Rick Strom, Steelers Quarterback, 1989-1993
First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days and about your broadcasting career?
I am staying extremely busy living in Atlanta with my wife and five children. My full-time “day job” is working in commercial real estate and my “night job” is working as the color analyst for the radio broadcasts of the Georgia Tech Football games. This is my 4th season as the color analyst after spending 3 seasons as the sideline reporter.
You were injured your senior year at Georgia Tech which helped cause you to get passed over by scouts. How hard was that for you and do you see it as a blessing in the end after being picked up by your home town team?
It was very disappointing. I also broke my leg as a senior at Fox Chapel and missed the entire season. Missing the playing time in the last five games of the my college career hurt the most because I needed the playing experience. I did make it back for the Blue Grey All Star game and played fairly well.
When I was visiting with the Steelers after the draft, Myron Cope stopped in QB Coach Tom Moore’s office to tell me that after he saw me play in that All-Star game, he “told the Steeler’s brass they should look at you”. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to play for the Steelers. There were many wonderful blessings that happened because of the injuries. I have to admit ; however, there is still a part of me that wishes I could have gotten out-of-the-way of the hits and played for the entirety of both of my senior years.
What were your biggest takeaways from your time at Georgie Tech?
Looking back, I felt like I had the best of both worlds in terms of athletic competition and educational opportunities. I had a great Management Professor, Dr. Phil Adler, who I actually tried to avoid taking because of his tough reputation. Due to a scheduling error, I had to take him for an advanced management class during my junior year. He taught Socratically for the entire class and gave you credit for knowing the answers, when he didn’t call on you, “by the look in your eyes”.
In his class, I learned to trust my instincts and was forced to learn to articulate a defensible position, knowing that an incorrect or incoherent response could bring a fair amount of embarrassment or even a little ridicule. It was great training for my current role in radio.
How did the Steelers reach out to you as a FA and how did you decide on playing for the Steelers?
Somewhere towards the end of the 12th round of the 1988 draft, I called my parents in Pittsburgh to tell them how much I hated football and was adamant that I was not going to a training camp to be some team’s “extra arm” in camp. While I was talking to them, the Steelers called my parents home looking for me. In the middle of my self-pity party, my parents asked me to hold on so they could answer the other line. When they came back on the phone they told me, “Hang up, the Steelers are going to call you!”.
After a few minutes discussing the Steelers QB situation, I was asked if would be interested in working out for the Steelers in Three Rivers Stadium with the intent of signing as free agent QB. Suddenly, I loved football again….
Who helped mentor you as a rookie and how?
My rookie year was the last of the six-week training camps. It started in mid-July and I thought it would never end. I do not remember much mentoring other than from my QB coach, Tom Moore but I’ll never forget calling a play, walking up to the line of scrimmage and thinking to myself, “Mike Webster is my center and Louis Lipps is my receiver, this is awesome”.
What did you do, in your opinion, to win a spot on the roster. What about you do you think impressed the coaches?
I had decent physical tools but I made it a point to learn the offense. As a rookie undrafted free agent, you only get a few opportunities to make an impression. I wanted to be sure I knew what I was doing when I got the chance. I actually did not ever get into a preseason game during my rookie training camp and was released during the preseason. Apparently,
I made a strong enough impression to be invited back the next season, when the Steelers only brought three quarterbacks to camp. I had to play in three different offenses in my five years with the Steelers, so it helped a great deal to be a quick study.
What were your main responsibilities during those seasons as a developmental squad player. What did you do each week in practice and on game days?
I was on the inaugural developmental squad for the first five weeks of the ’89 season. I spent that time running the other team’s offense during practice and signaling in plays during the games. After an injury to Bubby Brister, I was activated to the regular roster and finished the season as the back-up to Bubby. My duties really didn’t change much during the season except for getting a few reps with the offense during the week and a little bit of playing time towards the end of the 1989 season.
You had four seasons with the Steelers. What about the organization most stood out to you as a player, and why?
I actually had five seasons with the Steelers, although I was only on the team in 1992 for the final six games and the playoffs. It was a childhood dream come true. I probably spent the first couple of years in awe of the whole experience. The Steelers franchise had class people operating at all levels of the organization.
What are some of your favorite memories of those four seasons in Pittsburgh?
I will always remember meeting Art Rooney, Sr, “The Chief”. One day before my first mini-camp, I reintroduced myself to him a week after initially meeting him. He told me he knew who I was and “to remember I was just a good as those other boys”. It was just the thing a local undrafted rookie quarterback needed to hear to help me believe I could compete at that level.
My first appearance in a regular season game was in 1989 at the end of the first half against the Houston Oilers on a cold and snowy day. Bubby Brister threw a screen pass and ran off the field after the completion to get to the restroom. He did not know we were called for a holding penalty and had to run another play. Merrill Hoge ran over to the sideline to tell me to get in the game because Brister was in the bathroom. I had to take off several layers of clothing and put on a frozen helmet to take my first snap–and take a knee.
Early in the 1990 season, I played nearly three quarters versus the Chargers in Joe Waltons first year as Offensive Coordinator. We had not scored an offensive TD during the first two games of that season. After finally scoring an offensive TD’s in the first quarter, Bubby bruised his ribs and I went into the game. I believe we scored seventeen more points and won the game convincingly.
How did the other quarterbacks help you (and you, them?) How close were you with the other quarterbacks and how did competition for the job affect those relationships?
Although we were fairly opposite personalities, I was probably the closest with Bubby Brister. He was always encouraging to me on the practice field and even in the media.
I probably never felt like I was in direct competition with him the way I felt like I was directly competing with Todd Blackledge, Randy Wright, Neil O’Donnell or Mike Tomzak. All of these guys were good guys and once the order was set, I remember everyone working to contribute in any way possible to win games.
Who were the players and coaches that kept the team loose and how much of a part of those teams did humor play – any examples?
There were a number of characters including grounds crew, locker room attendants, equipment room staff and players that kept things loose. Long time trainer Ralph Berlin had ongoing relationships full of blistering conversations with any one of a number of players. He and Terry Long would have some of the most hilarious banter I have ever heard.
One of my funniest memories occurred during an afternoon practice in the training camp when we were installing Joe Walton’s offense. Late in practice, Bubby fumbled the snap and offensive guard Brian Blankenship picked up the ball and continued back to pass as if he was the quarterback. He quickly looked down field then threw the ball incomplete to the tight end. Let’s just say, tension was running very high. In the evening film review meeting, Chuck Noll was sitting in the back of the room. As soon as the play ran on film, Chuck spoke up, “Hey Blankenship”, there was a brief pause, “Your first read is out in the flat”. Laughter erupted and tension was diffused.
You moved on after ’93. How hard was that for you and what happened?
In April 1994, I got a call from offensive coordinator Ron Earhardt who told me to come in to start off season workouts. An hour later, he called back to tell me I couldn’t come in without a contract. About an hour later, my agent called to say the Steelers were not going to renew my contract. I was fully aware I did not have a contract, so it did not come as a complete surprise when my agent called with the news. I was disappointed but was also optimistic I could sign with another team.
A few weeks later the Buffalo Bills called with an opportunity. The Bills had just finished playing in their fourth consecutive Super Bowl, so needless to say, it was quite a team to go to.
What do you think of the new passing rules for he NFL? Better for the game? How would you have thrived with these new rules?
I like the new passing rules. Clearly they have helped with the offensive statistics and the popularity of the game. I am glad I played when I did, since the defensive players continue to get bigger, better, stronger and faster.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I am looking forward to calling my first Pitt v. Georgia Tech football game at Heinz Field, hopefully in the near future. On one of our broadcasts, while discussing the recent expansion of the ACC, I was informed I was on the hook for the future Friday night dinner in Pittsburgh. I proudly announced we would be going to Mineo’s in Squirell Hill, which is still my favorite pizza place. I am hoping to take in a Pens game during my visit as well!