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Ralph Berlin, Steelers Trainer, 1968-1993

April 23, 2012
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Ralph Berlin:

First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with your time since working for the Steelers?

I haven’t been doing a whole lot. I worked my whole life. Now, my wife and I take some trips. I golf, but I’m not better now that I was. I have grandchildren I spend time with. That all takes up my time.

I can’t belive it’s been nineteen years this summer since I retired!

Do you still work with the organization or NFL at all?

I’ll go and help John Norwig (current Steelers trainer) if he needs it. And I still do the medicals at the combine. I just do the medicals – not the orthopedics. I do it for the league – all the information goes on a disc and gets sent to all the teams. All the information is shared.

How did you get started working for the Steelers organization?

I was a friend of Art Rooney Jr. Art traveled a lot to scout teams and I was the trainer at the University of Kentucky. We had a good football team then – we had three number one draft choices.

I became friends with Art and when the Steelers trainer job opened up, I called him and asked if he could help me get the job. He said no, but he did help me get an interview.

Who did you interview with?

I interviewed with Dan. I’m not sure why he chose me, but I’m glad he did. It was always my desire to be a trainer for an NFL team.

In the 70’s, you were actually responsible for signing undrafted free agents, and once scooped the Eagles in signing Randy Grossman. How did you become involved in this aspect of the team and how did you know you to sign – and what are some other stories you can tell?

In college, I used to help recruit at Kentucky, so I had some knowledge of that. The Steelers always sent someone then to the BLESTO in Philadelphia, so I went there, and then Dan would call and tell me after the draft who to go and sign.

Grossman played at Temple, so Dan sent me to sign him the next day after I heard Philadelphia was interested in him. I never talked to Randy – I talked to his father then we all met in their attorney’s office the next day.

How did you get involved in that process?

I traveled the country looking for guys – they told me where to go. That wasn’t uncommon then. Staffs were small – we only had seven coaches then. Noll coached the quarterbacks and special teams and we had three for offense and three for defense.

When I was hired I was the nineteenth employee. Now, there are over two-hundred. So, we were all involved.

There were also no limits to the number of free agents and players then. You could sign as many as you wanted. There was one bus leaving with the recent cuts at the same time another bus was coming in with new signees. There were six exhibition games then and guys got cut after the first game. There was no formal taxi squad either.

Now, there are only four exhibition games – guys only start getting cut after the second game. That’s why there’s less contact in training camp now. You can’t afford people to get hurt. I really thought the NFL would start the twenty-one day disabled list like they have in baseball. Now, you have to make decisions on players right away.

How closely were you involved in the draft process at the time. How so?

Very little. They sent me in the spring to look at guys at IUP, Temps and Washington & Jefferson college. Most of those guys were the free agent type. The only quality player I saw was Lambert at Kent State. We didn’t think he was ever going to be the player he turned out to be.

What are your thoughts on today’s pre-draft combine and pro day workout regimens – how much do they help players and do teams now rely too much on the stats versus game film/play? Do the Steelers differ in that?

It’s so much more advanced now. We had nothing like that in the mid-70’s. Then we had three combines. We got to bring the kids in for two or three days and measure their height and weight and talk to them. That was basically it. And all of that information was kept private by each team.

The NCAA stepped in and said we couldn’t do this. It was taking the kids out of school for too long, so they forced the NFL to combine the three combines. Now, we all get the same information.

What set you apart from other teams scouting-wise then?

Only three teams then scouted the smaller Black schools. The other teams didn’t look at them. Bill Nunn knew those guys. Blount, guys like that, only Dallas really looked at them besides Pittsburgh.

How hard was it getting close to the players and seeing them leave?

I just go there in the late 60’s, so the initial purge by Chuck didn’t mean much to me. But after they got that nucleus in the 70’s – when they started to retire in the 80’s, that was difficult. We all became close.

How was the “purge” by Coach Noll received by the team?

One of the first things he did was get them all together and he told them that they weren’t a good bunch of players and that not many would be there when he was done. He weeded many of the guys out, and the ones he kept played – guys like Russell and John Brown.

I was new. Noll came in a year after me, so it was a process for all of us getting used to a new regime. But he brought in a winning team and because of that he could do what he wanted to do.

The scouting department deserves a lot of the credit. That ’74 draft was the best in the history of the league. There were four Hall of Famers in that class. With no free agency then, the team was able to keep the nucleus n Pittsburgh. You couldn’t have kept that team together today.

I remember there was a sportswriter then who said that if you paid the players what they were worth then, it would cost $57 million just to put the defense on the field. That was a lot of money back then! The minimum signing bonus then was $10,000. If you talked to the agent of a third or fourth round pick today, they’d laugh at a one-million dollar bonus.

How did you work with Chuck Noll?

Chuck kept to himself. It was hard for me to talk to him then. We talked more after we both retired then we did when we were in Pittsburgh. Once  a week we’d meet with the doctor and talked about who was hurt and who could play. But that was about it…

Many of those players were so tough physically and mentally. How were you able to slow them down/hold them back when they tried to play and practice injured?

I remember watching Webster in practice. He dislocated three finger on his snapping hand. He pulled them back in place and came off the field to get tape then went back and kept going.

Back then you accepted that. Guys got hurt but they played. Today, when guys get hurt there’s so much money involved they don’t play.

In many of our interviews, the players are quick to attribute team success not only to the players and coaches, but to you, Tony Parisi and the other staff of the organization. What do you attribute that to and the player’s fondness of you to and how important was that to you at the time?

Remember, we only had forty players and the taxi squad. The staff was small. There was certainly a feeling among us that we were a part of things – I’d like to think we are included in all of that.  I was the only trainer – Tony {Parisi} was a trainer when he was involved in hockey so he helped tape the guys up. We became close to these guys.

Now it’s a business and more about money. There’s tons of money involved. Then, Tony had a friend Frankie who came in and helped on Fridays. His wife used to make spaghetti for all of us and we all ate together. I don’t think anything like that happens today.

Humor played such a big part on those teams – who were some of the guys responsible for the biggest hjinks – any stories?

We had a lot of fun – we kidded around. I remember there was that stuff Mint Glow- it was like Ben Gay. They used to put the rolls of t-shirts, jock straps and slacks in everyone’s locker. Once, they put some in Bradshaw’s jock and he went out to practice with it. He had to run back in and change – Chuck was not happy about that.

Rocky Bleier was taped to a shopping cart and left in Chuck’s office.

We used to put a list up every year before Thanksgiving for rookies to sign up to get free turkeys. There were no turkeys of course. Once, Mel Blount told Tony Dungy that he wanted to have Tony bring his turkey to  his house where Mel’s wife would cook it and a ham for Thanksgiving dinner.

I told Tony to talk to Jim Boston, the business manager, to pick up his turkey. Jim said he saw it but didn’t know whose it was so he gave it to Dan Rooney. Tony went to Dan’s office and let him know Jim said he gave Dan his turkey, so Dan told him  he didn’t know who’it belonged to so he gave to Chuck Noll.

Well, Tony wasn’t going to go to Chuck’s office and ask for the turkey. So he went to Mel and told him he didn’t know what to do now, and everyone in the locker room started laughing.

We did the same thing for Christmas trees right before Christmas. Believe it or not, some signed up again.

Word got out in the following years about the joke. We did the turkey sign up a few years later and some rookies still signed up, including Terry Long. That year though, Franco and Lynn Swann bought cooked turkeys and put them in the rookies’  lockers. Terry ate his right at his locker!

Things like that made it fun.

What are your best memories as a Steeler?

We had a poker game every week at Franco’s house. Me. Joe Greene, Moon Mullins, L.C., Bradshaw – who would come, lose a couple-hundred bucks then quit, and Stallworth, who really just came to eat the chicken. We played every week on Monday or Tuesday during the season. it was a nice form of camaraderie you don’t have today. 

What about the new rule changes – any thoughts on those?

Anything you can do to protect the players needs done. Players are so big, strong and fast now – especially on artificial turf. They came at each other with greater velocity. At the combine, there was not one lineman under 300 pounds. Back then, Greene was 270 pounds and he was one of the first big men that could run. They’re all that way now.

Lambert and Ham were small guys. There were no offseason programs like there are today. It’s a faster game – players get hurt.

Last thoughts for readers?

The Steelers are a unique football team. They go about things the right way. They have tremendous ownership stability and always know what’s going on. With great trainers, scouts, coaches…..they are strong at every position. That’s why they always stay on top.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Michael Kazimer permalink
    March 12, 2015 9:04 am

    Nice article! You don’t find guys like Ralph these days in the NFL who really care about their job and the players. I remember Ralph coming to Swissvale High School in the early 70’s to talk to our football team in the auditorium. Enjoy your retirement Ralph – you earned it! And don’t worry about the golf game, as long as the beer is cold!

    Mike Kazimer – Swissvale, PA

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