Calvin Sweeney, Steelers Wide Receiver, 1980-1987
First, can you let readers know what you have been doing since your NFL days?
Well, I’m recovering from foot surgery – had this injury from football years ago and finally got the surgery.
I went to work at the UPS after football. It’s a unique story. I didn’t know that my next door neighbor was a UPS’er - he was my neighbor during my entire NFL career. he asked me a couple of years before I retired what I would do after retirement and I said I didn’t know. He said I’d be a good UPS’er – I act like them (laughing).
After I retired, I got a voicemail from UPS saying that they understood I was interested in applying for a job. The guy said he followed my career and wanted me to give him a call. I said to my wife – who is this? I called him back and to make a long story short, we played phone tag for weeks. We had a hard time connecting so he told me to meet with this other guy. I did and told the next guy I had a degree in marketing and asked him what opportunities there were for me. He told me I would have to start as a driver.
I said wait a minute. Driving what? He told me the little brown package trucks (laughing). They had a training class in two weeks, he told me, a driver-orientation class, and that I should get back to him if I want to take it.
Well, I didn’t get back to him. I went to Europe for twenty-one days. When I got back I had lots of messages from UPS. My wife said I should give it a try – but I told her I never quit anything if I try it. Well, I did try it and loved it. I loved being my own boss on the road and did it for nine months. When I went into the office my supervisor asked me if I’d like to get into management. I said yeah. They said they were impressed that I came in and didn’t act like a superstar – I blended in. They said I start now – go home and change.
I was promoted to supervisor and was there for twenty-three years. I was a business manager, employee relations and community relations manager.
You were drafted in the fourth round by the Steelers in 1980 – how surprised were you to be drafted by the Steelers?
I was totally surprised. At the time, the Steelers had two great wide receivers in Stallworth and Swann. Plus they had Frank Lewis and Jim Smith. One of the last teams I worked out with was the Steelers. I worked out for Tampa Bay and Atlanta a couple of times – the Steelers didn’t work me out until about a week before the draft.
I was clueless why they worked me out. Me and my friends always looked at who needed receivers before the draft to see where we could end up.
Was it frustrating having been drafted by a team already loaded at wide receiver?
I said “Oh my God. Why the Steelers?” Starting in college and having some success, you want to go to a place where you could start immediately. But I said so be it. Of course they ended up trading Frank Lewis and Theo Bell. And after being around those guys, it was a blessing in my life to be with those guys.
Who helped mentor you as a rookie – both on and off the field?
Bradshaw and I were really close. I broke my foot and had to have surgery. He lent me his car in camp to get around. My girlfriend was in Arlington, VA. He gave me his new Thunderbird to use to drive out and see her. Terry and I are still close today.
Stallworth was like my big brother – he took care of me. I’ll tell you what – they were all the ultimate professionals. All of them were. I played behind Stallworth - on his side. We were always talking – how to get off jams and that sort of thing. He was poetry in motion.
Who were the toughest guys you faced in camp and in games?
If you could beat our guys you could handle anyone. Blount I faced a lot. Ron Johnson was tough. Donnie Shell…We had great defensive backs. If you could get open in practice, you could against anyone.
The two toughest guys I faced in games were Claiborne in New England and Haynes in Oakland. They’d beat you up. Chicago – Plank and those guys – they didn’t have a great team but they beat you up too.
The game I remember most was playing against San Francisco and Ronnie Lott. I was knocked out of that game.
Bradshaw threw a pass and I leapt up to catch it and Hicks hit me in the back and Lott hit me from the other side. I remember laying on the ground – I couldn’t get air. Finally I got a gush of air and spit up blood. The hit broke a blood vessel in my lung…
Was it frustrating not getting the chance to start?
It wasn’t frustrating. The respect and gentlemenship of the guys made it ok. They were classy players. Swann, Stallworth - they were great mentors. I enjoyed being around them. It wasn’t like Favre and Aaron Rodgers – these guys took care of me.
Bradshaw was your quarterback for most of your NFL playing career. What was he like as a leader?
He was a professional and very competitive. He’d jump on you if you made mistakes – I remember him telling Steve Courson to get his head out of his you-know-what once – to step it up. He may not have been the leader of the team, but he was the leader of that huddle.
He was also good at changing plays. I’d run in plays from the sideline and he’d tell me, “Heck no, we’re not running this.”
How did Coach Noll handle that?
Chuck and he would butt heads when he’d change plays sometimes. The only fights we’d see between the two were during games when he’d tell Terry to run the play he called. If the play worked he’d tell Terry it was a good play, but they mostly met behind closed doors to talk about that stuff.
Who were some of the greatest characters on those teams?
Dwight White – every day he did something crazy. L.C. too. Both were pranksters. Heat in your jock, powder in your helmet…stupid stuff every day. They were out to get someone every day (laughing).
Lambert threw a Halloween party every year. He dressed like a Black guy one year, a hippie another year. He was a very intelligent guy and serious about his job, but he could let his hair down too.
After Bradshaw retired, there were some quarterback battles and issues. How did you think that was going to end up?
I thought Cliff Stoudt would have the job forever, He had all the tools. The height, and he could throw deep. But Cliff and Jim Smith both went to the USFL. Malone was there and stepped in.
How was Mark Malone received by the team?
Mark and I got along great. Everybody knew he was a heck of an athlete. Lots doubted his throwing ability. Some thought he didn’t throw well. I don’t recall any personal issues with him, but I remember something was said about that and the team. When he was first there he didn’t hang out with anyone. But Bradshaw was like that too at first. Some thought he just wasn’t very sociable I guess.
How was Brister?
Bubby was a high-strung guy. He had a big arm but he was young and people thought he was high-strung. I retired when Malone was still quarterback so I never played with Bubby. He had all the tools. I just think he was learning to be a Steeler then – the kind of person and character that you think of as a Steeler. Some people thought he was a loose cannon at times.
What are some of your favorite memories as a Steeler?
When Art Rooney Sr. brought the four of us top picks in to meet the press and coaches. He came up to me and asked me my name. I told him “Calvin”. He said “Calvin? That’s not a good Irish name. I’ll call you Mikey.”
And he never called me Calvin again. He;d come up to me in practice and say “Hey Mikey – how are you doing?” (laughing).
What would surprise people most about those Steelers teams?
That even though they were so aggressive and vicious, every one of those guys were great guys – gentlemen off the field. Smart guys – people of character.
You caught Terry Bradshaw’s last ever pass. Did you give the ball to Terry?
I didn’t think it was going to be his last pass! I tossed it to Parisi I think on the sidelines. I would have kept it!
It was the last game at Shea Stadium too. I took apiece of one of the seats. I don’t know what I did with it. One guy broke a piece of an arm off of the chair and I just picked it up.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I’ll tell you this – Steelers fans are the greatest fans. I played at USC in front of 110,000 fans every day but there are no fans like Pittsburgh’s.
I remember when they brought the four top picks in -me, Zach Valentine, Russell Davis and Greg Hawthorne. They put us up in the William Penn Hotel. They dropped us off there and told us we had the rest of the day free. So, the four of us went down the street looking to grab a beer together.
We tried to find a liquor store - we were going to bring six-packs back to the hotel. But there were not stores. We went down the boulevard and a lady was walking down the street. We asked her where we could find a liquor store and she said you can’t find one around here and none are open on Sundays anyway. But she directed us to a place that sold beer on Sundays – the Fishnet.
So, we find the place and all four of us go inside. It’s dark, so it takes time for our eyes to adjust. But when they do we see, lo and behold, it’s a strip bar. We’re all young, so we go in and sit down to get a beer. We’re all waiting for a waitress when we see a huge shadow behind us. This big Black guy calls all of us out by name, and I’m thinking “Oh no, we’re in trouble already. We have barely been in the city and we’re going to get in trouble at a strip bar!”
Well he says to us, “I know you guys. You were in the paper.” And he showed us the newspaper with our pictures in it (laughing). I thought maybe the team had someone follow us around to make sure we didn’t get into trouble or something. But after that I said these fans are the best fans! I knew then that they followed the team tremendously.
They really are great fans. It’s a great city and the greatest fans in the world!