John Brown, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 1967-1971
First, can you let readers know how you are doing these days?
Well, I am coming off hip replacement and incapacitated right now but thanks to technology I can still teleconference and participate in the eleven-to-twelve community boards I sit on.
I’m the one-in-a-hundred guy who has had complications from the surgery. I had seven operations on my one leg and the scarring created complications and some paralysis. From here I go to physical therapy actually.
Were these football-related?
A lot are from football – I had two knee replacements and that changes the way you walk – it puts more pressure on the hips, so it’s all related.
Is the NFL helping you financially?
They couldn’t help when I had the knee replacements – there was nothing they could do they said when I called. But there was a small subsidy for the hip replacement and I was glad to see that.
The new CBA agreement is now helping the older fellows. John Mackay’s wife was going through a hard time and lobbied for more money for incapacitated players., Now players get $100,000 if they are incapacitated in an institution.
No one held a gun to my head to play, but it is a sacrifice. Young guys today – they are bigger and faster and I don’t think their bodies will be able to take that stress over time. I worry they will have retirement problems too.
Tell us about being traded to Pittsburgh in 1967 from Cleveland – how was that adjustment?
Well, I wanted more money so they traded me. Pittsburgh needed a lineman and I was only 27, 28 years old.
My wife was still in Cleveland – she went to school there. So after every game no matter where it was I’d drive back to Cleveland. After the school year she moved to Pittsburgh with me.
When I first came, Art Modell would let me ride back to Cleveland on the team bus….When I played against Pitt in Pittsburgh, I told Ernie Davis (teammate at Syracuse) that the city was a dirty, sooty place. I never wanted to live in that city, I told him. Be careful what you say!
Who helped you get you acclimated in Pittsburgh?
I became good friends with Bill Nunn – Pittsburgh super scout. I lived with Frankie Pace – she was a civil rights leader in Pittsburgh. She was in her late 70’s then but was a real firebrand. My wife really liked her.
How was coach Austin to play for, and how did Coach Noll change the team when he replaced Austin?
The guys said he was a cross between Steve McQueen and Vince Lombardi, which made him hard to figure out. He wasn’t a great coach, in my opinion.
Chuck Noll came and put order to the team. Chuck did not tolerate a lack of discipline. He actually recruited me in college when he was a coach in Sand Diego.
Remember, I had Paul Brown as a coach in Cleveland. He was a stately older gentleman. He tolerated nothing. I remember he would stand up in front of the team and tell guys that he heard about what they did last night, and if they did it again he’d tell their wife! Even Jim Brown listened to him.
Bill Austin was laissez faire.. He was not a strict disciplinarian – it was a different culture.
How did Chuck Noll change things?
I really appreciated Chuck. He played for Paul Brown and was a disciplinarian also. He had pride and wanted to win. He coached under guys like Don Shula – he knew how to win.
He looked at the team and saw it didn’t have good players and went out and got better players in the draft and through trades.
How did he manage to improve the draft process?
I think Bill Nunn could work with Chuck a lot better than he could Austin. That’s just my impression.
So you left the game after the 1971 season…
I retired in 1972. I was a beat-up twelve-year offensive lineman. I had ten knee operations and couldn’t run. I wasn’t an asset to the team.
Guys hang around, but you know when you are done. No one has to tell you when you are at the end of your career. When you ran a 4.7 in college and now run a 5.1, you know. When you are blocking real well early in your career and are now struggling to get the job done, you know.
Eventually, either you or the team recognizes it. And you know if the team does because you’re no longer there – you’re gone. The team is a business – even the superstars have to leave eventually.
I remember when I was in Cleveland, kicker Lou Grosso was still there. He still had a strong leg, but he had old man’s disease – when you get a big midsection (laughing). He had the leg but he could no longer raise it like he could because of the midsection. That’s what father time does.
Who were some of the biggest characters on those Steelers teams?
Frenchy Fuqua – he was a personality. Joe Greene – he really wanted to win. He had an attitude – an insatiable desire to win that permeated through the whole team. That attitude changed the team from losers, which is what we were my first year there, to a team that could play with anybody.
How difficult was it practicing against some of those stellar defensive linemen?
I was an old veteran by the time Joe Greene and Dwight White and some of those other guys got there. I didn’t let myself be embarrassed by them, but they pushed you. And you could see them getting better…I knew at some point I was out of my element against them.
How hard was it for you to leave the team/game even as you saw the team developing into something special?
I was ok with it. I could see the team was changing – they brought in some really good ball players. But father time told me I wasn’t going to be a part of that painting.
I had started working two-to-three years before I knew I would retire at PNC – I entered their management training program. The transition from football to everyday life was easy for me.
Now, guys can’t do that. The requirements of staying in shape all year long don’t let them – and they get paid enough that they don’t have to.
Remember, back then we went to camp to get in shape. Now, if you come to camp out of shape, you get cut.
What are some of the more lasting memories you have of your time in Pittsburgh?
Watching the maturation of L.C. Spending time with guys like Steve Furness and Ernie Holmes. Hanratty – the character that he was.
My last year was the Immaculate Reception. I was on the sidelines and could see Franco out of nowhere grab the ball and then watched him run it all the way. That was the beginning of the change for the Steelers.
Any last thoughts for readers?
For me, getting to know the Rooney family and Noll was special. I always respected Chuck Noll – he was more than a coach. He was a cerebral teacher. He was a different coach – not a yeller – that expected you to learn the fundamentals.
I’m just glad for all if it. At first, going from Cleveland to Pittsburgh was like punishment. Over time, I grew to love Pittsburgh. I’m still here. I’m a Pittsburgher now!