J.R. Wilburn, Steelers Wide Receiver, 1966-1970
First, Can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days?
I’m actually retired from Reynolds Metals. They were Reynolds then were bought out by Alcoa. I worked for them for 39 years. I was working with them in the off-seasons during my five years playing football and went straight there to work after I retired.
What did you think when you were drafted by the Steelers who were such a poor team at the time?
I went to school at South Carolina – I red-shirted there. So I was drafted as a Junior by Buffalo of the AFL and Pittsburgh. I looked Pittsburgh up in the dictionary actually – I saw a big smoky city and said “Holy mackerel”…. I chose Pittsburgh over Buffalo though because the NFL was more established than the AFL in those days.
We struggled in those days, to put it mildly. It was our first year under Chuck that things changed. We were in contention for a while even in the second year. You could see things turning around. Bradshaw was drafted, Joe Greene too….Andy Russell had been there.
We had flashed there of talent. We just needed more.
Then I was traded to San Diego. The first two picks that year were a receiver in Ron Shanklin and a tight end – I was expendable.
San Diego looked like the same club I started off at in Pittsburgh. I injured my ankle and knee – decided as Chuck used to say to get on with the rest of my life and opted to get a “real job”. San Diego just wasnt a good fit for me.
How was Bill Austin as a coach to play for?
Bill was a Vince Lombardi coach. He tried to instill the same things as Vince – to emulate Lombardi. But no one could do that. If he had just tried to be himself instead of being someone else I think he would have done much better. He had trouble dealing with some of the players. He was a great offensive line and assistant coach – he just wasn’t a great head coach – didn’t know how to dot the i’s and all that.
The first thing Chuck did when he came in was to get hold of all the players that wanted to play – not the most talented ones – and got rid of the other guys. That brought the unity back and he built on that.
What was your most memorable moment as a Steeler?
I had a large day in 1967. Kent Nix was the quarterback. We played Dallas at Pitt Stadium and I caught 12 passes. It was a Steelers record at the time – we were basically a running team. We didn’t pass a lot then.
How were practices in those pre-Noll days?
My last years, the conditions were much different.
When we practiced at South Park before Chuck got there it was wild. That field was not made for football. In bad weather we had to practice in the horse stables. We stepped in horse crap and ran into the walls. When guys from Cleveland and Dallas were traded to Pittsburgh they couldn’t believe it.
How did things change?
Things got first class under Chuck. We were not first class before and we felt it.
The Rooneys were great – I was there for all three generations, really. Art, Dan who ran the team and Artie, who was a ball boy then. Through all the coaching and player changes, the owners were the constant.
My opinion though – Mr. Rooney in the past had hired coaches that were his friends – not on their abilities. They took a chance on Austin and were closer. With Chuck, they really looked at him for his ability. He was hired for the right reasons.
As for the facilities. I’m not sure he had any influence on that. He was a no-nonsense guy. Three Rivers I suspect was really built for baseball, but as we started winning, one fed off the other and it created revenue to help the facilities.
Who do you remember most from those 60’s teams?
I stay in touch with Rocky and Terry Hanratty. I told Terry that I’m glad his son (a freshman OT at Notre Dame) got his athletic ability from his mother’s side of the family (laughing).
And a guy we lost – my main companion there – Ray Mansfield. Ray and Andy Russell were really close. Ray was 100% “guy”. He died climbing down the Grand Canyon – I knew he’d die moving.
Frenchy Fuqua was a character. He used to have a dress-off after games with Chuck Beatty and some other guys. He was something else.
Lloyd Voss was another guy. He was from Nebraska but hated cold weather, if you can imagine. His fingers and toes were really sensitive – he hated it when people stepped on his toes. It would drive him nuts. People used to step on his toes on purpose to get him fired up.
Hanratty was the guy who played the jokes. Before Thanksgiving, he told the defensive players that the Rooneys bought a truck full of turkeys for the players, but there were only 20 so they better hurry before they were gone. Guys were running to the truck in their jock straps, but there was no truck. Or turkeys (laughing). He tried it again a couple years later but only the rookies fell for it that time.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I’m just so proud of the team. Winning is something, but the Rooneys are class acts. They had a certain moral standard. Good or bad, you won’t be in Pittsburgh if you don’t live by their standards. A great deal of the success of the team is because of that.
I loved my five years there. I was there through the tough years – I wish I could have been there for the good years too.
One other thing. Artie used to be the ball boy there and he spent a lot of time with the players – he and his cousin. He was always a nice kid. His dad had his foot firmly planted on him, but boys would be boys and we would always play tricks on each other.
And Andy Russell. He was always ahead of his time. Andy had the same mind as Chuck – they both analyzed the game. I think it’s a travesty Andy is not in the Hall of Fame. Only reason I can think is because Lambert and Ham are already there and they don’t want all the linebackers from one team in.
Andy should be in there. He was in the prime of his career before the Super Bowls. Andy had ten years before their first Super Bowl. He was very good on bad teams and that pulled him down – though, he did make eight Pro Bowls.