Clendon Thomas, Steelers Safety, 1962-1968
First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days?
Well, I just had my 76th birthday. I’m not retired - I work with a former partner from my chemical business — we work in the drilling equipment business now in the oil fields. I am enjoying what I’m doing.
You were drafted by the Rams in 58 – how did you find yourself in Pittsburgh in ’62?
We had three coaching changes in four years in Los Angeles. Sid Gilman lead us to a second place finish in our division my first year there. But back then, teams made money by selling off players to other teams. They sold thirteen players and Sid resigned or got fired because he objected to the sales and didn’t want to start over again. Many of our very best players were traded away.
I knew Tom Landry though my association with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and I called him and asked — If I was available, would he trade for me to Dallas. He was an outstanding coach and Dallas was getting better every year. Two days later, I saw on the Los Angeles evening news I had been traded to Pittsburgh. Back then there were two places you didn’t want to go – Green Bay, which was like the Foreign Legion of the NFL and Pittsburgh, which had never won a Championship in the history of the franchise.
After being traded to Pittsburgh, I went back to Oklahoma and held out for a month trying to get Pittsburgh to trade me to Dallas. I finally decided to report to Pittsburgh and see what it was like. That trade turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I was given the opportunity to spend five months a year in Pittsburgh trying to win for the next seven years.
I was an All-Pro in ’63, second in the league in interceptions – thanks to an outstanding group of defensive linemen and linebackers. We had a great chance to win our division in our last game at NY in ’63. We had previously beaten both NY and Chicago, who played in the Championship. I remember Brady Keys, our starting corner could not play, along with two other starting linebackers. I am grateful to have been part of this group of men with a shot at the Championship.
How was Buddy Parker to play for?
I played for three remarkable coaches in my career. My college coach, Bud Wilkinson- OU, Sid Gilman- Rams and Buddy Parker- Steelers. Parker was a brilliant coach. We were always well prepared for our opponents and could make changes during a game on the fly as needed. Parker gave us the opportunity to win and that’s all we could ask for. I played for the best owner in the league – Art Rooney. I appreciated the way he treated me, not only as boss but an interested friend. He had a substantial horse farm in Maryland and I had a small operation in Oklahoma so we had a common interest.
After playing Baltimore he took me to his farm on Monday to see his yearlings. While driving back to Pittsburgh, Art shared many stories covering many subjects, our Irish heritage, his amazing history starting the Steelers. I cherish the attention and friendship I received from this gentleman. He also took the time to introduce me to Del Miller, his close friend who won the Hamiltonian harness race with a horse named “Adios” and built the Meadows harness track just outside of Pittsburgh.
What were some of your best/most humorous experiences as a Steeler?
My primary position was as a defensive safety. Occasionally I was asked to line up as a receiver. Some one was hurt and this was one of those occasions. We were playing Detroit and our left guard Mike Sandusky is matched up with Detroit’s tackle Alex Karras. Mike was giving way an advantage of thirty-to-forty pounds of muscle to Alex. Alex’s game plan when he took his glasses off was to beat the snot out of Mike. He was probably the only player he could see clearly. Mike’s game plan was to keep Alex off of Bobby Lane – whatever it took. Mike had padded the back of legs in the locker room in case Alex got away from him and he had to heel whip him at the last moment. Mike had help at Center – Buzz Nutter and Right guard – Ray Lemek.
Well, sometime during the first quarter Mike began begging for help. Alex had gotten by and Mike had cut him down a few times. Mike is telling Buzz and Ray he had to have help. Alex was yelling at the referee but he isn’t doing anything about it. The referee is grinning and knew Alex would take care of the problem. In the meantime, Alex is head butting Mike with a bull rush and a little blood is running off the front of his nose.
Bobby Lane was all business. There wasn’t a lot of unnecessary chatter in his huddle. Bobby got fed up with the chatter from Mike, Buzz and Ray and finally told them to just shut up. Ray said he would take care of Alex. We ran another play and came back to the huddle. Mike is bent over with both hands under his armpits groaning. Ray looked over and said - Mike don’t worry about Alex. His hand was sticking out of the pile and I stomped it off. Mike pulled his hand out and you could see the skin peeled back. Now I know it’s not right to laugh at someone’s misery but Bobby had to call timeout while we laughed and taped up Mike.
I also remember when Mike Ditka was traded to Dallas near the end of his career. Mike was a very tough, mean competitor. I had received a permanent indentation to my skull from Mike’s forearm, so I gave every effort to give out as good as I received. Mike knew me pretty well because of a mutual friend, Bill Wade, formerly with the Rams and a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
We played Dallas in Pittsburgh. Sometime during the game, Mike ran a strong post pattern to the end zone. That’s when the one post holding the uprights was close to the goal line. I hit him when he and the ball got to the goal line. The hit knocked him offline into the pole. He was down on his hands and knees swearing at me. As he finished swearing at me, he finished with “You Fellowship of Christian Athlete SOB. He was stunned enough he didn’t know he hit the pole. He thought I had given him a tremendous cheap shot.
I admit, when I figured out he thought I had hurt him- I took credit for it! I also told him if he ran another post pattern I would really hit him next time!
Two weeks later we played in Dallas. During warm up, Mike yelled at me, laughing – That wasn’t you it was that “blank” pole!
Who helped mentor you as a new Steeler?
Salary levels and the housing availability required all players to network with teammates. Most players had two to four living in their house or apartment. Most married teammates could not afford to bring their wives. Veterans understood the opportunity we had in the five to six months to win a championship and made sure the new players were settled in quickly.
You played for Coach Bill Austin – what was he like to play for?
Talent comes and goes. Pittsburgh had a lot of good players retire or traded away. In all fairness to him, he was primarily an offensive line coach for the Packers. Head coaching jobs are obviously difficult. Putting a team of knowledgeable assistant coaches and picking quality players in the draft is the name of the game. If you have communication skills to guide the different personalities on the team you can have success. They have to understand what is needed for success. For instance, defense is king – if they don’t score they don’t win!
Bill made a serious mistake with our team prior to a scrimmage a St. Vincent College training camp. He made a comment to our team that he was aware of some of the terrific defensive play of the Steelers. And, he wanted to see it. I couldn’t believe he said it! That’s the equivalent of waving a red cape in front of a fighting bull. He saw it! I think three of my starting teammates were injured for the year without quality replacements and our chance for a winning season was done.
What would surprise readers most about those teams you played for?
Pittsburgh fans would be very difficult to surprise. However, I don’t know if your readers knew how good our ’63 team was. Ernie Stautner, our Right defensive end had stayed for another year because he thought we could win the championship. Ernie was strong and I never saw anyone who could handle him. He was not a big man but he could whip people. When the NFL changes a rule because of one player, you know he was dominating. The NFL wrote the head slap rule as we know it today because of Ernie. Ernie’s charge would lift an opponent out of his stance and with his right hand to the ear of the helmet, bring a player to his knees with the blow. He was a fabulous player with unbelievable stamina. He and the other men on our defensive line were the primary reason for my interceptions.
Lou Michaels was at left defensive end and Myron Pottios at middle linebacker-both great players. Two of the best corner backs in the league – Brady Keys and Johnny Sample – None of these players got a lot of attention. But, if we had won a Championship, fans would have known a lot more about them.
On offense we had a great fullback in John Henry Johnson. When we played Cleveland with Jim Brown another great fullback, John Henry would have more yardage than Jim. When he wanted to turn it on, he could get it done.
Who were the locker room leaders on those teams?
You lead by the way you play. So, when you threw a game ball to a teammate for a great day, we were acknowledging his leadership. I cherish every game ball I received from my teammates. I remember Cleveland’s receiver, Gary Collins being extremely difficult to shut down. Brady Keys shut him down and I’m sure he still has that game ball. These are just two examples of many players in all positions leading.
What do you think of the rule changes on hitting in today’s NFL?
I would probably have trouble, along with current players, adapting to some of the rule changes. Honestly, I’m not certain what is allowed or when you cross the line. I’m aware the intent is to protect the players and I am all for making a violent game as safe as possible. I was taught and am still convinced that the safest way to play is full throttle on both offense and defense. That means there will be accidental illegal hits but intentional dirty play has to be stopped.
What do you think of the new CBA and how the NFL is treating older retired players?
They sent a letter out last year to apply for long-term care and I responded. Unfortunately, it’s a joke for older guys like me. I was turned down.
You have to pass a physical to get it. I’m 76 years old! It sounded good – but who of us can qualify? I both hit and got hit too many times and accumulated too many lingering injuries to pass the physical. The effort on the NFL’s part was well-meaning and I’m sure they had good intentions, but it didn’t work out for me. However I’m healthy enough to ride my bicycle ten miles around Lake Hefner five or six days a week.
Let me give you a little background information. I signed a contract my rookie year for $12,000. Our season lasted approximately five months – temp work. In 1963 with the Steelers, I was paid $35,000, as much as any safety in the league. Again, 5 months – temp work. Don’t get the wrong idea. The Steelers were being very generous at that time in the NFL.
However as to the new CBA benefits, with eleven years playing time, I have no substantial benefits from the NFL. I also spent more money-getting my body repaired than I earned total, my entire career. Would I do it again for the same salaries. Yes – Absolutely ! I never played for money. In fact, I was always able to go back to Oklahoma and make more in my off-season construction business than playing.
Any last thoughts for readers?
The people of Pittsburgh are exceptional fans and very special to me. I’ve averaged two-to-three letters a month most of my life from these amazing people. Every year, when we came back to training camp, we all had one goal in mind, win a championship. In ’63 we came within one win, our last Giant game in NY getting it done. Our team had already beaten Chicago and the Giants and our fans knew we had a great opportunity to win this big one. A host of injuries to starters cost us severely in NY and we lost the opportunity to play Chicago in the Championship.
Some of my former teammates like, Andy Russell, Rocky Bleier, Ray Mansfield managed to play long enough after I retired to prevail and enjoy the great success the Steelers have achieved. The benefits of playing for the Steelers have been many. I found my wife of forty-two years in Pittsburgh. There is no question that the fans treated me as an adopted son. I was allowed the privilege to compete at a professional level and I loved every minute of it.
As for the Steeler organization, I think it’s obvious the tremendous respect I have for the Rooney family and their important influence in the NFL. As for me, Dan Rooney and his family have set the standard in the league as an outline for success.