Neil Graff, Steelers Quarterback, 1976-1977
First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days?
Since my retirement from the NFL I have been in the investment business. When I was playing football I went back to graduate school one semester per year for four years at my alma mater, Wisconsin, and received a MBA in Finance. So, it was natural to go into the investment advisory business after my NFL career ended.
How, if at all, did your time in the NFL impact your post-NFL career path?
One thing I experienced in the NFL was the fact that players did not prepare themselves for ‘life after football’. They enjoyed the money and the notoriety of playing in the NFL, but did not think about what the quality of their life might be like when they concluded their careers.
I pledged to myself that I wanted to have the same type of success in my life after football as I had experienced in my football life.
You recently came off of knee surgery. Was this a football-related injury? How are you feeling now and has the NFL helped pay for this or other medical issues you’ve had?
I have had both of my knees replaced in the last two years. Prior to the replacements I had had five surgeries to correct cartilage damage. These surgeries were the result of former football injuries. The surgeries and the related damage limited the recreational activities that I could engage in, but I would not have given up my NFL experiences for anything. I had personal health insurance that paid for the majority of my surgical costs, but the NFL did reimburse me for my co-pay costs and deductibles.
The NFL has a program that does pay for joint replacements for players that do not have health insurance and that has been a blessing for a number of my peers who have not been able to afford a health insurance program.
You came to the Steelers in 1976. What did the team tell you was the reason they targeted you in free agency and what made you decide to sigh with the Steelers?
My situation was kind of unique. I had just concluded my 4th NFL season with the New England Patriots in 1975. In 1976 there were two new expansion teams, Seattle and Tampa. Each new team could select a certain number of players off of the existing teams as a foundation for the new team.
I was chosen in the expansion draft by Seattle. During training camp Jim Zorn and I battled for the starting job and ultimately, Jim won the job. I backed up Jim until the 3rd game of the season after which Terry Bradshaw was injured and I was traded to Pittsburgh to provide back up support for Mike Kruczek. So, I did not really have a choice, but it was a great place to be, especially since the Steelers were coming off two Super Bowl wins.
While you weren’t a rookie, you were new to the Pittsburgh area and team. Who helped take you under their wing as a new Steeler and how did they help you – both on and off the field?
When I knew I was going to the Steelers it was a little intimidating because of the great successes that they had accomplished. I will never forget the first night I was in Pittsburgh I was eating at a Pizza Hut and Joe Greene was there with his family and he came over and welcomed me and made me feel very comfortable. That kind of attitude was very indicative of the Steelers. They were like a large family and welcomed me even though I was joining the team in mid season and had not had a chance to get to know any of the players.
Terry Bradshaw and I were both single, so we spent a lot of time together both on and off the field. It was a great learning experience to play behind Terry and hear how he persevered through some tough times to find success.
How did that Steelers team differ from that of the New England and Seattle teams you played for earlier?
During my NFL career I played with the Minnesota Vikings, the New England Patriots, Seattle and the Steelers. There was a major difference between all of these teams and the Steelers. As I mentioned earlier, the Steelers were like a big family with an emphasis on everyone being included. I think this feeling emanated from the top down. The Rooney family was very involved with the players and treated the players like part of their family. With other teams players were treated more like a piece of property. This family concept was well received by all the players and coaches and I think the players worked harder and played harder because they did not want to let the Rooney family down.
I have no doubt this family attitude was a primary reason for the success that the Steelers enjoyed during the 70s.
With Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek there, you saw little regular season playing time, though you played in four games in ’77. How difficult was that for you and in what other ways did you and other backup players find yourself able to contribute?
It is difficult when you are not playing on a regular basis, because during the earlier parts of your football career you are used to playing every down. When I was at Wisconsin I started thirty-threestraight games and being the competitive person I am, it just never felt right to be standing on the sidelines watching s omeone else out on the field. As a backup QB it was important to prepare each week as though you were going to play. It was important that i be prepared if the opportunity to play presented itself.
During the week I would run the opposing teams plays against the Steeler defense, so I always tried to present the best picture I could to make sure the defense got the best exposure possible.
The team had just come off it’s first Super Bowl win the season before you signed on. What was the mindset of that ’76 team and how did the coaches and players avoid the dreaded Super Bowl letdown?
I mentioned the family atmosphere that was a part of those 70s teams. In addition to that characteristic, there were a tremendous number of great athletes on those teams. I don’t think people understood how many great athletes there were until a few years down the road when they were able to look back and assess the team’s accomplishments. Those great players possessed a strong mindset and they had nothing on their minds except excelling and winning. With a true athlete there is nothing more important than winning. It is that competitive spirit that drives them to accomplish great things. Those Steeler teams had so many great athletes that there was never any threat of a letdown.
Who were the guys who kept those teams loose, and how much of a part did humor play on those teams? Any examples?
There were a number of pranksters on those Steeler teams. Bradshaw was always the life of the party. He would say some things at lunch that could be very profound which would make us scratch our heads and wonder where he came up with that and he could say some things that sounded like they were from outer space and we would wonder if he had been drinking. But he was always fun to be around and caused us to get our minds off of football for a while.
Jack Lambert was fun and always coming up with something different and unique. Lynn Swann always had a way of lightening up the atmosphere at just the right time to take the focus off of a tense situation. There always seemed to be someone who could come up with the right comment at the right time to diffuse a difficult situation.
After the ’77 season you found yourself moving on to Green Bay. How difficult was that move for you – and how did you handle the stress in general of being one of the more typical NFL players who found themselves with little job security from year to year?
I found it hard to leave the Steelers in 1978 because I had grown to feel like part of the family. When you are winning it is always fun to go to work and that is not an environment that very many NFL team find themselves in. By that time in my career I had realized the realities of the NFL and new that my career path could change at any time.
After being a back- up QB for six years I realized that I had to soon make the transition to the top level of QBs or my career would propably be over. Although I hated to leave Pittsburgh, I viewed going to the Packers as an opportunity to perhaps move up the ladder.
What are some of your best memories of those Steelers teams?
The team that I enjoyed playing for the most in my NFL career was definitely the Steelers. It was a tremendous experience playing on, perhaps, the greatest team ever in the NFL. As I mentioned, it was fun going to work everyday and the quality interaction with the athletes and the people was an experience that very few people get. I feel honored to have been a part of that era in Steeler history.
The wins and the losses provide good talk at parties, but I will mostly cherish the friends and relationships that I formed during my time in Pittsburgh.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I currently live in my hometown of Sioux Falls, SD, which is a little south of Minneapolis. Although we are surrounded by Viking fans, I maintain my Steeler loyality by wearing my black and yellow Steeler jeresy with pride!