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Ocie Austin, Steelers Safety, 1970-1971

December 7, 2011
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Ocie Austin:

First, can you let readers know what you are up to these days?

Would you believe I was working with the Alameda City Transit as a bus operator. I was doing that for ten years and recently put in my retirement notice. I’ll be sixty-five in January and decided to retire and enjoy the years I have left.

How is your health?

I went through some tough health issues the past two years – I didn’t think I’d make it. I had cancer in my lungs but it’s in remission now. I’m drawing on my social security and NFL pension plan and enjoying life on a daily basis.

Is the NFL helping you financially?

I’ve been receiving a pension since 1999. As a four-year player I wasn’t eligible, but in 1999 they changed the by-laws to include four-year players. I’m grateful to the NFL for doing that. Upgrading the pension plan recently also helped me to retire more comfortably.

You came to the Steelers In 1970 after two years in Baltimore. How did you come to leave Baltimore and play for the Steelers?

I was traded to the Steelers from Baltimore in 1970. Chuck Noll was the defensive backs coach in Baltimore in 1968 and went to coach the Steelers in ’69. He had faith in me as a player and traded for me to play and start at free safety.

Were you happy about the trade?

I was happy someone like Chuck – a great coach – had confidence in me to bring me in as a starter. But I was saddened to leave Baltimore. We had a good chance to go back to the Super Bowl in 1970. I looked at the schedule and it looked good for Baltimore – I thought it would allow us to go back to the Super Bowl. And they did – they won it.

I got hurt in 1970 on the artificial surface in Three Rivers too – I tore  my Achilles tendon during a monday night game and missed half the season. It was a tough year for me.  It wasn’t how I envisioned starting my career in Pittsburgh.

Who helped mentor you as a new player on that Steelers team and how did they do so?

I bonded with the defensive guys mostly. The defensive guys hung out with the defense, and offense with the offense. You’re in meetings and are together more often.

There were several guys – Chuck Hinton and Ben McGee were two. Those guys were on lots of losing teams but they always came to play and practice. They were professionals in my eyes and the kind of players I gravitated to.

How did they help you on and off the field?

They showed me around town. Ben had a bar and a lot of the players hung out there.

What kind of player did you view yourself as? What were your strengths as a safety?
 
I was a defensive lineman my first three years at Utah State. My coach moved me to safety my senior year because I didn’t have enough weight to play  on the defensive line in the NFL So I was still learning the safety position in Baltimore.

I was comfortable by the time I got to Pittsburgh and was a good fit to play in Noll’s defensive scheme and start with guys like Lee Calland, John Rowser, Mel Blount and Chuck Beatty too.

What did Chuck Noll like about you as a player?

They were looking for guys that could play the run and play deep and be a factor. I fit the bill – I was 6’3″, 200 pounds and ran a 4.6. I didn’t shy away from contact being a former defensive lineman. I felt I had a good chance to have a long career there.

Who were the guys on that added a sense of humor to the team and kept things loose?

Frenchy Fuqua and L.C. had a dress-off at a home game in Pittsburgh, I remember that. They came up with outfits you need a picture to imagine.

Were you part of any team hijinks?

I was a serious kind of guy. I came from the Colts – and they were all business. There wasn’t much looseness there. I enjoyed it but didn’t participate in it – I was sociable and the other guys liked me, I just was a more serious guy.

You were a West Coast guy coming on to a team full of mostly Southern and East Coast players. How did that affect you as a player?

Pittsburgh was different. Berkeley and Oakland, California were the sites of a lot of political activism and protest movements ( University of Cal. at Berkeley San Francisco State and the Black Panther Party just to name a few). Unlike Baltimore the Pittsburgh  Steelers had a large roster of African-American players  A poll of NFL teams in an Ebony Magazine article in 1970-71 had the Steelers as the poorest paid NFL team. This troubled me and eventually I think  management thought I could become a disruptive presence on the team. 

Not signing the contract offered me by the Steelers in 1971 doomed my career in the NFL.   The other African-American players on the team were aware of  this situation I’m sure but never at any time did we discuss salaries or work conditions while I was a member of the Steeler organization. It was an unwritten rule that management frowned on players discussing their salaries with each other, especially with white players.

What happened in ’71?

In 1971, I was looking at practicing in Three Rivers. That synthetic field was responsible for the injury I suffered, so I decided not to sign a contract and become a free agent. I was actively negotiating with the team – there was still a possibility I would sign, but I felt I would have a longer career playing on natural grass.

I was traded to the Redskins prior to becoming a free agent. In those days, contracts had a provision that you lost ten-percent of your salary if you didn’t sign a contract and became a free agent.  So I asked Washington for a signing bonus to cover that ten-percent and they said no. So I became a free agent.

How was free agency for you?

It was not as easy as I thought it would be to get on another team. My agent said by the time Washington made their decision and I became a free agent most teams had already filled their rosters.

But it turned out lots of players like me found themselves in the same situation – no one was signing them. I sat out that season and then became a member of the lawsuit against the NFL.  The lawsuit was spearheaded by John Mackey. It was an Anti-Trust suit – ten of us originally who sued the NFL for not allowing us to exercise our right for free agency and to find employment. We charged there was collusion by the owners.

In 1977, after going through the courts in Minnesota, the NFL settled out of court and made changes to the language in the contracts from then on. The players in the lawsuit received smaller monetary awards than we would have liked but it was an acknowledgement that the NFL colluded to stop us from gaining employment.

Did the settlement give you satisfaction?

I would have rather played football. It was a tough time – they took the game of football away from me. By 1977 I thought I could release the anger and disappointment but I still felt upset. I was a a four-year player so I wasn’t vested in the pension – the pension then was for five or more years. It was hard to accept that.

What are some of your positive memories playing for the Steelers?

I enjoyed playing with all of those guys. Blount, Ham, Greene….I remember those guys well. Guys like Lee Calland, Andy Russell, Beatty… I had a close friendship with them when I was playing.

But, it’s like a fraternity. When you aren’t there any more you lose contact with them, and they with you. Many guys in that situation developed depression. It was part of the game – when you are out, you are out.

How did you avoid suffering that kind of  depression?

I got married in 1972. I started a family and got into  counseling  juveniles. I had a feeling the lawsuit would work out for the best and was able to let it go eventually. I felt blessed that I was able to play in the NFL and in a Super Bowl with Baltimore.

In 1999, the NFL and NFLPA negotiated for four-year players to be vested in the retirement fund. I’ve been receiving a pension since and that made things easier. It soothed the resentment I had. They made it right.

Any last thoughts for readers?

Looking back today on what players then made versus what they make today – the harsh conditions and little money – we took a lot of abuse. But if we wanted to play football that was the only option we had.

The AFL helped create a bargaining position for players at least, but it got snatched up by the NFL and the NFL monopolized the whole scene. If you didn’t play their game, you didn’t play.

I had reservations on doing this interview, but now I am glad I did it so I could get the chance to tell my fans and former teammates about what happened to me after I left the Steelers and what I’m doing now.   I recently heard coach Noll’s health was in question. If that’s true, I wish him the best of health in the coming year.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Mike permalink
    December 9, 2011 5:15 pm

    Great read. Thanks for sharing your story Ocie. I’m from Oakland myself and it’s good to hear about athletes from our area

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