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Larry Gagner, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 1966-1969

December 29, 2011
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Larry Gagner:

First, can you tell readers about your art and how you got started doing this work? 

Mrs. Stokley, my fourth grade teacher, always asked me to render in colored chalk any festive holiday scene, but by High School, my total involvement in athletics shadowed any time for artistic development. Later at the U of F, in a beginning painting class, I became smitten and hooked for life after having received one of the only two A’s in class. I graduated with a degree in Advertising Design in 1967, but pro football allowed me time, in and out of the season, to further develop my love for painting.

Has your playing career inspired your artwork – and was this something you were active in doing as a player too?

I don’t cater to athletic subject matter per se, but art critics have still described my representational painting as kinetic and engaging, paralleling it to the “controlled violence” of pro football. I’ve had one-man art gallery shows and also exhibited in numerously in Florida’s sidewalk art festivals receiving many prizes and awards. I have also continually exhibited in the annual NFLPA’s Smocks and Jocks Art Exhibitions

How can readers view and purchase your work?

Sculpture in glass block slowly evolved after I rescued some antique blocks from the beach cottages of my grandparent’s motel, The Red Arrow Court, before the 80’s wrecking ball fell for condominiums. One day, after juxtaposing several different shaped glass blocks, my mind visualized a gator’s snout. That was my visual epiphany!  Ideas were feverishly brought forth and materialized from that point to present.

I’m presently seeking a publisher for my book entitled Dancing in the Shadows.  The book is comprised of short anecdotes of somewhat witty humor associated with the events surrounding my high school, college and pro career, but not exclusively.

Early in 2012 is my projected date to kick-off signssublime.com  This website will feature multiple images that transform common road signs into Christian images to help you maintain your religious focus in a world gone secular wild. 

I also am available to present The Righteous Relays. This outdoor event marries my football experience to my Christianity by using my “kooky” created visual props as tools to teach Christians principles in a very fun way. If you can run (and not necessarily fast), you can participate and learn, no matter what age you are. This is a non-contact endeavor mostly catering to church youth groups, but not exclusively so.

My artwork may be seen at: http://larrygagner.com/ and http://centerstageglass.com/.
 
You were drafted by the Steelers in the second round in ’66 – and in the third round by the AFL’s Dolphins. What made you decide to play for a struggling (and lesser paying) team like Pittsburgh rather than for the Dolphins?

I chose the Steelers over the Dolphins in the 1966 draft mainly because they were the more established team, and they pursued me with so much vigor. Also, my agent, Bill O’neal, a surrogate father to me at the time, leaned heavily towards the Steelers.

Who helped mentor you as a rookie on and off the field – and how did they do so? Any examples?

No player sticks out as a mentor to me on those Bill Austin Steeler teams. But even through we easily lost the majority of the games in that four year span, I’ll always treasure the team cohesion displayed at all the post game parties. More player social interaction seemed to always compensate for fewer victories. Amen? Amen
 
Who were some of the bigger characters on those 60’s teams – and what made them so? 

I’d say Mean Joe Green had more presence than anyone on that ’69 team. Even though it was his rookie year, you knew he was destined for greatness. He also displayed a keen sense of humor exhibited when he nearly laughed me out of training camp in 1970 upon my arrival with two huge, wooden-turned fern stands atop my Porsche secured with rope tied through both windows. I know it had the look of a couple missiles atop a silver bullet.

Your career started under Coach Austin. What was he like as a coach – how did he relate to you and other players and what were his biggest strengths and weaknesses as a coach?

I liked Bill Austin. He was Lombardi’s offensive line coach for those glory years. He knew that particular aspect of the game well.

Unfortunately, for him and us players at the time, that wasn’t enough knowledge for complete success. I trust he would have had more success being himself than mimicking Vince Lombardi. A lot of the Austin Steeler players felt like they had little left for the games because of those grueling practices. But in all fairness to Bill Austin, he and his Steeler teams never had the opportunity of taking advantage of the state of the art facilities that the building of Three River’s Stadium offered.

In ’69, Coach Noll came on board for what was to be your final season in Pittsburgh. How difficult was that transition for you and the rest of the team and how did players receive coach Noll?

Chuck Noll’s first year’s record wasn’t as good as the poorest of the Austin years, but through the crafting drafting by Chuck Noll things turned around quickly. Noll’s practices were much less physically punishing, especially in training camp, than Austin’s, but Noll was the complete teacher in all aspects of the game. That was his forte.

Who were the toughest guys you went up against in practice – and on other teams – during your time in Pittsburgh. What made them so?

Bob Lilly, all-pro defensive tackle for the Cowboys, gave me the most problems. He was extremely fast and smart to boot. He could, if you let him, run around the far side of you and still catch a runner sweeping the opposite side!

In 1970 you were in a serious car accident that caused you to have a hip replacement. Yet, you came back and, after being traded a few times, played again in ’72. How difficult was that entire process for you and how did you get through it and actually play again?

I didn’t realize at the time that a broken and dislocated left hip suffered in an off-season automobile accident in ’69 would be the beginning of the end of a promising career for me. I believe that after the Steelers figured out I was soon to be history (medically speaking) other teams I got traded to followed suit accordingly. Except for the KC Chiefs two years removed. Coach Hank Stram invited me to training camp in 1971, and I made the team as a fourth guard when most other teams only carry three.

I felt lucky and fortunate to get in my five years. Ya, I didn’t get in my ten expected years most decent offensive linemen strive for, but I’ve got two perfectly good knees to show for it. Any ten-year plus linemen out there want to trade? I didn’t think so.

What are some of your best memories as a Steeler?

Actually, my best memory as a player materialized while playing with the Chiefs not the Steelers. . We played the Saints in New Orleans on a Monday night with Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith as the commentators. I started for Ed Buddy, who was out due to injury.

Early in the game, Lew Dawson called for a sweep with me clearing the path for Ed Podoiak, our superior running back. The play picked up significant yardage and was called again in the opposite direction with the same result. Because of those early sweep successes, Dawson went to the “sweep well” frequently the rest of the game.

Each time, I was later told by many of my fans that Howard Cosell was continually singing my praises about a come back guy named Gagner throughout the whole game. It was nice to be recognized (even through I didn’t hear it personally) repeatedly for a positive rather than the usually negatives of being called for offsides and or holding penalties.

Any thoughts for readers?

As a finale thought, I thought it best to leave you all (Pittsburghers for the most part) with one of my favorite anecdotes from my book:

Especially as an athlete, it seems most important to be able to claim at least your fifteen minutes of fame. One would think, however, that this would be almost a given at the pro-level of competition. Think again. As an offensive lineman, more often than not, your name gets announced because of some rule infraction instead of a spectacular thrown block.      So, sometimes you have to innovate with name recognition!      

I was at a car rental concern located out by the Greater Pittsburgh Airport seeking some rental information, when the salesperson discovered that I was a former Steeler ballplayer (but certainly not by my name recognition). She then reached underneath the counter and presented a pair of blue snow boots that apparently Terry Bradshaw had left behind after returning his rental car. She asked if I would be able to return them to their rightful owner, Terry. I said I could. She then gave me them to do so with.           

But, they just happened to fit me to a “T”, and since I permanently returned to Florida shortly after,  these ”keepers” I wore for years and bragged to untold numbers of people of how I, only, happened to be wearing the exclusive line of Terry Bradshaw Winter Footwear. Thanks Terry for your unknowing act of kindness. Paybacks (for offering a personal showing of game films to my girl friend in your apartment no less) come in all sorts of forgettable common objects made famous by a previous owner’s wearing of them.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Andy Russell permalink
    November 26, 2012 4:22 pm

    Larry,
    I remember you and I speeding in your Porsche (I had had one in Germany) from Latrobe to Ligonier. We were lucky to not be arrested for the speed, way over the limit. I always thought that you and Bruce VanDyke were terrific guards–very athletic.
    Best of luck on your Art career and Best wishes always,
    Andy Russell 34

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