Jon Kolb, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 1969-1981
First, can you tell readers about the Christian Sports International – how you got involved and what your role is in the organization?
My friend Leo Wisniewski was running Ministry camps for kids and invited me to do one with him in Tennessee. I went and it was like Appalachia country down there. It wasn’t like being in the United States. If a woman had a baby, she wouldn’t say who the dad was or she’d get beat up. They didn’t want to pay child support.
The bathroom was just a tarp nailed to the side of the building and they had no running water. They had a pig living in the room with them. In fact, one of the kids almost lost a toe due to an infection from living in those conditions.
It was deplorable. We helped them for five days and had a nice week for the kids, but that wasn’t going to help in the end. We needed to reach the men. So, we started to do men’s conferences in addition to the camps.
What is the Biblical definition of a man? Humble is one word used in the Bible. A man may have the might and the right to act. But as a man, we also may have the might, and not the right. Jesus demonstrated this.
How does that run in parallel with sports?
Sports also teaches us that. Between snaps and the whistle there is mayhem and control. That’s what football teaches. There is a time for the might and the right. It’s when you express it and use it.
When I saw these camps, I knew that if they went back to those home situations, they’d have no direction. We need to teach these men the difference between might and right.
You run to win. That’s what the Bible tells us. Jeremiah tells us that “If you raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?”. Well, we give participation trophies today. The Bible says it matters if you win or lose. But we preach in the United States that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. So which is it?
I heard Bud Wilkinson, the head coach at Oklahoma, once say that his definition of football was “Forty young men running on the football field desperately in need of a rest. And forty-thousand fans in attendance in need of exercise.” We train to run. To win. It’s radical for the Church when we say play to win, but we watch football which is all about playing to win. ” Again, which is it? We need to train these men to use their might to do right and win that battle.
What lessons and experiences from your time as a Steeler have helped shape your post-NFL work and work a Christian Sports International?
I know what I read in the Bible. We must practice our faith. I like it when I hear about people practicing medicine. Practicing law. Well, we practiced our Christianity and do so still every day and are tested every day.
In that same way, we practiced football. Tunch, Craig… in practice every day we were also tested. We became better athletes because of it. Better balance, technique…that was the brilliance of Chuck Noll. He didn’t leave any of that out – we were tested every day.
You came to Pittsburgh as a third round pick in ’69. What were your thoughts on being drafted by a team that was struggling at the time and how did you prove yourself to the coaches and make the team?
I didn’t think about the team success as much as my own and how I would stack up. Did I have what it takes?
But I learned that comes from within. Playing in the NFL doesn’t prove to men you have what it takes, or else the suicide rate for NFL players would not be six-times what the average rate is.
Chuck had a saying and I had it in my head: “Whatever it takes.” My first season, I was L1 on kickoffs – my assignment as a blocker. I was the block-the-punt guy on punts, the blocker on punt returns and the long snapper. Whatever it took until I learned the trade of being an offensive lineman in the NFL.
The NFL was very different than in college. In Oklahoma, we may have passed the ball twice a game. I didn’t know how to pass protect.
Who helped “mentor” you and helped you most as a rookie both on and off the field? How did they do so?
By my second and third year, there were few guys left from the pre-Chuck Noll era.
Sam Davis taught me how to trap block. Pulling – not just blocking – that was new to me too.
Dave, my accountant friend since I was twenty-two – he also helped me. We were playing in New York once that second season and the guy that did the chapel service before the game said we need to go through life like “this” – and he put one hand up over his head and one hand down. One hand down for bringing others up, and one hand up to those who have been there before and who can give guidance.
Well, I thought about that. I didn’t have a single person to reach up to. I had plenty of the “hands down” people. So I called Dave and met with him. I told him I need more of “this” – and showed him the hands up motion. He said “What?” I explained that to him and then he took it seriously and helped me.
Were you able to be that “Hands up” person for others?
The idea isn’t that you run around like Mother Teresa. You are just there for others when they need you.
I teach class at Butler Community College. Each class has to do a term paper. Twenty-one of the twenty-eight students in the health sciences class wrote about suicide and drug prevention. It says there’s a need out there and that if you are open, you’ll find those to help.
You were drafted the same season Coach Noll was hired. How did you and the rest of the team first embrace Coach Noll and what did he do to give the team confidence in him – any examples?
The guys were used to a looser system. Noll was a technician and a tactician. He believed in teaching players what to do and how to do it. 90% of the teams now just teach the first part. Teams don’t spend time on technique. That was what Chuck did.
Toward the end Chuck embraced strength and conditioning. That was the third thing – you have to be capable of doing it. That became a bigger part of it.
Was the team excited about his changes?
The team was not excited about it. He came in in ’69, and we won our first playoff game in ’72. That ’72 team was a whole new team – not one guy from that team except Mansfield and Sam Davis would have been on that field in ’69.
One of the many changes Coach Noll made was to bring Lou Riecke on board. How did Riecke’s presence affect you as a player – while you were ahead of most NFL players in your workout strategies, was his weight-lifting influence a driving factor in your development to become what many felt was the strongest player in the NFL at the time?
Bench presses and squats take seconds to do. Riecke brought Olympic lifting to the team – lifting from the floor to the head as quickly as possible. It was all about the hips.
I credit Chuck more than Lou Riecke – Chuck understood Olympic lifting. Lou didn’t know if a ball was stuffed or pumped. Chuck got a guy that knew how to do Olympic lifting – he knew what was needed. Lou just did what he did naturally. Chuck understood how both football and Olympic lifting were related.
Who were some of the toughest guys you faced – both in practice and on other teams?
It was a plus and minus for the team. We had three games a week versus our own defensive line, then games on Sunday. We played Holmes, Greenwood, Green and White in practice every week. While guys like Klecko, Harvey Martin, Bethea certainly were good, it wasn’t like I had to step it up after those guys. I can’t remember Chuck yelling at me for anything that happened during a game – only in practice.
I remember getting ready to go up against Klecko one week. He had fourteen games in a row where had a sack. I was nervous – I hadn’t given up a sack all season and the media got wind of the matchup. Lambert was making my life misraeble in practice – he and Perles. Lambert would tell me that “It was a good thing you aren’t playing against me!”
The defense weren’t the kind of guys that prayed for you and wished you the best. They were the opposite. Later on in the week I had had enough and dared Lambert to line up against me in two-minute drills. They came at the end of practice when guys went after each other at full speed, after being tired from a full day of practice.
Jack lined up at defensive end. I thought he would try to beat me with a speed rush and he caught me leaning and ran right over me. He hit Bradshaw from the blind side – hard and knocked him to the ground. There was no letup. Chuck went and patted Lambert on the back and turned around and yelled at me.
Chuck was a good example of the way the world really is. I could have shot him I was so mad. But I had two choices – pout or get better. We had a mature team that didn’t pout – we just learned and got better. Sometimes you got beat but you tried. Roosevelt had the saying: “My place will never be with those souls that never know either victory or defeat.”
How did faith impact you and those Steelers teams at the time? J.T. Thomas went so far as to say that local Champlain Hollis Haff was instrumental in the team crossing racial divides and bonding…
J.T. taught me something a month ago. He told me about his grandmother Mariah. He grew up in Macon, Georgia in the 50’s. When he was a kid he drank out of a water fountain but couldn’t read the sign that said “For White’s only”. A White man hit him and cut his cheek open.
If it were me, that guy would have been in pieces. I would have grown up in a rage. But he’s a loving person. He said he asked his grandmother a question as a boy. He asked her if she ever asked God for anything, and she said “No.” He asked her why, and she said “I’m too busy thanking him for my blessings.”
This is in a time when they had so little. I want to develop Mariah’s heart.
Those were the kinds of guys we had on the team. There are tons of stories like that about Donnie Shell, Mel Blount, Stallworth…they were all like that. And Cunningham and Tunch, with all the agony he’s gone through the past few years.
The racial issues were just never an issue for me. In Oklahoma, we had Blacks, Indians, Mexicans…. We were all together and we didn’t know anything about Native Americans and Latinos. We were just all together.
And you didn’t experience any tension on the team?
Chuck kept us all on task. He kept the team so focused that those guys didn’t have time for that.
Dan Radakovich, in an interview with him, said you were the most under-rated Steeler offensive lineman and the best pass blocker on that team for years – including being the only left tackle to play in four Super Bowls and not allow a sack. . Did you ever feel overshadowed? What are your thoughts on Dan’s comments?
The process is the purpose and the goal is the relationship. The plan is God’s. That was what was important to me then. I was blessed to be around those other players. I was more humbled than just thinking about what I didn’t get.
Maybe I have Mariah’s heart some after all.
You became a defensive line coach for the Steelers after your playing career – and Keith Willis said you taught him a lot. How did you turn out to coach the defensive line – and what was your approach to coaching as a former offensive lineman?
After thirteen years, what do you know most about? I can tell you how defensive lineman play and can see if a young player is an Alzado or Klecko type of kid and coach them up that way. I studied defensive linemen every day – it’s what I knew.
When I was playing, I’d often ask Dungy or Blount for help, even though I was an offensive guy.
What are some of your best memories as a Steeler?
Call me back in twenty years. I hope before I die to have an answer. When I played ball I thought to myself “I don’t want this to be the best thing that I ever did.”
That’s why I like the Christian Sports International stuff. I don’t want to be in a wheelchair in a hallway with nothing but memories. I would rather keep making memories. It’s just not something I do – thinking on the past. With my life and kids, there is so much more in front of me.