Riley Gunnels, Steelers Defensive Lineman, 1965-1966
First, can you let readers know what you have been doing with yourself since your NFL days – and how you got involved in the printing business?
As to what I have been doing since my NFL days, those fifty or so years have years have been both challenging and rewarding.
In those days, the mid 60’s, it was necessary for players in the NFL to have second jobs. After ending my football career in 1968, I developed an interest in the coal business and worked in that industry for several years in the Pittsburgh area.
We were in Bentleyville, south of Pittsburgh just off route 70, attempting to wash and blend some of the Pittsburgh area coal seams into a cleaner coal with less sulfur content. This activity led me to become more interested in coal testing. I established a coal testing company that was incorporated as Pennsylvania Labs.
During these years my wife and children and I resided in Johnstown, Penn Hills and Baldwin-Whitehall. We loved Pittsburgh and thought we had found our home forever until the coal market went in the doldrums and we were forced to sell. I was offered a position in Philadelphia that I could not turn down
I later joined my old teammates Jimmy Orr and Bob Pelligrini in Atlantic City. My interest then turned to printing and I established Mid Atlantic Graphix, Inc. t/a Signal Graphics. We are presently providing our outstanding services to the Cape Atlantic area and we are being very productive.
You were drafted by the Steelers in 1959 but ended up playing for Philadelphia. What happened that you found yourself in Philadelphia instead of playing for the Steelers then and were you happy about not having to play for a struggling Pittsburgh team then?
You mentioned that I was drafted by the Steelers in ’59 and ended up playing for the Eagles. You are right, when the Steelers drafted me out of Georgia, I was known more for my play in college as an offensive left tackle and not as a defensive lineman. I enjoyed playing defensive line though and when the Steelers designated me on defense, I did not object.
I was aware at the time however, that I needed playing time to develop myself for the defensive line. Unfortunately, there was not enough time. Although I was able to learn and condition myself to play on the other side of the line, the coaching staff decided to waive me at the end of training camp.
Til this day, I do not know if the Steeler staff knew that I was a more experienced offensive lineman when drafted. Anyway, although I was devastated at being waived, it was a blessing in disguise.
During the short time I spent at Steelers camp, I was able to learn a tremendous amount of defensive line play by watching probably the best ever, Ernie Stautner. I was claimed off waivers by the Eagles, a team destined to win the Championship in ’60. I was ecstatic playing defense, was Eagles Defensive MVP in ’62 and picked up the ring. We beat Coach Lombardi’s Packers in Franklin Field.
Most players were two-way players then. Were you strictly a defensive lineman – and what was your role on those Eagles teams?
The five years with Philly were interesting, five of us were Georgia Bulldogs. Bobby Walston, Marion Campbell, Pete Case, Theron Sapp and myself were dawgs. Sapp and I were Steeler teammates in 1965. During the 60’s it was necessary for NFL players to obtain an off-season job to make ends meet.
My off-season job was with Warner Co., a large concrete and lime company. Chuck Bednarik worked with Warner as well. That is where Chuck was given the nickname: “Concrete Charlie”.
You played for the Eagles for five years before finding yourself in Pittsburgh. How did you end up in Pittsburgh (finally) and why do you think Buddy Parker traded for you?
You mentioned two-way players, Bednarik was the true two-way player. I played left tackle on defense until Joe Kuharik switched me to defensive end. He later accused me of trying to get myself traded to the Colts by talking to thier Personnel Director Upton Bell. I denied his accusation. He then asked Mike if I would like going back to the Steelers.
I believe I surprised him by answering yes. He was sending players all directions. A short time later he advised me to pack for Pittsburgh. Although I was very fond of my teammates such as Maxie Baughan, J D Smith, Ray Mansfield, Tommy McDonald, Howard Keys, Eddie Khayat, Dick Lucas, Jim McCusker, Bobby Richards and all the others, the team was being displaced.
Even though Kuharik’s move was made for unknown reasons, I was pleased to return to Pittsburgh.
How did Art Rooney’s presence affect you and the team then – how did he and Parker work together to turn the team around to a contender in the mid-60’s?
Everyone who knew Mr. Art Rooney Sr. respected him greatly. You will never hear a negative word from any player about the Chief. He treated all of us the same, like we were family.
Who were some of the biggest characters on those Steelers teams and what made them so? Any examples?
You have asked me to name some of the biggest characters with the Steelers. The first player that come to my mind would be Bill Saul. He always had the right comment to set us all into laughter on and off the field. On the other hand, he was a great team leader. Sapp could be somewhat of a character at times as well. Lets talk about some Steeler team leaders, how about Andy Russell, Dick Hoak, Gary Ballman, Brady Keys, Ed Brown, Jim Bradshaw and Bill Nelsen.
You left the game in ’66. How difficult was that for you and what prompted that decision?
I left the game due to a knee injury that just would never heal. I have since had it replaced with an artificial one. The arthritis is still severe in the remaining knee.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Once a Steeler, always a Steeler. I am proud of what the Rooneys have accomplished.