Bill Asbury, Steelers Running Back, 1966-1968
First, can you let readers know about the Golden Key International Honour Society and how you’ve been involved in this program?
Golden Key is a collegiate student honor society with chapters on 400 campuses world-wide. We invite to membership students in the top 15% or higher in their respective classifications equivalent to sophomore, junior, senior and graduate levels. Honorary members include presidents, deans, distinguished faculty, community and world leaders. I have been the advisor to the Penn State chapter since 1988 and Honorary member since 1983.
I currently serve as chairman of the international board of directors.
What lessons – both on the field and from your coaches – helped you develop your own post-NFL direction and the direction for the society?
Team work, personal commitment to be your best, recognizing talented people, being consistent in your approach to
resolve problems, memories of relationships last long after failure or success on the field and in life. Talent has no color. Being the best is a great goal; helping others is more rewarding.
You’ve worked in many other capacities as well since your time in the NFL. What have been some of the more memorable/rewarding positions you’ve held in addition to working with the Golden Key International Honour Society?
I was honored to work for Sanford Rose Associates in Akron, Ohio right after leaving the Steelers. I learned a lot about myself and an emerging field related to equal employment opportunity. Sanford Rose allowed me to develop leadership, planning and creativity skills designing workshops and programs regionally in the Northeast. That led to my work for the city of Akron Human Relations Commission, creating the Contract Compliance office, to Kent State University, where we improved affirmative action planning, which led directly to being hired at Penn State University.
Sanford Rose was a mentor, friend and inspiring entrepreneur.
You began with the Steelers in 1966 after having been drafted in the fourth round. What were your thoughts on being drafted by a team that had notoriously struggled during the early to mid 60’s?
I never expected to be playing professional football (or any sport) after acute renal failure during the timed mile run to start fall of 1964 practice at Kent State. It was a miracle recovery, having lost 58 pounds while in Akron General for five weeks.
I had a great fifth year at Kent State in 1965, including a game we lost to Penn State. That outstanding year happened in part because of an untimely injury to my replacement, Don Fitzgerald. I was able to garner honorable mention academic and AP all-america honors under coach Leo Strang. The system he ran, unbalanced winged-T, and great teammates, like Jon Brooks, Al Tate, John Michelak and others allowed me to play tailback at 230 pounds.
This , unknowingly prepared me to play for the Steelers, after the new Atlanta Falcons team cut me. Art Rooney jr. was the Steelers scout who approached me several times before the draft during my senior season and told me I had potential. So, going to any team at all, was a true blessing, having been so close to death only two years earlier.
I relished knowing Art Rooney, Dan Rooney, Artie and “skins” during my brief time there. Losing built character!
Who helped you adjust as a rookie to the team and the NFL in general – both on and off the field? How did they do so – any examples?
I was confident that I could learn the plays, but worried about being “tough” enough. A “fight” during a fall practice drill with linebacker Rod Breedlove help me adjust and gain a measure of confidence (and prehaps respect).
It was part of the right of passage. Dick Hoak, Roy Jefferson, Brady Keys, John Baker, Ben McGee were among those veterans I got to know as a rookie. They not only were good teammates, but good guys, showing me around Pittsburgh.
Bill Austin was your coach for most of your time in Pittsburgh. What was he like as a coach and how did the team react to him?
Austin was curiously a good position coach, but not what I would call a team leader. It seemed at times he was torn between trying to be himself and an imitation of Vince Lombardi. There were times when he was the “players coach” and other times when he was outright mean-spirited.
I remember one team member saying about him “I was here when he got here , and I’ll be here when he’s gone.” Another comment about two-thirds through our last season together (1969) someone said” let’s get it up for New Orleans” that being the last game of the season. He and I were not close.
How did your playing conditions – both on the field and in terms of facilities – differ versus what players experience today?
There is no good comparison. Everything from facilities, travel, playing fields and training camp is much better.
One example is the training camp at St. Vincent College. The campus has grown in size and facilities-quality as a direct result of the Steelers presence. Weight room, physicians space, quality of the grass and air conditioning in the dorms (there was none during my time there) are improved by an order of magnitude ten.
During the season, we practiced at South Park Fields (fair grounds) and Pitt Stadium was the home field (cardiac hill). For those who were not on the
team, it was a bear to walk to the game. No more need be said.
Who were some of the toughest guys you faced as a Steeler – both in practice and on other teams and what made them so?
Bill Saul, Brady Keys, Andy Russell, Chuck Hinton and John Baker. Baker is the one who put the hit on Y.A Tittle in that picture of him on his knees bleeding profusely, I’m told.
Bill Saul came back to play middle linebacker in 1968 too early, playing on one good leg for about half the season. Andy Russell was relentless in pursuit of the ball. Chuck Hinton was quiet, capable and hit very hard. Brady Keys may have been the toughest of all, taking on Jim Brown at his peak.
I played against Dick Butkus, Jim Katcavage, Sam Huff, Dick “Night Train” Lane, and on the same field as Jim Taylor, Gayle Sayers and Jim “Cannonball” Butler, all tough competitors, most would agree!
How would you describe your style as a running back and what was your biggest adjustment to the NFL?
I was a slow Eric Dickerson type. I ran more erect, but was oblivious to punishment.
As a (fullback/running back) I was able to catch the ball, block and run, regularly, unlike most fullbacks in recent years. I had to learn how to run routes from various sets. That was the most difficult, being in the right place at the right time and catching the ball. I had not caught a ball, other than screen passes, in college.
Who were some of the greatest characters on those Steelers teams and what made them so? Any examples?
Too many to name and little desire for alienation of affection. Suffice it to say, there are guys who are out there right now, and you know who you are, who made the tears of laughter flow from things that were said and done, during training camp and the season.
One guy was taped from ass to ankle every game; two others were so well endowed no one wanted to shower with them. Another guy mangled the king’s english, but” everyone knew the job” and did it.
You retired from the game after the ’68 season. What prompted that decision for you and how difficult was that for you?
The decision to “retire”was made for me by my play and Chuck Noll’s desire to build a championship team. I regret not making the adjustment to the new coaches faster. I thought I could play in the league, but did not seek out another team.
It was the best decision I could have made. I got on with life and family and never looked back. Of course, it was a little weird to not attend a game for five years after being released. I don’t think I would have entered my work life as a vice president of one of the largest and most prestigious universities in the world if I had tried to hang on for three or four more years.
What are your greatest memories as a Steeler and what makes them so?
Most of the memories that come back are of relationships, those I mentioned and others with people like Larry Gagner, Bruce Van Dyke, John Brown, Ray Mansfield, and Ken Kortas. I recall my first year almost winning three games in a row; beating the Cardinals, Browns and Cowboys (almost). I guess my best recollection of one game is the game in 1967 when we beat the Chicago Bears 34-14. Gayle Sayers, Dick Butkus, “Poppa Bear” Halas and me on the field at the same time and I had the longest run from scrimmage in the NFL that year during that game.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Be well and prosper.