John Hilton, Steelers Tight End, 1965-1969
First, thank you for taking the time to talk. I wanted to start things off by acknowledging that you’ve been suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. How is your health?
I have been yes. I just tell people I can’t remember everything and don’t get into it more….
What have you been doing since your time in the NFL?
I was in the equipment rental business and loved it.Everyone knew me so I went to all these different places around where I lived and told them stories about the NFL. I had a ball. I remember one guy who held the ladder for me at a job site and started shaking it as I climbed up. I asked him what the heck he was doing and he said that I played in the NFL so I should be able to handle this (laughing).
How did things begin for you in the NFL?
I remember – I was with Chuck Sanders there in Detroit and he got hurt. I was getting ready to step in and play for him and suit up. But Chuck painted my seat with black shoe polish- just lathered it in. I sat on it and my entire backside was black! He told me after that now we had two Black-ass tight ends.
I ended up in Pittsburgh though that same year. I played for Coaches Austin and Nixon. Both were great guys, I knew Austin from before he got the job – he and I were close. And I remember having to play in horse manure on that field.
I started off playing well early on. I was nominated to the Dapper Dan awards and met Joe Paterno there too.
How were those early years?
I remember my only run. It was on a reverse against Cleveland. I was in my stance and my eyes got big – I thought they all knew I was going to run a reverse, but I gained fifteen yards on the play. The Cleveland guys all ran the wrong way.
One of my first experiences was with J.R. Wilburn and Gene Breen. J.R. had this terrific Corvette and this kid came around and made some bad remarks about it. Gene came up to him and hit him so hard he knocked him out of his shoes (laughing).
I went once to a bar with Mike Majack - he was a former Steeler and the biggest guy in town. He was huge, and for some reason I decided to go one on one with him there in the bar. I got in my stance and knocked him into the partition – everything in the place went flying. We went outside after that and I jumped on his back and he flipped me over. I still have the cinders above my eye from that night – it cut me open. The next day coach Nixon threatened me with a $160 fine if I didn’t get my helmet on and play. I had blood everywhere but still played.
Paul Martha and I used to room together – he was a wonderful guy. He and I used to run together. He and Dick Hoak were two super guys.
I also remember playing in New Orleans. Willie Asbury (Steelers running back) was attacked by a fan who hit him with a bottle. Roy Jefferson and I stopped the guy – Roy kicked him down. It was some crazy fan who tried to take Willie out – it was a Black-White thing. Those things never should have happened….
Then, C0ach Noll came in…
The Steelers had some great guys then. I remember having to block Joe Greene then, which was just ridiculous. But Chuck didn’t like me. Early on when he got there he told me three times that I stunk.
I don’t know. It was after a game against the Eagles. I tried to come back to catch a long throw and a linebacker hit me and knocked me out.
I was traded a while later to Green Bay for a defensive back.
Do you have any good memories of playing for Chuck Noll?
We lived in a Catholic dorm in St. Vincents and one night, we had a big water fight. I opened my door and Coach Noll said to get out quick – he was covered in foam. Joe Greene was running around squirting everyone with the fire extinguisher!
You were traded in 1970 to the Packers – what prompted the trade and who were you traded for?
Coach Noll just didn’t like me. I was traded to Green Bay for a defensive back. I caught Bart Starr’s last touchdown pass and the winning touchdown pass versus the Steelers in 1970. I remember the Green Bay fans were booing Bart Starr until I caught the touchdown, then they all cheered and did their cheesehead thing!
Any last thoughts for readers?
We tried to play the game the right way. We put a hurting on a lot of people but we did it cleanly. We did it the right way.