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Jim O’Brien: Spending Weekend with Steelers and Pirates

May 21, 2012

O’Brien: Spending weekend with Steelers and Pirates

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

It was a wonderful extended weekend, with temperatures into the 70s each day, as good as it gets in May inPittsburgh.  I spent time at three different venues with some of my favorite people in Pittsburgh sports.

         There was a dinner at Heinz Field on Thursday night, a brunch at The Club at Nevillewood before a golf outing on Friday morning, and three days at the Sewall Center at Robert Morris University in Moon Township.

         And, thanks mostly to good luck and good timing, I found openings to see the finish of the Preakness with I’ll Have Another finishing ahead of Bodemeister once again, Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers tossing a one-hit shutout against the Pirates, and Andrew McCutchen hitting a pair of two-run homers to lead the Pirates to a 4-3 victory over the same Tigers in Detroit.

         What a great weekend.

         The 36th annual Andy Russell Celebrity Classic and the XXXIV Annual Classic Sports Card and Sports Memorabilia Show were both enjoyable events.  Andy Russell’s uniform number was 34.

         It usually rains or rain is threatened at Andy Russell’s golf outing and loyal participants were saying this was the best weather ever for the event.  I’ve been to at least 15 or more of these outings, going back to one of the early ones where Arnold Palmer participated as a host at the Latrobe Country Club back in the late ‘70s.  I was happy for Andy that the sun was shining on his big day.

         Russell raises money to support the UPMC Department of Urology, the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program and the Andy Russell Charitable Foundation.  He’s raised millions through the years for local non-profit organizations.

         I was able to spend time and talk to Gerry “Moon” Mullins, Franco Harris, Frenchy Fuqua and L.C. Greenwood, and touch base with John Banaszak, Mike Wagner, Dwayne Woodruff, Lynn Swann, Craig Bingham, Robin Cole, Emil Boures, Glen Edwards, Marv Kellum, Mike Merriweather, J.T. Thomas, J.R. Wilburn and, of course, Andy Russell at Heinz Field and The Club at Nevillewood. 

         My wife Kathie and I sat next to Joe Gordon at dinner.  Gordon was named the best public relations man in the league during the ‘70s, and was a valuable aide to all of us on the beat. Gordon is now a good friend.

         I also spoke with Steve Blass and Kent Tekulve, two former Pirates who participated as celebrities in the fivesomes, as well as Troy Benson, a member of the Pitt football team when I served as assistant athletic director for public relations at Pitt in the mid-80s.

         Anybody who loves sports would have enjoyed tagging along, as did my good friend Gene Musial.

         I had a chance to say hello to two of my all-time favorite Pirates, Dick Groat and El Roy Face, at the RMU campus, as well as Mike “Hit Man” Easler, Whammy Douglas, Bob Bailey and Jim Rooker.

         I also visited with Jim Gentile, who was a power-hitting first baseman with the Kansas City Athletics.  I was an editor at the U.S. Army Home Town News Center inKansas Cityin 1965 and helped out in the press box at Municipal Stadium in the evenings when Gentile was playing for Charles O. Finley’s A’s in the American League.

         I also worked in the press box as a spotter at the same stadium when the Kansas City Chiefs of Len Dawson and Buck Buchannan were playing there in the American Football League.

         That was one of those fortunate developments in my life, serving in the U.S. Army and getting a chance to see the pro teams in “the other league” while I was in Kansas City.

         L.C. Greenwood was the lone figure in the dinning room at Nevillewood for a brief spell on Friday morning.  Everybody else had gone out to play golf, but Greenwood stayed behind.

         Gene Musial and I joined L.C. at his table.  “I can’t play today,” said Greenwood.  “My back won’t allow it.”

         He told us he’d had 15 surgeries on his back since he was a star defensive end for the Steelers in the ‘70s.  He was a stalwart member of the Steel Curtain. He always stood out in the crowd, at 6-6, and he just always stood tall and walked tall.  There has always been a noble look about L.C. Greenwood.

         I asked him if he was still a member of the Williams Country Club inWeirton,West Virginia.  “I still pay dues,” he said, “but I haven’t played golf there in quite a while.” 

         I knew that he had grown up in Canton,Mississippi, and I knew that he should have ended up inCanton, Ohio, as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  He and teammate Donnie Shell and Andy Russell and Mike Wagner, to name a few, suffer because there are so many of their teammates in the Hall of Fame.

         There is a reluctance to name too many Steelers to the Hall of Fame.  Two more, Jack Butler and Dermontti Dawson, are going in this summer, along with two Pitt products, Chris Doleman and Curtis Martin. Greenwoodis no longer eligible in the regular voting having been on the ballot for the maximum 15 years.  His only chance now would be to get nominated by the veterans’ committee, which is how Butler became a Hall of Fame inductee.

         I also knew that when L.C. was a young man he wanted to be a pharmacist.  He went to Arkansas AM & N on an academic scholarship. 

         “I spend a lot of time in pharmacies these days,” said L.C., smiling that great warm smile of his.  “I used to go to the pharmacy only to pick up some aspirin.  Now everyone in the pharmacy knows me.  ‘Hi, Mr. Greenwood, how are you today?’  I am a frequent visitor.”

        Greenwood still works as a broker in the coal business out of an office in Carnegie and he does not complain.  “Hey, I thank the Lord each morning when I wake up,” he said.  “I just lost a former teammate, so many of the guys I played with here are gone.  I’m thankful to be around.  I count my blessings.”

         “Moon” Mullins still works as well.  He owns the Industrial Metals & Minerals Company inSouth Fayette, near the Bridgeville border.  I have been to his office as well asGreenwood’s through the years when I interviewed them.

         “You were one of the guys we trusted,” Mullins told me at Heinz Field.  “We could talk to guys like you and Myron Cope and we knew you weren’t going to throw us under the bus.  I’d tell Myron something and he’d say ‘a little bird told me’ when he’d use the item on his show.  You guys weren’t out to hurt us.  That wasn’t true with some of the media.”

         Mullins reminded me of just how good we had it in those days.  I came to cover the Steelers for the 1979 season after spending the previous nine years inNew York, and one year before that inMiami.

         The Steelers would go on to win their fourth Super Bowl title in six seasons under Coach Chuck Noll.  “They used to have that big room in that building off by the dorms,” recalled Mullins.

         “The offensive line used to have our post-practice meetings in a room under that room that was reserved for the media and the coaches.  I went in there once and, man, you guys had a big supply of beer and wine and whiskey.  That was tempting, I’ll tell you.

         “Ray Mansfield always had us leaving the dorms after our curfew and going down the road.  I told him we ought to just go down to that media room.  But I am sure we could have gotten into trouble for that, too.”

         The Steelers’ coaches would go to that room following the second practice of the day, and the writers and broadcasters were invited to come as well for “happy hour.”

         You could talk to the coaches, but everything was off the record.  It was not a place to conduct an interview.  But I always found that I learned something I could discuss with a coach later, on the record.

         They had a family day then, too, with wives and children and friends of the players invited to come for a picnic style outing.  The media was welcome to join in the fun.  The media has not been welcome at that picnic for the last 30 years, not since Bill Cowher replaced Noll as the head coach.  The media used to stay in the same dorm as the players, but that ended around the same time that “happy hour” went by the boards.

         Since then the media has been made to feel like second-class citizens.  In my days on the beat, we could make arrangements on our own with a player to do an interview, and then visit him in his room between sessions.  The media must request interviews through the public relations office these days.  Some interviews are monitored by a member or the p.r. staff.

         Now the media grabs a player or two on a sidewalk outside the dining room and is lucky to get five to ten minutes of time, usually with a half dozen leaches with tape recorders shoving them into the faces of any mouth that is moving in the Steelers’ ranks.

         Let’s just say it’s not the ideal situation.  The fans don’t get as close to the players or have the freedom they did in those days.  There are more security guards, more ropes, more restrictions, and more boundaries.  The media, for the most part, is kept at a distance.

         The p.r. staff behaves more like security guards; timing the interviews and cutting them short for no legitimate reason, just to control the action.  It’s much more challenging for the writers and broadcasters to get to know the players, and to get their best stories.

         I’m glad I came along when I did.  Chuck Noll used to sit down with us once a week and we’d just talk about the team and how things were going.  It wasn’t a TV reality show.  It was just for us.  The TV interviews came later.

         I am pleased to learn, so many years later, from Andy Russell and Moon Mullins, and Mel Blount, that there was a trust factor.  I always felt that if you exercised some journalistic judgment, and respected what the players said was on the record and off the record, and you didn’t take cheap shots, that in the long run you would have more and better stories.

         Some of those old Steelers even give me a hug now that we’re all seniors, still moving, and doing our best to stay erect.  We shared something special together and we remember the great times we were fortunate to experience together.

         Some one chided Craig Bingham for calling me Sir.  “I do that out of respect,” Bingham came back.

         “Because he’s your elder?” the man persisted.

         “No, because that’s how I was raised,” said Bingham.  “Besides, he’s not much older than me any more.”

         We hear about so many former football players who have difficulty dealing with the real world, but those Steelers of the ‘70s have been pretty good about getting on with, what Chuck Noll always referred to, as “their life’s work.”

          Pittsburghsports author Jim O’Brien has written a series of books about the Steelers, including “Steeler Stuff” and “Lambert” and “The Chief,” that are still available in area bookstores. His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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