John Rienstra, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 1986-1990
First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days?
In April I retired as the manager of an automotive business. Before that I ran a medical practice. Now I’m the manager for a septic company that does the work for the Colorado Springs area. We have a number of septic trucks – acts a lot like a Roto Rooter.
How is your health these days?
I’ve had ten surgeries, but I feel great now. My weight is at 205 pounds – it’s much easier to stay at 205 than 270. No more six meals a day like I had to do in college.
My shoulders are shot. One has been replaced. I can’t run because of it and my back – had hernia surgeries on that. So now I mountain and road bike a lot. I can’t run and can’t lift anything because a couple of my rotators are gone. Running does more harm than good – so I’m looking into doing some swimming to strengthen those muscles.
You were the number one pick by the Steelers in 1986. How did that feel for you – how did you handle that?
I was honored, to be honest. I have lots of gratitude for that. I played for five years and loved Pittsburgh. My sister and brother-in-law still live there. My father-in-law lives there half the year as well.
The Steelers were a great fit for me.
How did you handle the attention?
I didn’t like it. I hard a hard time with it – sometimes I think I would have been better as a free agent. I was always seen as an overachiever, not a first-rounder.
How did you cope with that?
Mike Webster, Craig Wolfley and Tunch Ilkin all helped me. I was playing guard – which was Craig’s position – but he still helped me.
Being friends as well as co-workers – seeing them talk and share their mistakes made me feel more comfortable – as part of the team. That was real important to me.
As a rookie there are lots of things going on. It’s a fast, hard, humbling game. The veterans taught me that.
Did the coaching staff help?
Offensive line coach Ron Blackledge helped me – Hal Hunter too. Actually, Hal was in Cleveland when I went there in my sixth season.
What made you leave – and why Cleveland of all places?
Ha! Well, I always played well against the Giants for some reason. When Billichik went to Cleveland he signed me as a Plan B free agent. I went to six teams but Cleveland was the easy choice for me.. Hal Hunter was there as well which made it easier.
What was your best season?
It was ’86-’87. Bubby was waiting in the wings to start – he started in ’89 finally. Malone was still the quarterback. We lost the first two games – BIG. 51-0 against Cleveland to start with. I had broken ribs suffered in camp so I was only finally able to start in game three. I played offensive tackle for the first time ever due to other injuries on the team. We came back and won week 3.
We went on to go 4-6 and Chuck could see things were coming together for the team. He told us that if we win the next six games we’d definitely be in the playoffs. If we win five we could get there.
Well. we won five and needed four other teams to win to get in. And they did.
Elway beat us by one point – if we beat them we would have faced Cleveland and we would have beaten Cleveland. It was the first season I was able to play sixteen games.
Do you think the NFL should do more for veteran players who are suffering from injuries due to playing football?
I have the old benefits package. The NFL went on strike in ’93 and I retired that season. The post ’93 package was much better. I had to sell the motel I owned to pay for my needed benefits.
Still, I never looked for help from the NFL. I worked every year. My wife helped – she worked at Starbucks a while to help pay bills. I pay over $1,000/month on medical needs outside of insurance and procedures – stuff like prescriptions. My insurance costs are over $1,500/month. I had to pay cash for my operations – like for the hernias.
I’m one of the lucky ones – some have it much worse. As a first round pick, I got lots more than many of those guys.
The NFL should do more for the pre-1993 players – there are about 3,000 of us left – we’re dying off fast! There should be a special package for these players. Going forward it seems to be fine.
For me, I can’t not work – I’m 49 and need the medical care.
How brutal were the camps for versus the actual games – which contributed to the injuries more?
I never got hurt in a game. the camps were brutal – the two-a-days were rough. Smashing into people every day. Chuck had us doing two-a-days even in January during the playoffs.
Who are some of the guys you remember most in those camps?
I could walk out with Webster and Ilkin and feel good about what I was doing. I got into a big fight with Lloyd his rookie year. Dunn and Little were tough too.
Justin Strelczyk – we called him Jughead – of course he died a few years ago, but he was a funny guy. Brian Blankenship was a blast to be around. And Dunn could take and give a beating.
But camps were pretty serious. Webster would crack a few jokes to keep himself entertained, but there wasn’t much kidding.
What do you think of the new NFL and new rules?
My only injuries were in camp, so the rules for camps I like. Noll used to have on some Fridays a “Rise and Blow” rule to protect players from hitting each other with their helmets on those days. I loved those days. It took the heavy hitting out of practices.
I love everything the NFL is doing now. Players need protected – it’s the best sport in the world and the players deserve it.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I miss Pittsburgh. I love the area – the people, the food….I did 150 appearances in Pittsburgh at least – I have nothing but fond memories.