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Jim O’Brien: Randy Grossman offers a “good story” about his early days with Steelers

August 15, 2012
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Jim O’Brien: Randy Grossman offers a “good story” about his early days with Steelers

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

The Steelers started their pre-season schedule with a less-than-scintillating 24-23 loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia last Thursday evening.  While it failed to get us excited about the Steelers’ Super Bowl prospects for this year it did serve to remind me of a story I heard Randy Grossman tell at a sports luncheon earlier this year.

         Grossman was a terrific tight end for the Steelers during their glory days of the ‘70s, playing eight seasons (1974-1981), when they won four Super Bowls in six seasons under head coach Chuck Noll.

         Grossman signed with the Steelers as a free agent out of Temple University for the minimum of $15,000.  Today, the minimum salary for a rookie is $355,000.  Grossman and Donnie Shell of South Carolina State, another free agent, came to the team with the greatest draft class in NFL history.

         It included four future Hall of Famers in Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster, plus Jimmy Allen, a fine but often overlooked defensive back who was a valued reserve on two of those Super Bowl teams.

         So there was plenty of talent around and Grossman worked hard to make his mark.  The NFL teams played six pre-season games back then.  Talk about cruel and inhuman punishment – for the fans more than the players.

         The third of those pre-season games was in Philadelphia, Grossman’s hometown.  Joe Greene was talking to Grossman in the locker room a few days before the game in Philadelphia.  “Bet you’re looking forward to playing in your hometown,” said Greene.

         Grossman agreed with that assessment, but went on to tell Greene that he hated to fly on airplanes.  He told Greene that he often got ill just thinking about it.

         Terry Bradshaw overheard the conversation and came over and spoke to Grossman as well, offering some encouraging words. 

         Bradshaw and Greene said they’d help him out and told him they’d see him at the airport prior to takeoff and that they’d have breakfast there.  They assured him that if he was flying on a full stomach it would quiet his nerves. 

         They’d been in the NFL a few years.  They were the offensive and defensive stars of the team.  They’d been around the block a few times, and they knew what to do.  Grossman was an eager rookie, and he thanked them for their concern.

         As Grossman was sharing this story, as a featured speaker at a sports reunion luncheon at the Kennedy Township Fire Hall, where I had been the speaker the year before, it struck me that I had never previously heard this story.

         I had heard him speak around the same time at a golf outing at the Butler Country Club.  I had heard him speak at the Sports Night at the Thompson Club in West Mifflin on a few occasions, and I had joined him in a parade of former Steelers at Kennywood Park on two occasions.  Yet I never heard that story before.

         I first met Grossman at St. Vincent College at the Steelers’ training camp in the summer of 1979, and I had interviewed him many times, for newspaper, magazine and book stories.  But he never told me this story.

         That’s why I have learned you can never interview these guys enough times.  Maybe you failed to ask the question that would unleash a pretty good tale.

         “So I got together with Bradshaw and Greene at the Pittsburgh Airport, and we went to a restaurant there,” recalled Grossman.  “They urged me to order this and that, some eggs, some pancakes, juice and coffee.

         “They ordered breakfast for themselves.  After they ate, they said they had to go to the bathroom.  They never came back.  I was stuck with paying the bill.  They’d gotten the best of a rookie.  I should have known I was in trouble then.

         “I had to hustle just to get on the plane before it left the gate.  I was the last one on the plane.  There was only one seat open on the plane and it was the one next to Chuck Noll in the first row.  Now you have to know that I was afraid of Chuck Noll at the time.  He was like God to me.

         “He gave me a half-smile as I took my seat and buckled myself in.  It wouldn’t be a long flight to Philadelphia, so I thought I’d be okay.  But midway through the flight I felt a little queasy.  The bathroom was in the back of the plane, and I didn’t want to go down the aisle and have Greene and Bradshaw laugh at me, knowing they’d gotten the best of me.  My stomach was rumbling.

         “I was very competitive and I thought I could tough it out.  I could hear my stomach growling more frequently.  The plane was about to land and I knew I was in trouble.  I threw up on Chuck Noll’s lap.  He was sleeping at the time.  Thank God for that.

         “I was in a panic.  I didn’t know what to do.  I started cleaning up my mess a little bit, and that’s when he stirred and woke up.  I was standing over him now.  He looked up at me.  And I said, ‘Coach, are you feeling a little better now?”

         The audience at the Kennedy Township Fire Hall was wide-eyed and laughing.  What a story!  They’d never heard this story before either.

         I wrote down Grossman’s remarks for future use.

         Grossman, now 59, has been a financial and investment advisor the past 22 years, a certified financial planner since 2002.  He is with Wealth Management Strategies.  I visited him in his office on Brilliant Avenue in Aspinwall, a quaint old-fashioned community just off Rt. 28 east of downtown Pittsburgh.

         I asked him about his story.  My wife Kathie couldn’t believe it was true, and now I was doubtful.

         I asked Grossman if that story about him and Chuck Noll on the airplane was true, and Grossman gave me one of his double smiles.  He smiles with his mouth, like most of us, but he also smiles with his dark eyes, squinting them both.

         “It’s a good story,” he said.

         “But is it true?” I persisted.

         “It’s a good story,” he repeated.

         Later that same day, I bumped into Rocky Bleier, another Steelers’ star on those teams in the ‘70s, at the Heinz History Center in The Strip.  Bleier and I both serve on a Champions Committee, chaired by Franco Harris, for the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center.

         I repeated Grossman’s story for the benefit of Bleier.  Rocky just smiled when I finished the tale.  He put his hand on my shoulder in a reassuring way and said, “It’s a good story.”

          Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has written “Steeler Stuff” that is one of the 20 books in his “Pittsburgh Proud” series.  His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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