Gene Breen, Steelers Defensive Lineman, 1965-1966
You were drafted by Green Bay in 1963. How surprised were you to get drafted by Green Bay?
I was thrilled!
You know, when I was drafted by Green Bay, I hitchhiked from Pittsburgh to Green Bay, signed in with Lombardi;s secretary and picked up my $1,200 signing bonus!
I was rafted by the AFL Chargers and NFL by Green Bay in 1964. Al Davis came to Virginia Tech to see me work out -he was an assistant coach for the Chargers then. The owner, Byron Hilton, did not offer me a contract, so I signed with the Packers.
Green Bay drafted me as a futures player. Back then the NFL tried to draft players early before they would sign with the AFL. Lou Anderson in Green Bay recruited me – he was a close friend of Lombardi’s.
What was it like playing for the legendary Vince Lombardi?
I was a lineman at Virginia Tech. but I only weighed 180 pounds. The assistant coach then looked at me and said I was too small, and he moved me to strong side linebacker. I played behind Nietsche and David Robinson – a Penn State guy.
Lombardi was wonderful. He was a deep thinking man with an interesting persona. He was always selling his program. he was honest and direct – he never used the word “You”. It was always “We”.
Most of the players were average guys. We didn’t have any mega stars, so we were all coachable. That’s why we won. He was a simple person – we only had four or five defensive plays! But he was a control freak – all had to be perfect. The food, schedules, plays, etc. If you didn’t do what he said he was a master at working you to get you to do so.
I remember he was really hard on Bart Starr, who was a real humble guy. When Bart’s father came in to visit him, he told Bart he should speak to Lombardi and tell him that he made you nervous. Bart did so, and it was a turning point for Lombardi. It taught him to be less aggressive. When Vince was an assistant coach at Army, head coach Red Blake had to tell Lombardi to tone it down. He was always yelling at players.
Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry disliked each other, to, from when they were both coaches in New York. Lombardi coached the offense and Landry the defense and the two tried to kill each other’s units in practice. That’s why Lombardi was so happy when he won the Ice Bowl – he beat Landry (laughing).
Another good story on Lombardi. Once he stood up in a meeting and told us he had some things to discuss. He brought up Max McGee and Paul Hornung to the front of the room – those guys were big party guys. He told everyone that he caught Max three times sneaking out at three am, so he wanted $3,000 – $1,000 for each time. He said he also wanted his girlfriends phone number! Everybody laughed – but he took the $3,000 from Max (laughing).
I played behind Ray Nitschke and David Robinson-a Penn State guy. My best friend then was Lloyd Voss – who got traded to Pittsburgh shortly after I did. He passed away eight years ago. He was a great human being – he and I used to work with the Steelers alumni association to help kids.
You ended up in Pittsburgh in 1965. You played under Mike Nixon and Bill Austin in Pittsburgh – how were they as a coaches and why do you think those Steelers teams struggled?
In 1965, I was traded to Pittsburgh for a draft pick. When I arrived, Buddy Parker had been fired. They didn’t have a head coach then. Mike Nixon was the interim head coach.
Nixon was quiet. He didn’t have the charisma that Lombardi had. he was knowledgeable but just didn’t have the personality. He was an assistant coach, not a head coach.
Austin was the special teams coach in Green Bay. He was a great football player for the Giants, but as a head coach, he wasn’t very good.
He didn’t believe in himself. He drafted poorly – a few number one picks didn’t work out. And I remember Larry Gagner as a rookie came in with an issue he wanted to talk to Austin about. They talked, and then in practice, the team was in a circle and Austin brought Larry into the circle and talked to the entire team about Larry’s issue. I mean, what kind of coach does that?
He was not my favorite coach, let’s put it that way. Dan Rooney Jr. even once said he didn’t know why Lombardi recommended him so highly to us…
When I played for the Rams after Pittsburgh, I remember running past Austin and him yelling at me, giving me crap. That’s the kind of guy he was.
Were you happy in Pittsburgh?
I was unhappy being sent to Pittsburgh. I came from Lombardi – the greatest team and coach – to a floundering team. We had beer bottles thrown at us by fans – one hit me in the head after I took my helmet off. We practiced in mud, had one shower head in the locker room and no weight equipment.
I was from Pittsburgh – born and raised. Unfortunately, playing for Pittsburgh was my worst experience. Losing was tough for me. After two years in Pittsburgh, I was cut from the team.
I was a military student at Virginia Tech and I got orders to report to Vietnam. Lombardi hired a lawyer for me and got Lou Anderson to get me to attend classes to get my Masters. This got me a two-year deferral.
Then I was traded to Pittsburgh. After the two years were up, the Rooneys wouldn’t help me. They didn’t care about me at all. The military was knocking on my door so I told Rooney I want out – “I’m done with you” I told him. So they cut me.
My paperwork was all in Pittsburgh. I got picked up by George Allen and the Rams and and played for the Rams an additional two years. My lawyer saw the cast on my knee that I got from an injury while in Pittsburgh and I wasn’t going to be accepted for active duty after that. During my career I had six knee operations but never missed a game but in the offseason. I re-habbed in the Steelers offices – my leg had actually atrophied. Ralph Berlin and the Rams trainer both were supposed to oversee the rehab but Berlin wouldn’t sign me in to the building. “I’d probably sue him” he said. I was shocked…
You coached briefly after your time in the NFL?
I retired in 1970 and coached at Marshall University and Virginia Tech. The plane crash that killed so many Marshall players, coaches and alumni was the team I had coached. I had just left beforehand to coach at Virginia Tech. – Joe Moss, the defensive line coach at Virginia Tech. broke his neck in practice and the head coach called to ask me to take over. That was right before the plane crash….
Who were some of the greatest characters on those teams you played for and what made them so -any examples of the hijinks you saw?
In Green Bay, Ray Nitschke and I had a good relationship. He was a good person – he helped me as a linebacker – it was a new position for me. David Robinson was a big help as well. In Green Bay we all played together as one – we loved each other. It wasn’t like that in Pittsburgh.
When Hornung and Karras were suspended for gambling in ’64, we were without Hornung for the year. He and McGee used to love to party – they snuck out together from the dorms and would come in at four am. Lombardi would be there waiting for them and would take money from them for being late. Lombardi would stand behind the assistant coaches to make sure they did too – sometimes they’d try let the players get away with it but Lombardi wouldn’t let them (laughing).
Willie Wood used to smoke a lot – he was a little guy, maybe 5’8″. One day I saw him smoking under the tower where all the equipment was stored. I went over to Willie and asked him what he was doing – Lombardi was standing on the tower right over him! He just said he needed his cigarette!
Willie drove down from California to Green Bay and asked Lombardi for a chance to make the team. Lombardi told him he was too short and sent him home. But he came back a couple more times and Lombardi finally gave him a shot. Willie turned out to be an all-pro safety.
Lombardi believed in that – salesmanship. I learned that from Lombardi -you give it your all, no matter what.
You have been public about your issues with dementia and brain injuries suffered from at-least twelve concussions and other injuries you suffered while in the NFL. What have been your symptoms and how have they affected you and your family?
It started in early 2004. I starting losing control of myself – anger issues and I was unable to sleep or focus. I didn’t know myself anymore. I lost a lot of self-respect and was out of control.
I got into some trouble and was put into a hospital. I got help from Dr. Horn, Dr. Harding and Dr. Allen. The doctors now have me medicated correctly – at a cost of $500 per month. This helps connect the wires in my head that are all screwed up due to the traumatic brain injuries.
Dr. Horn from NeuroRestorative was my savior. He helps me with rehab – helps me to take a look at the good versus bad side of things and reminds me that negativity doesn’t help me and my condition.
I wouldn’t be here without my wife and doctors. I was out of control. They sat me down and told me to take control of my life. I’m not a quitter. I instilled that into my five children. I’m a winner – I hate losing.
You have benefited from the NFL’s “88 Plan” to help care for players diagnosed with football-related injuries. How has this helped – and has the NFL done enough for you and your peers? What more should it do?
The NFL is doing a tremendous job now. They stepped up to the plate and respond immediately when we call. The professional presentation of my condition by Drs. Harding and Horn to the NFL is why they accepted me as one of the first in their program.
My care is all paid for – all of it. Can you believe it? AARP, Medicare and the NFL pay for all of it until I die….just for me – I mean, really, who am I to get that kind of help?
Where does the NFLPA fit in? What should it be doing that it hasn’t?
We wrote to Mr. Martin – the new head there at the NFLPA. He has responded to me and we’re putting together a new NFL alumni program in Florida. The big guys making the money don’t get it. They don’t think they’ll get hurt. They don’t see themselves and peers hurt – they don’t realize it can take a long time to see the effects of these injuries. Look at me – I retired in 1970 and just saw the effects in 2004.
We have to get these players to protect themselves better. To wear the right helmets – like the ones that connect to the shoulder pads. And to wear the right pads and get more frequent MRIs.
Look at James Harrison. When he got fined he said I get paid to hurt people.
And the bounties – they aren’t anything new either!
I got $100 to tackle someone inside the twenty yard line, and a television to tackle someone inside the ten yard line. I got five tvs!
The Rams gave us $100 to knock someone out in the 60’s. Lombardi didn’t do that – but the bounties were nothing new.
You see, I was a good example of spearing players with my helmet to hurt the opposition. That’s the way it was then. Even at Virginia Tech they’d line up eleven offensive players against me and I had to beat through them all to get to the quarterback and spear him with my helmet.
Do you think fans appreciate the impact the physicality of the game has had on players, and what do you say to those that say “you knew the risks”?
We didn’t know. The owners way back knew players would get hurt, but the lawyers that say they knew we’d get hurt like this and didn’t tell us – with the concussions and dementia – I don’t believe that’s true. That’s unfair.
None of us knew. The owners tried to research the effects of concussions to learn more about it – they were doing studies for us.
What are your thoughts on the lawsuits by many players against the NFL and Riddell – and are you taking part in any?
The lawsuits are stupid. I wrote a letter to a lawyer who is representing some of the players and asked him what he was doing. I know for example the Rooneys are setting up a program in Pittsburgh to educate players at all levels about how to protect themselves better. I feel the lawyers just want the money – they aren’t helping the players.
What are your thoughts on the NFL’s new rule changes? Is it enough – has it gone too far?
I’m glad for the new rule changes – thank God!
It’s like Gretzky and Lemieux. They played with finesse and class. That’s what NFL players will have to do now instead of trying to kill each other.
Remember when the fans booed at last year’s pro bowl? They want players to go out and kill each other. We need to change that.
It starts with the structure of the contracts. Players play hurt to get paid – we have to stop incentives for games played. And they need to mandate use of pads. Many players don’t use thigh pads – they are too heavy they say! Can you believe that?
Any last thoughts for readers?
Nancy, my wife, just reminds me to stay positive. But I did experience the negative that I have talked about. I don’t want the Rooneys to read this and think I hated them – but my experience in Pittsburgh with them just wasn’t good.
The important thing now is to get the information out on how I helped myself get better through the dedication and patience of my doctors and my wife—what a team!