Lee Folkins, Steelers Tight End, 1965
First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?
I retired from the NFL after the 1965 season at Pittsburgh and returned to Dallas planning on finding a position with a construction company. My degree is in engineering and I had some experience in the construction industry. While looking for opportunities a Dallas Cowboy teammate, Don Meredith, and I decided to join a plastic pipe manufacturing company in Don’s home town; Mt Vernon Pipe and Supply. I was the major stockholder, president and general manager for a little more than two years.
In early 1968 I moved to Norman, Oklahoma and went into the construction business with a couple of contractors who Don and I had met in our pipe business. Our core business was in the construction of municipal utilities in Oklahoma. In July 1972 I was involved in an industrial accident that ended this part of my working career.
When I was able to return to work in mid 1975 l took a position with the Citizen Band of the Pottawatomi Indians in Shawnee, Oklahoma and managed various construction projects. After a couple of years I joined the Absentee Shawnee Tribe managing various construction projects. I joined a general construction company in Shawnee in 1977 as a project manager. In 1979 I took a job for an engineering company and joined a construction project management team in Saudi Arabia for six years.
In 1986 I returned to the Seattle, Washington area and started a general construction company. In 1989 I returned to Saudi Arabia to work directly for the Saudi Arabian government in a similar capacity. In 1990 I joined a Dutch construction company and spent five years in construction management returning to the States in 1996. In early 1997 I took a job in Indonesia returning to the States in 1999 when I moved to Orlando, Florida to join a construction management firm.
I have since worked on multiple projects including ones in Nevis, West Indies, Mexico, Mississippi, Las Vegas, Antigua, West Indies, Orlando and Tampa. I am currently either retired or between projects.
You were drafted by the Packers in ’61 as a tight end. How exciting was it for you to be drafted by a team with so many legendary players and to win the NFL Championship in your rookie season – what memories about that season stand out most for you?
When I was a senior at the University of Washington I was drafted by Green Bay. When contacted by the Packers, I told them that I did not intend to play professional football. I would be graduating with a degree in engineering and intended to start my professional career.
At that time a starting engineer could expect to make $10,000 a year salary. When the Packers offered me $500 to sign and $9,000 to play for six months I changed my mind. I figured that I would make almost a year’s salary in six months so it mad sense to delay my engineering career for six months and that it what I did. It never occurred to me that I had to make the team to have to contract take effect.
I found myself with sixty other rookies in the same boat as me and began to question my decision. As it turned out, I was one of six rookies on Vince Lombardi’s 1961 championship team. I would not exchange the experiences for anything and will carry my memories of my colleagues and coaches with me to the grave. I have lived my life to date attempting to apply the lessons learned during my football career.
How would you describe yourself as a player – and were you strictly a tight end, or were you a two-way player?
At Green Bay I was backup to Ron Kramer and Gary Knafelc at tight end, Max Magee at split end and Boyd Dowler at flanker but my main role was on all of the special teams.
What players stand out most to you about that rookie season in Green Bay, and how so?
I was fortunate to have played with multiple hall-of-famers on that team but we were all better because we were a team.
After ’61, you moved on to Dallas and played there for three seasons. What brought on that change of venue and how difficult was that for you to move so early in your career?
When Coach Lombardi called me to his office to tell me I was to report to Dallas the next day my response was, “yes sir”, but it was a disappointment. Going from the world champions to a third-year franchise who had never had a winning season was an adventure. However, I was now playing much more and eventually was able to be recognized on the 1963 Pro Bowl Team.
Green Bay and Dallas shared top of the line management and coaching that was a pleasure to be a part of.
You played your final season in ’65, for the Steelers. How did you end up in Pittsburgh in ’65, and what were your thoughts on the team, especially as it struggled during the early and mid 60’s?
I had delayed starting my “real” professional career so long that it just made sense to extend my football through the fifth year, to be eligible for retirement benefits. As the pre-season of 1965 drew to a close I expected that I would be traded. I understand that I came to the Steelers as a delayed part of the Buddy Dial trade the year before but don’t know that for sure.
It was a real downer to join the Steelers who had just fired the head coach. When I got to Pittsburgh, I enjoyed my colleagues, as football is football wherever it is played. Football players share much to have reach that place in the NFL. I really enjoyed Pittsburgh and the people; just a great place.
On the down side, we practiced at the Allegany County Fairgrounds with facilities that were less than exemplar! The shower room had maybe sixteen shower heads but only four or five worked and it you weren’t one of the first into the shower the hot water ran out.
I also recall waking up early one morning to see a beautiful blanket of while snow. However, as the day went on the snow was dusted with black. That would have been before the EPA!
Mike Nixon was the head coach of that Steelers team. What was Nixon like as a coach – how did he compare with the other coaches you played for?
Mike Nixon was a nice guy to play for but I think he only coached as a head coach for the balance of the 1965 season.
He had a tough job. I could not compare Coach Nixon with Tom Landry or Vince Lombardi; could I?
Who on the team helped you most to adjust to the team, both on and off the field, and how did they do so?
I had played against or with most of my Steeler teammates when I joined the team. When athletes reach that level they understand the definition of “team” and “individual” pretty well. We all helped each other.
Who were some of the most interesting characters on that ’65 team, and what made them so. Any examples?
The first name that pops into mind is Myron Pottios. When I was playing for the Cowboys I caught a pass over the middle and was hit by Myron immediately after the catch and it really hurt! Most of the time a receiver can lessen the blow by avoiding a direct hit with even the slightness movement; but not this time. Myron was a great guy, a great hitter and a great football player.
That ’65 team set the NFL record for being minus 30 in turnover ratio. What was the issue with the team’s struggles, especially with the turnovers?
At the risk of attempting to make a complex problem simple football is a team sport. It is pretty hard to start the first game of the season with the head coach being fired, an assistant coach trying to make it as a head coach and the players trying to make the best of it. We were a great bunch of guys but were weren’t a “team”.
Some of my teammates went on to be a part of some great Pittsburgh teams. It is not a game of individuals, it is a team sport.
You retired after that ’65 season. What prompted that decision and how hard was that for you?
As I explained above, I had stayed longer than I had intended and nothing happened during the 1965 season to change my mind. I had never missed a down in my football career starting with high school and college until early in the 1965 season at Pittsburgh. I had an operation on my foot and missed several games. I could really hear my other career calling! It was an easy decision and one that I have never regretted.
What are your favorite memories of your season in Pittsburgh?
Great people and great fans.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Thank you for asking this old man about his memories of fifty years ago.