I officially retired after the ’78 season but was asked to come back late in training camp in 1979. The Giants had a new coaching staff in place by then. I had moved back to California and was running an aviation business I owned when I agreed to go back to N.Y.
After I arrived, I was informed that I would be fined for every day I had missed. I filed a grievance through the players union. After about four weeks the hearing was scheduled in Washington D.C. The day before the hearing the head coach called me to his office, gave me a reimbursement check for the money they had fined me, and then released me.
I returned home to California to run my business but then received a call from “Bad Rad” checking to see if I wanted to come down to the Rams and help them out as a reserve. By 1979 Bud Carson, Lionel Taylor and Dan were with the Rams. As I mentioned above, Dan is the best position coach I had ever played for. Bud and Lionel were equally good coaches. I knew the Rams were a good team and with those three coaches there I knew the Rams could have a successful season. I felt enthused again and went down and joined the Rams. Little did anyone know, especially me, that the Rams would end up in Super Bowl XIV against the Steelers.
I had a blast playing against my old teammates. It turned out to be my final game in the NFL, very fittingly I might add.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Just an anecdote Steelers fans may want to read: About eight years ago I met Bill Walsh at a charity golf tournament in Northern California. As I introduced myself, I mentioned I played for the Steelers when he was an assistant coach under Paul Brown at Cincinnati. He looked at me as he pondered for a minute, then pointed at me and said “best team ever”. I was surprised and I asked him “how about your 49er teams of the “80’s?” He thought again for a minute and then said ”we would have given you a run for your money..but, NO, (as he pointed his finger at me again) best team ever”!