Dick Conn, Steelers Cornerback, 1974
First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days and how your health is?
After retiring from the Patriots in 1979 I moved to Spartanburg, SC to work for Jostens, Inc. and have been with them since 1981.
Jostens has made most of the professional championship rings including five of the six Steelers rings and the one I still wear from 1974. I work mainly in the high schools in the upstate of SC but have also work on many of the Pro and College Championship rings. My oldest son Travis and wife Sharon also work with me for Jostens.
I also have three other children: Molly is in real estate and living in Charleston,SC, Matt is an attorney in Birmingham, Al and Andy is in his first year of Law School at UGA. They are all great kids and love the Steelers!
I could only get two tickets to this past Super Bowl and drew names from a hat to see who got to go. Travis and Matt won and had a great time in Dallas.
My health is better than most. I have had a few operations since leaving football and still have concussion related problems and can often still feel some of the broken bones and joint related injuries.
I actually left the league because of a spinal injury but have managed to put off that surgery so far. Our league and players association have not done much to help older players with insurance and pension benefits, but that’s another story!
You came out of Georgia and immediately contributed to the Steelers 1975 Super Bowl run. How did you prove yourself to the coaches and other players – what about you caught their eye and gave them the confidence to allow you to play so quickly?
I was lucky to come in during a strike year because we got most of the playing time in preseason. I came in great shape and I think that helped a lot when I was way out in front of the pack in our conditioning work after practice.
Coach Carson’s defenses were difficult to learn and that was probably what helped me the most. Some players in camp just couldn’t learn the basic defenses. Donnie Shell and I got to be the starting safeties for most of the preseason games and we won all six of them!
Coach Carson had recruited me when he was the head coach at Georgia Tech and he remembered me and that is probably why I got the chance to come to the Steelers. I also volunteered for everything from punt and kickoff returns to holding for extra points and field goals. I think Coach Noll appreciated that!
You also came in on the heels of the 1974 players’ strike. How did that affect the mood and logistic’s of training camp and your ability to make the team?
It was strange to come in to camp in a cab from the airport and have current players, I remember John McMakin, beating on the cab and calling you a scab as you came in to the practice facility.
As rookies we had no choice because we didn’t have a job yet. The strike help the rookies that year get playing time that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. We had fourteen rookies make the team and it probably would have been four or five if not for the strike. I probably wouldn’t have been in that four or five!!!!
With the strike just having happened and the team being so young and talented, how did the coaches and players manage to keep an even keel through the season and stay focused?
Coach Noll (Chilly Chas) had everything under control. Once the season started the strike was behind us and with a few exceptions everything was back to business. One exception was giving Joe Gilliam the starting QB job at first because he came in before the strike was over. There may have been a few others but I had too many concussions to remember, (ha). I really feel that our preseason set the tone for the year and Coach Noll would not let us break our concentration.
What players and coaches helped mentor you most as a rookie both on and off the field, and how?
As for players all of us rookies were close. We had to go through a lot together and it proved to be worth it. The older players that helped me the most were a cross-section of different guys. Bradshaw kind of took me under his wing because I played guitar and so did he. He actually bought me a guitar during camp to help him with his guitar playing. In return, I stayed out after practice and caught 50-100 extra balls for him.
Rocky and Andy Russell were great encouragers. Mel helped me on the field and gave me a lot of confidence that I was doing a good job. Reavis was my roommate and best buddy (still is) and we had the streets of Pittsburgh figured out in no time.
I loved playing for Coach Noll because he was tough but fair and really took charge of the team in all aspects. You really didn’t want to mess up on special teams because Coach Noll would run it back over and over in the film room. He was also more playful than people thought. I use to stay after practice and play setback with him even during training camp. He is a great man and I will always treasure the time I spent with him. Even when he had to cut me, he did it with class and I will never forget it.
Coach Carson was a defensive genius! He helped me with so many mental parts to the game that it helped me my whole career. Most of what I do in my personal life and especially in my busy and work ethic I owe to these two guys.
Then there was Mr. Rooney. The Rooney family is the best owners in the game. Mr. Rooney (Art) would come around the locker room with that cigar in his mouth and shake hands with every player from Joe Green down to me. He sent me $100 check for my wedding and I still have the stub where he wrote me a personal note. I was proud to be a part of the funding for the Art Rooney Statue back in 1990. He was another great influence on my life.
Tony Parisi (equipment) and Ralph Berlin (Trainer) were also great to all of us. When I left the Steelers for the World League, they didn’t have enough helmets so I called Tony and he sent me my Steeler helmet. What a class outfit!!!
There was a great deal of defensive back talent on that team – Blount, Shell, Edwards, J.T. Thomas … what was your role in that secondary and how did you contribute?
I was mainly the nickel back on long yardage situations and a special team’s guy. I would come in for Andy Russell or one of the linebackers to be in coverage. As a special team player I returned kicks and punts and was on most of the coverage teams.
The team was always so loose despite so many intense players. Who helped keep that team so loose, and how?
We had a lot of young guys that really didn’t know what to expect. The older player always seemed to be in control and had a great deal of confidence. When you had people like Frenchy, LC, Ernie Holmes and Joe Gilliam there was never a dull moment. We had a lot of card playing and smoking going on in the locker room. It took me a while to get used to the smoke.
The older guys seemed to accept us and Rocky even said one time that maybe the rookies (6-0 in preseason) helped teach them how to win. Joe G and I had a weigh-off every week to see who the lightest player on the team was; usually about 175 would get it. Frenchy and LC with all of the outfits they would wear from goldfish in the souls of their shoes to full length fox coats. We had some real characters on that team.
You handled a lot of the return duties – what about the return game did you like and why?
I loved the thrill of returning punts and kickoffs. I did a lot of it in college at Georgia and it was in my blood. I wish they had kicked to me more but they usually kick away from me and kicked it to Swann, Ha.
Here is some trivia for you. The #22 was retired for many years when our rookie class came in. Swann had it in his contract that he could wear his college # 22. John Stallworth and I also wore #22 in college. They changed the NFL rules that year stating that if you were a receiver you had to wear a # in the 80’s. Swann got 88, Stallworth got 82 and I talked Tony Parisi (the equipment manager back then) in to giving me the #22. Thanks Swanny for helping me out.
What are some of your fondest memories as a Steeler?
Making the Pittsburgh Steelers team was a great memory. All of us rookies would know when the cuts were and would sweat it out every time. You would have to go by the trainer (Ralph Berlin) on the way to the locker room and he was the one that told you to get you playbook and go see Coach Noll. The last cut I was a nervous wreck!!!
Reavis and I stopped before we went in to the training room and gave each other one more good luck hug. Dave went first. I waited and he didn’t come back out. Then I took a deep breath and entered the training room. I got to Ralph and he stopped me…he said get some sleep and I said here or at home and when he said here!! I knew I had made it. I ran in the locker room to see Reavis and I had both made the team.
There were many memories as you can imagine. My dad died the night we beat Houston in Houston. The team had made arrangements for me to get on a plane right after the game and I got to Louisville in time to sit with dad as he died. I will never forget the team for getting me home in time.
The whole year was memory after memory but the playoffs and Super Bowl week are still embedded in my mine. After beating the Raiders in Oakland and realizing that we were going to the Super Bowl, wow. I got tickets for my Mom and my girl friend now wife Sharon as well as some of my high school friends. They were only $20 back then.
I remember that I had hurt my elbow the week before and really wasn’t supposed to play but Coach Noll made sure I got in the game. I didn’t realize what he had done until much later in life. When the game was over everybody ran to pick up Coach Noll after the win but I ran on the field and picked up the game ball. Andy Russell had always stood on a chair after each game and gave the game ball to someone. I had actually intended to give this one to him. I told him it was for him but if I saw him getting ready to stand up on a chair that I was taking it back, Sure enough he was getting ready to get on a chair with that ball and I took it back, put it in my locker. I went back out and got another ball and gave it to Andy. He gave it to Mr. Rooney and I kept the game ball. I got everybody to sign that ball and I still have it.
When it is all over you really get emotional thinking about camp, some of the guys that didn’t make the team and my dad who had helped me be the player I was and not being there with mom for the biggest game of my life. I still get real emotional and can hardly see the keyboard to keep typing right now.
What happened after 1975 that you found yourself playing for New England? How hard was that adjustment for you?
After Coach cut me it was tough to go somewhere else because the rosters had been reduced by four players. There were a lot of good player with nowhere to go. I went to the World League in Jackson until they folded three games later. The Giants had called and I was headed there when Pete Rozelle put a ban on World Football players from coming back in to the NFL. In the meantime my good friend from college (Andy Johnson with the Patriots) told the special teams coach with the Patriots that they needed to call me. They did and I signed with them.
I was there for five great years and even came to Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers in 1976. It was a weird feeling to come back in that stadium and again the emotions ran high.
It really wasn’t a hard adjustment because I was paid to play football (not much) and I tried to do just that. New England had a younger team and really should have won it all in 76 but got beat in Oakland with some pretty shady calls!!
What do you think of today’s NFL game and the rules emphasizing passing and restrictions on hitting?
I think the rules to protect players are great but they have gone too far.
You can tell when the intent in to hurt and when you are just trying to make a play. If a defender and a receiver get to the ball at the same time and they hit helmets that is football. If you are trying to hurt someone you can tell the deference. I was playing when Darryl Stingley was hit by Jack Tatum and that was an example of trying to hurt someone. They should make calls based on the intent!
Any last thoughts for readers?
Thank you for this opportunity and thanks to Coach Noll, the Rooney’s and Pittsburgh fans (The Best Anywhere!) for the best time of my young life. It was almost forty years ago but it was a year that has defined my life. The friends that I have made and the doors that have opened for me I can never repay the Steelers for.
I can always sign my name, Dick Conn, Steelers #22 SB IX and what could be better than that!