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Ken Kortas, Steelers Defensive Lineman, 1965-1968

January 5, 2012
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Ken Kortas:

First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days?

I pretty much called it off except for coaching high school football. It’s for my daughter’s high school team. She’s seventeen and a good volleyball player. She’ll get a scholarship somewhere.

I decided I would coach even though I never coached before. I got the team further than it ever got before. We’re only a 2A school – it’s a smaller school with smaller kids. We had Stefon Lefors from Louisville, Jason Spitz and Jason Hilliard helping out. It wasn’t just a bunch of dads out there (laughing). We had a lot of experience.

It was lots of fun. I also had a check cashing business for  twenty-five years before I retired in 2007. I did that then sold the business. I was also a real estate appraiser in Chicago and before that a fireman for five years. I did a number of different things.

Thinking of returning as a coach next season?

I don’t think I can. I need a hip replacement and probably a knee replacement after that. I have a circulatory condition and I’m not sure I can stand for that long to be a coach.

You were drafted by St. Louis in 1964 in the first round but found yourself in Pittsburgh the following season. What happened?

We didn’t see eye-to-eye. I thought St. Louis was a poor organization – a bunch of poor guys. I asked to leave.

What exactly were the issues?

It was one of those things where they got down on me, and when they did they didn’t stop – they stayed down on me. I said to let me go and they did. When I played I played ok – I just didn’t get along with any of them.

So you ended up in Pittsburgh…

Pittsburgh was a joy to come to.

I was traded for quarterback Terry Nofsinger in an even man-for-man trade. He started against us a couple of years later and we beat them. I got the game ball that day. It was payback time.

We actually played in the first ever Monday night game in 1964 in Baltimore. The NFL never really picked up on it – we had to play due to scheduling issues with the baseball team playoffs. There wasn’t any coverage of the game except on local radio but the game sold out in three hours. No one ever really talks about that first Monday night game…

We used to play Cleveland on Saturdays too. It was always on Saturday nights. Those games were sold out to. The NFL never really picked up on it then.

Who helped mentor you as a new player in Pittsburgh?

It wasn’t like that. You were on your own. You got coaching – but it was an individual team sport. Some guys thought they were coaches but didn’t have the whistles and you just let those guys be.

You got it from your coaches. Lavern Torgeson was a good coach. He tried to make me like Alex Karras. He showed me moves. He was  a linebacker when he played and tried to show me the steps and the moves. You zeroed in on your coach then. You listened to what they said and didn’t want to be trouble.

You played under Buddy Parker in 1965. How was he to play for?

Buddy Parker…I loved him. I said I like this guy the moment I got there.

We did not have a good year my first year. We couldn’t score – we needed a quarterback. They tried to trade Ben McGee for Norm Snead in Philadelphia. There was an argument though between the Rooneys and Parker and Parker was fired two weeks into training camp. Philadelphia was willing to do the trade but the Steelers didn’t want to trade McGee – they thought he’d be a good defensive lineman.

What did the team do then?

The quarterback then was Ed Brown. He had seen better days. He was older and didn’t have the arm anymore – he’d have to take running starts to throw the ball deep.

Who knew what went on in that meeting between Parker and the Rooneys…

So we had no coach for two weeks. We were training in Rhode Island then so I went to Martha’s Vineyard. The Rooneys told us to there was nothing to do without a coach so they said to call in every couple of days to check in.

So, you had no coach for two weeks…

They ended  up hiring Mike Nixon as the head coach. He was an Eagles coach and was Parker’s assistant coach at the time. It took them two weeks to make that decision (laughing). We had another poor year – we went 2-11-1. I thought he was ok – I liked him. I didn’t have a lot of contact with him though. He stayed mostly out of the defense. The biggest concern was the offense – we couldn’t score points so he spent his time there.

Then the following season another coaching change…

Then came the ill-fated Bill Austin. He showed up and ruined Pittsburgh football, I think.

Hiring him was a mistake – he was a strange person.

How so?

I can’t elaborate. I didn’t get along with him at all – he tried to aggravate me. The whole team knew he as strange. The final straw was when he was in his third year of his contract. We were scrimmaging at St. Vincents and he was getting so mad that the offense wasn’t clicking. He was just going overboard.

The defense was just too good – the offense couldn’t score against us.  But Paul Martha got a concussion and he was carried off in the station wagon. The next play, linebacker Bill Saul gets piled on and his knee gets bent the wrong way, and now he’s out. The very next play I get hit in the ankle – I didn’t move away in time from a block – and that put me out a month with a severe sprain. I told the wagon as it was pulling away to hold on!

We got three starters hurt in one practice because he overdid it. We all said that guy was crazy.

There were other issues too. It was just a bad mistake. What was weird was that he got a job afterwards with Lombardi in Washington. Lombardi died and they kept him on. When I was picked up on waivers by Washington after playing in Chicago I said oh no, he’s here…

How did you get picked up by Lombardi?

Lombardi called me after the Bears put me on waivers and talked to my mom. She said he called and I thought she was kidding. Lombardi said he wanted me to clear waivers so they didn’t have to trade for me.

So Lombardi gave me $3,000 – a lot of money then – not to play. Plus $2,000 for showing up and two tickets to the next game. All not to play. He didn’t want to make any changes to the team. It was near the end of the season and he didn’t want to deactivate anyone even though they weren’t doing their jobs. He was preparing for next season and I guess I understand that.

But Lombardi died before  the next season – I never got to play for him.

Who were some of the biggest characters on those 60’s teams?

All of them were characters.

Bill Saul was a legend. He could take a whole glass of beer, put it in his mouth, tilt it and swallow the beer in one gulp without taking a breath (laughing).

Dick Hoak was the best guy you ever want to know. Rocky was there that first year – I liked Rocky Bleier – he was a heck of a guy. He was nice enough to mention me in his book.

John Henry Johnson was a fun guy – he made his way around town pretty good too. And John Baker. He was quiet – you barely noticed him. But then he’d say something that was so funny and way out there.

In those days, there were clubs for White guys and for Black guys. That’s just the way it was. Well one time Chuck Hinton, Ben McGee and another guy dared me to come with them to their club. I said fine – I took them up on it. Well, when I walked in the whole place stopped. I walked up to the bartender and bought a bottle and told him to give shots to everyone in the place. It all worked  out ok. We all got along fine.

What happened in ’68 that you found yourself in New Orleans?

The Steelers traded me and Don Shy to New Orleans when they drafted Joe Green. They didn’t need another lineman so me and Don were traded for a return man and a draft pick. I told Don I was traded for the player and he was traded for the pick (laughing).

When we got to the airport in New Orleans it was so hot. It was mid-August.

I didn’t stay long. I was supposed to pass through and go to some other team as part of another deal. But the deal fell though so I was sent to Chicago. That year I played for three teams, and each one went 1-13. I hit the jackpot that year!

How did you like Chicago?

When I got to Chicago Doug Atkins was there. You didn’t want to mess with that guy. But I knew Doug. When I got to Chicago they told me there were no lockers available and I’d have to share one with Doug. I said ok…

So I go tell Doug I’m sharing a locker with him, and everyone is standing around looking to see what Doug would do. He just said “Hey Ken, ok. How are you?” Everyone wanted to know who this new guys was after that (laughing).

Doug used to bring his pit bull every day to the meetings and pet it and talk to it during the meetings. He was also in charge of the radio – he always listened to country music.

What are you best memories of Pittsburgh?

Art Rooney the Third was thirteen years old when I was there. He was the equipment manager, trainer…he did everything trying to learn the business. I talked to him a lot. I remember he told me once that if he owned a football team, I would be his coach.  I never took him up on that! I should give him a call…

I liked the Rooneys in general. It was such a pleasure compared to St. Louis. It’s a shame we didn’t win more games.

How did that affect the Rooneys?

Dan Rooney was given control of the team…sort of. Art was mellowing. Danny wanted to make something out of it. He was more of a ramrod kind of guy.

Aftet the quarterback debacle, Danny spent money to get a quarterback. They drafted Hanratty but found out he was a  rollout quarterback with a weak arm. They said oh oh… So they drafted Bradshaw next year and spent a lot of money. Art would never have done that.

They had no other business on the side. This was their business.

When I was traded and ended up with the Bears, the only team we beat that season was the Steelers. The Bears had me get up in front of the team before the game and tell them everything about the Steelers since I knew the team from having been there. I gave Dick Butkus a tip about an offensive lineman that used to lean too much – I think he was overweight – and Butkus murdered them.

They made me a coach that game and put me on the sidelines since I wasn’t activated for the game. After we won, the papers gave me credit for winning the game. The coaches the next day were not happy about that

It’s funny, because we won that game, we both went 1-13 that season. There was a coin flip to decide who got the number one pick between Chicago and Pittsburgh due to both being 1-13, and Pittsburgh won. With that pick they took Bradshaw.

So, I was responsible for Terry going to Pittsburgh! it’s fun to think about it that way. It’s funny, how these things develop…

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