Larry Brown, Steelers Offensive Lineman/Tight End, 1971-1984
First, can you let readers know about your business ventures since your playing days, how you got involved in those and what you are currently doing these days?
I’ve done two different things. originally, a year before I retired, J.T. Thomas approached m and asked if I wanted to go into business with him working with the Burger King franchise, and I did. I did that from ’84 to ’91 or so, but there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for growth in the market.
We sought another opportunity and pursued the Applebees franchise. It was still early in their stages of growth. We joined them in ’87 and I’m still involved with them today. I’ve been doing that exclusively since.
Were there any football experiences that helped you in business?
No question – there were quite a bit.
I use the philosophy and mindset every day in business. The sports analogies are always good – they are a simple way to convey complex perspectives that aren’t always clear otherwise. People get them.
It’s also highly competitive, like athletics. You have to overcome adversity. It teaches you to deal with those kinds of things. To have the attitude to do whatever it takes to get things done. You can’t make excuses, just like in the NFL. If you do, you lose your job. You can’t find reasons to fail. You can’t accept failure – you’ve got to make your own success to keep your job.
You were originally drafted as a tight end in 1971 in the fifth round. What about your style of play do you think attracted the coaches to you and what did you do as a rookie to catch the coaches’ eyes and make the team?
It’s a difficult question to answer. It’s like asking your wife what attracted her to you (laughing). Generally speaking, their philosophy of drafting the best athlete available presumably was the reason – that I was the best athlete available at the time. I guess they thought I had potential.
There was no one thing or event that helped me make the team that I can think of. What allowed me to make the team – I was obviously, in their evaluation, one of the best guys at the position. I fit the profile for the position in terms of size and speed and was able to make it as a competitor.
Did you have a good sense at the time of the shift occurring with the team from “sad-sac” to winner?
In hindsight, you make statements that are consistent with the events of the time. I saw Chuck’s leadership. He had a plan on how he would build the team and expressed that through his philosophy. He had everyone compete – for every position. It was a comfort to know that the competition was based on ability – it was a fair game. For the most part it played out that way.
Were any players resistant to Coach Noll’s style?
Talking to some of the veterans, they told me Chuck told the team in his first season as a coach that he knew why the team wasn’t very good – it was because the players weren’t very good. He put them all on notice. That was his philosophy – you had to step up your game or he’d find someone to compete with you. It was all about getting the best players on the squad – he didn’t care where those guys came from.
After a short while you could see continuous improvement. Everyone has their own opinion as they go through it of where they are on the team. It might or might not be reality though (laughing). As the team won, we had less of that and people came around.
How would you describe yourself as a tight end?
I played tight end according to their offensive design. Tight ends were essential in the running game. They wanted a tight end who could block but also catch passes, so my versatility was helpful…
You were moved to left tackle in 1977. What prompted that move and how happy were you to do so?
In hindsight it worked out well – it extended my career. The year I switched I had a knee injury I was still recovering from. I wasn’t able to due to the running and cutting you needed to do to play tight end. That was anticipated by Chuck.
We met in his office and he told me that because I couldn’t run due to the injury he was going to have me learn the tackle position. That once I got healthy he’d move me back to tight end. In the meantime, before that, they drafted Bennie Cunningham and signed Randy Grossman. They saw themselves as being in a good position at tight end and had great need at tackle at the same time, so they never moved me back.
Then they traded away tackle Gordon Gravelle, so I stayed at the position for eight years and won two more Super Bowls!
Was the move frustrating for you?
I envisioned myself as a tight end before the move to tackle. At some point you have to decide that you have moved on though. I was used to playing with the ball – catching and running. So I guessed I missed it, yeah. But not to the point where it was difficult to overcome, and with my knee issues, it made things more manageable for me at tackle.
Who helped you adjust to the NFL – both on and off the field – as a Steeler, and how did they do so? Any examples?
There were many players and coaches along the way. Lionel Taylor was the receivers and tight ends coach in Pittsburgh. Dan Radakovich was an early mentor who persuaded me to move to tackle. Jon Staggers was my roommate. He talked a lot about the right things to do on the field and how to get myself to play better.
On the field, L.C. ‘s encouragement on the field was very helpful – he was like a mentor.
On offense, Jon Kolb and I were together a lot – he helped me with the techniques when I moved to tackle. I hesitate to use names as there were so many people. And of course Chuck himself. His words gave you confidence. All those things are really big….
Humor played such a big part on those Super Bowl teams. Can you describe how humor affected you as a player and teammate and do you have any examples of some of the hijinks that went on then?
Humor played a big part – especially in the locker room. That’s the place you can relax. We had a number of characters and practical jokesters.
Hanratty played a number of practical jokes. I also remember Dennis Hughes who was a tight end from Georgia. He and Hanratty used to go back and forth, taking things out of each others’ lockers, putting that hot gel stuff in people’s shorts…They were always doing something, hiding clothes….
Well, one day, Dennis just got done getting someone with a practical joke. He was so excited that he got someone – he was laughing and walking to his locker. But he doesn’t see his clothes. He just said “Dog gone – someone stole my clothes!” The whole locker room started howling. It finally occurred to him that he was wearing them the whole time! (laughing).
In 1982 you made the Pro Bowl after eleven NFL seasons. How rewarding and important was that for you – and how surprised were you?
It’s rewarding, being recognized by your peers. It’s a nice thing – validation of your hard work….
J.T. Thomas in our interview with him described how race and faith had a positive impact on bringing the team closer – when it could have created a divide between players then, especially considering the Steelers’ push to draft players from the smaller Southern Black colleges. What are your thoughts on how the team was able to unite despite those potential roadblocks and how was it able to do so so effectively?
Everyone has their own interpretation of how things were. Then they look back and use that to say why things happened.
I think it goes back to the draft. Pittsburgh recruited the best players available no matter what – and when you say that, it expands where you look. Color doesn’t matter if that’s the priority.
It turns out there was a tremendous amount of talent in the smaller schools. They set up their staff to scout the entire field of available players – they went after all of the field actively and discovered gems that others didn’t look at. We had good talent because of that and were able to field those championship teams.
That instills a confidence in players. That the criteria is how you play – your talent, effort and intelligence. So if you trust the system, you all have an equal chance to make the team. There was no need to worry about the political or social elements – the team was going to keep the best players, no matter what.
What are your thoughts on today’s NFL – both on the new rules and the attitudes of players today?
There’s lots of rhetoric on player safety and they are all good ideas. People talk about maintaining the integrity of the game – you always have to protect that. But what’s most important is the health of the players playing the game. There’s an obligation to legislate the risks of player health. I understand the physical nature of the game and that will always be the case, but you have to legislate those risks to player health.
I see the people who do so suffer through the opinions and politics of doing so. They just have to stay focused and keep safety in mind first.
What are your best memories as a Steeler, and what makes them so?
What I think about most are the guys – the friendships and camaraderie in the locker room. It’s rare to find that outside of the game. The closest thing you have to that is family. You try to develop those relationships on teams. People are the priority and you have to cherish that.
And the opportunity to win Super Bowls. To be able to meet your most difficult objective four times when it’s so difficult to do. Over a career, that’s a lasting accomplishment that you feel good about and appreciate.