J.T. Thomas, Steelers Cornerback, 1973-1982
First, can you let me know what you are doing with yourself these days?
I was in the restaurant business – a developer and owner through 2009. I developed the Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar chain with another Steeler, Larry Brown, in ’87 for Western PA through 2006. Then a couple of others through 2009. What I do now is consult for entrepreneurs who are working in the food industry. I also have my own business manufacturing desserts – mostly cheesecakes.
Did you work at all with former Steeler Brady Keys – another franchise owner?
My first Burger King, Brady was involved. yeah. I always joked with him that he had a couple of years on me – a couple more diapers (laughing).
You were drafted by the Steelers in ’73 in the first round. How much pressure did you feel as a first round pick?
Well, I was the first Black player at Florida State to play and graduate. I was breaking the color barrier really since junior high school – I was in desegregation mode even then. I grew up on the back of the bus and ate at the back of Burger King.
Even though the Bill of Rights was passed in ’65, there was no enforcement. In my Junior year I had no idea where I was going to go to college – most weren’t taking black athletes.
So, no – I didn’t really feel that pressure after all of that, and the fact Pittsburgh hadn’t really won in forty years.
So, were you surprised to be drafted by the Steelers?
I had no idea I was going to Pittsburgh. Ironically, I was watching the Immaculate Reception game in Palo Alto at the East West Shrine game. We were watching the game at a restaurant and just to be different and controversial I bet the guys around me thirty dollars each that the Steelers would win. Keep in mind I had less than $100 in my pocket and it was a$900 bet! When they were losing I tried to sneak out (laughing) but the sous chefs there were as big as linemen and they saw me and told everyone not to let me leave. They put a chair to the door!
All of the sudden, there goes Franco. I was never so excited about a football game! I got two cooking swords and pots from the kitchen and stood on the chair banging the pots, telling them no one can leave until I got my money!
What was the draft process like for you?
It was very private then – not like it is now. I never heard from the Steelers until draft day. I thought Dallas or Miami would draft me – I heard from them during the process. Then I was their number one pick.
They drafted me round one, then another defensive back, safety Ken Phares in round two. Chuck Noll said I was the missing piece – that they needed a cornerback to match up with Mel and that the secondary was the biggest weakness of the team at the time.
Ken never played – he got hurt in camp – went down with a bad knee. He was agreat athlete and a great guy – he would never curse. A good Southern guy.
Who helped mentor you and took you under their wing as a rookie?
The guy I was replacing strangely – John Rowser. He played for Green Bay before but had a bad knee and lost a step by the time the Steelers drafted me. The other guys were too young – Mel Blount, Wagner – they weren’t talking to me much – they had their own jobs to secure.
John Rowser knew I was there to replace him but he schooled me about the game – he was so intelligent. Bud Carson once came over and said he heard that John taught me as much about the defense as Bud did (laughing). John taught me the things you could only learn from playing. He knew his days were numbered – that it was his last year but still schooled me on the game.
What was your biggest adjustment to the NFL?
The intensity of the speed. It was constant – they were all thoroughbreds. I wasn’t used to the constant tempo. Defensive linemen would run over me and tell me to get out of their way. I ran a 4.4 – I wasn’t used to that.
The experience of the game was the other thing – what the other players knew. Zone is easy – but man-to-man takes a while to hone those skills and techniques. You really couldn’t play in your first year – it was difficult. If you did it was hell and brimstone; you had to learn the game.
Prior to the rules changes about hitting receivers after five yards, receivers had to worry about getting hit – linebackers would take them out if they got the chance. A fifteen-yard curl could move five yards either way depending on if a linebacker hit you and knocked you of course. You couldn’t throw to a spot like you can today.
Many of the great receivers after the rule change would never have made it then. Quarterbacks and receivers and defensive backs had a different psychology because receivers couldn’t run across field without thoughts and fear; yet they still had 4.5 seconds to deliver and catch the ball. The five-yard rule took away the head game because before that a receiver never knew when you would hit him. Typically, you only got one shot at a good jam… we were just good at that one shot.
As you are aware that rule change was made using film of the Steel Curtain to justify the change.
How did you fit in on that team early on?
I was the cover guy – I only averaged giving up three touchdown per year. Mel was Superman – he had the Roadrunner gear. Stallworth and Deion Sanders had that too – when the ball is in the air they aren’t normal people. Guys would beat Mel and quarterbacks would mistake that for thinking the receiver was open, then Mel would kick in that gear.
The Steelers’ system called for us to be more run support guys. The linebackers and defensive line were doing less run support than the secondary. We had to cover and be the primary run support. That was why they had hitters in the secondary and bigger guys there than most teams. Our defensive backs were generally taller and bigger and averaged 6’2″- 6’4″ 195- 210. The uniqueness of the Steelers scheme made it difficult for other teams – few could play like that.
Who were the characters on those Steelers teams?
People don’t realize that the Steel Curtain was a mixed bag. There left side and right side of the different had very different personalities. On the left side there was little chatter – me, Wagner was quiet – he was the quarterback of the defense. Ham was a great athlete and L.C. – they were all mild-mannered.
But once you get past L.C…. Greene – the defensive metamorphosis began with him. Mean Joe wasn’t just a name – he really was nasty. He was also a finesse guy but he’d punch people – was a mean guy. The next guy was Lambert. you’d look at him in the middle at 215-220 pounds and wonder what he was doing there. But if you ever go into a dark alley – take him with you. He was smart, mean and quiet. He’d have made a great assassin.
Behind him you had Glen Edwards. You could clothesline players then. We used to call him Knotty Pine – he just wanted to hurt people -to knock them out.
Ernie Holmes was three-hundred pounds plus before it was fashionable to be that big. He was probably the oddball of the Steel Curtain. He was more of an intimidator than Greene. He’d tell you what he was going to do to you then do it. After his playing days Ernie became a minister and became the spiritual leader of the Steel Curtain- go figure that.
Dwight White was our Richard Pryor. He was funny, smart and talked for sixty minutes. He’d drive the referees crazy. Dwight didn’t trust Ernie. Ernie ran his own game. At the snap Ernie would change his mind and not do what he as supposed to – but he was always right. Dwight called the plays and Ernie just did what he wanted. Ernie would philosophize about it later but it never made any sense – his head was in the ozone layer (laughing).
Mel would always play bump and run – no matter what the play call was. Mel would line up in bump and run regardless of what was call. This became a disguise in itself. The problem was, I was asked not to get into a bump and run, but play off the receiver because that would tip the coverage. I, too like Mel, was uncomfortable not being in a bump and run corner. We were wired that way.
How did the team function with so many people playing their own brand of football?
We were so synchronized. The team would react in sync but not to the play call. We’d stop the other team and come back to the sidelines and the coach would ask us what we did. Then, that became a play for us.
I think what made it work was that the coaches didn’t tell us how to do things as much as they told us what the overall objective was. We didn’t play our own brand of football- it was one laser focused brand- to destroy. It was the varied personalities in harmony that was freaky. We had 11 All-Pro starting defensemen in Super Bowl X. The system of play was based on talent and technique more so than theory. That’s why when those players retired the playbook became useless.
The coaches would record those plays to learn from them. Dallas tried to implement our defense after we played them. But they couldn’t do it – they didn’t have the personnel to execute it, they said.
You left the team in ’83 -what happened-what drove that decision?
I knew the team was in transition. Our income matriculated because of tenure not because teams were paying a lot.
I was traded to Denver in 1982 Elway’s rookie year, retirement was two-three years away and there were cheaper players. The game is a business and its all about bottom line.
Also, it goes back to the racial issues in ’72-73. We were most of us from the South – we had that back of the bus mindset. That was our baseline of commonality. We played for dignity. The attitude then was about our manhood.
We were a segregated team in many ways then. The Black players and White players went their separate ways – it was just the way of the time – not a Steelers thing. The walls were slowly being broken down, but you don’t change your attitude in three-to-four years. Access does not equal acceptance.
How were the Steelers as an organization in all of this?
The Steelers were a great organization – they were one of the most liberal and cutting edge – that’s how they got to that Steel Curtain defense. But it was just the times. People didn’t wear the jerseys of Black players then, you know? No white kid was going to put on a Joe Gilliam shirt and say he wants to be Joe Gilliam!
Do you think that the attitude you all had as Black players coming from the South – that “chip” – was as much responsible for the success as Noll’s fundamentals?
It wasn’t a chip but personal pride and dignity that came out of the struggle to be recognized as men, a human being with intrinsic values. No one talks about it, but our success had a lot to do with our mindset having all gone through that together and needing to prove ourselves.
Take Joe Gilliam – he attended Tennessee State University, an all Black university and Joe came from middle income Black family. Joe’s athletic character and background was primarily within a Black environment where he wasn’t familar with the institutional racism and had not develop a true understanding or skill set to deal with it. No one talks about this stuff. We saw Joe step away from all of us. We saw it happen as he struggled.
How did Chuck Noll handle all of this?
Chuck had liberal ideas – he had no hangups. The system was bigger than him so he worked the system as best he could. He could communicate with any guy on the team.
With me, he’d just give me a nod or shake his head. With Greene, he’d hold longer conversations and with Bradshaw he’d give him a hug to help his confidence.
What he gave most was value beyond football. Some guys got it. He talked about your life and purpose – your life’s work. Football was a stepping stone – he always had you look beyond the game.
How did the team all finally come together?
People talk about those teams of the 70’s – but few talk about the chasm that first existed on the team. What brought it together? Chuck Noll? Some – but there are two people who were responsible that no one knows of now or talks about.
The first was Hollis Haff. He was the local Chaplain and had a church in Pittsburgh. He got a couple of us together for Bible study and soon all the players came. It started with he and his wife in his apartment. Eighty percent of the guys came every Sunday before the game. Those guys got to know each other – the White and the Black guys all started to break down the segregation borders through Bible study.
The second guy was Vaughn Nixon. Nixon was a doctor who lived in Mt. Lebanon, PA. After every home game he invited all the players and their families to his home and threw a huge party. His place was incredible – no place we could have gone to would have been nice than that place. Almost everyone showed up and the players and families got to know each other at those parties.
The barriers – fear and anxiety – were resolved through those guys. Those guys are never mentioned, but they were the catalyst for bringing us together.