Al Young, Steelers Wide Receiver, 1971-1972
First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?
I bumped around a lot and played in the World Football League for it’s two years of existence. Then I got started in teaching and coaching and have been doing that for the last thirty-six years. Football, basketball and track…. Now I just coach basketball – I gave football up five or six years ago.
What lessons from your playing days do you find yourself applying to your coaching career?
The biggest thing is just the organization of things. I didn’t know how to organize practices when I started, for example. Remembering how the Steelers organized their practices and how we learned – I followed those examples.
Lionel Taylor was my individual coach and he was always hard on me. But he motivated me and I remember that. He pushed me – wanted perfection and made me believe I could accomplish anything.
You entered the NFL in 1971 with the Steelers. How did you make that ’71 squad – what about your training camp performance stood out to the coaches, do you think?
I was actually drafted as a defensive back, Minicamp was three-to-four days then – and I had played free safety my senior year in college only. So, I was surprised they drafted me as a defensive back – I only had that one year as a defensive back in college. I thought they’d put me at safety in camp.
Well, they had me at cornerback instead, and I had to cover our number one draft choice, Frank Lewis. He was too speedy – I just couldn’t do it. I was never going to be a cornerback. I went home dejected.
In June, when we came back, I was told they moved me to wide receiver. I was so excited. The first couple of days I had some real good practices. A real good three days – no dropped passes and I was beating the defensive backs. Most of us were rookies then. When the veterans came in later, I struggled at first. But, then I started doing ok. Those first few days really carried me through I think.
I actually made the squad as a taxi squad player at first. A couple of weeks or so before the season started Coach Noll called me in and told me he would keep me on the practice squad. They’d have to put me on waivers first, and one team actually claimed me so they kept me on the roster for a short while until they tried again and I cleared waivers.
The last game of the season, they activated me. I guess as a reward for how I practiced. I was very excited….
Coming from a smaller school (SC State), how prepared were you for the NFL and what were your bigger adjustments?
Yeah – I didn’t know what to expect. In college, we ran the Wing-T. We didn’t pass much. I played tight end and we only had little middle routes – nothing deep. That was a big issue for me. Learning to play wide and reading defenses….
My biggest struggle was dealing with bump and run coverage. They could bump you all the way down the field then – I never had to deal with that in college either.
Another big issue was that I had no weight training in college. I always felt I was naturally strong, but not like when you lift weights. I thought that was a big disadvantage for me.
Who helped mentor you as a rookie and showed you how to adjust to life in the NFL – both on and off the field, and how did they do so?
Lionel for sure. Ron Shanklin too. We were competing for positions but he was still very helpful. They’d all share stuff with you. Ron would call me aside when Lionel got on me so hard and tell me not to take it personally. That he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t see something in me. That put me at ease.
And I saw that throughout the team. It was a special group of guys. they were talented and close. You knew something big would happen for that team soon – I just didn’t know when.
The team was just turning itself around in that ’71 season on it’s way to it’s dynasty years. What did you notice about the team then – could you tell the team was on it’s way to big things?
We struggled a bit in ’71. In ’72, that next year, things changed for us. We won the first game and our confidence built up. We were pretty young – I think the average starting age was around 25. We were just starting to gain confidence in our abilities and the coaches. We also had great leadership – from Russell and Green, Ham, Blount…we were young, but talented and getting more confident.
How would you describe your style of play then, and what role did you play on those teams?
I wasn’t a fast guy, but I felt like I could get open. I was quick but not fast – one of the quickest guys in camp. I could catch extremely well, I thought. Coach Taylor would bet me a quarter for every pass I dropped. There were days when I didn’t drop a pass. That was my biggest asset.
I was fairly physical – I was on kickoff and punt teams as the wedge-buster. I was pretty physical – I guess that’s why I was drafted as a defensive back. I certainly wasn’t drafted for my coverage skills. That’s not who I was.
In ’72, you were able to contribute to the team more, but you found yourself out of the NFL after that season. What prompted your retirement from the NFL after the ’72 season?
After my ’71 season, I was called in in December to take a physical for the military draft. My blood pressure was high – 4F – so I didn’t qualify. My next year, in ’72, I had some issues with my heart and blood pressure in camp. They kept me out of camp for three days while they ran tests, then they let me play.
In ’73, my second day in camp I passed out. They took me to the hospital for eight days while they ran tests. They couldn’t allow me to play after that and told me I should retire….
My whole world fell apart. I thought I was really understanding what it took to play in the NFL…
How did you handle that from there?
I was shocked that they didn’t want me to play. I suffered since I was seventeen from high blood pressure but I could still play. I passed out for a short period of time. They just couldn’t find a reason for it and couldn’t have that responsibility. As you play, the excitement causes your blood pressure to raise…
Who were some of the toughest guys you lined up against – both in practice and on other teams? What made them so?
Mel Blount – I lined up against him every day in practice. He was tough – a big guy – 6’2″, 215 pounds…A guy that big, physical and tough – he was the toughest guy.
Houston always played tough and physical. Their defensive backs were always that way. And the Raiders’ Willie Brown – he was pretty good too.
Who were some of the biggest characters on the Steelers teams you played for and what made them so? Any examples?
Ernie Holmes – he and I were on the taxi squad together my rookie year. He treated me like a little boy – took care of me. There wasn’t a lot of messing around though. We were serious about our business. Remember it was early on – as they got older and more relaxed maybe they fooled around more. But this was the time when they were just beginning to come into their own.
I also remember Franco Harris. He was always the last guy to leave the practice field. That always stood out to me – even after a great rookie year, he was always working on extra stuff after practice.
What are your thoughts on today’s NFL – both on the player and rule changes?
The biggest thing – they guys are just so much bigger, stronger and faster, It’s almost scary. Guys are huge and athletic. They are so much better trained – we just didn’t do things like they do today.
I do think we played with more heart and joy for the game. I played because I loved the game – I would have played for free. I’m not sure that players today play with that same enjoyment.
The media has changed the game as well. They are around the players all the time and that’s changed the game a lot. There’s more excitement around the game and the players today.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I really enjoyed my time in Pittsburgh. It’s a great organization and a great city. The year I got sick, they had no responsibility for me. They could have said “See you later”. INstead, they kept me around and paid my contract for the season. They didn’t have to do that.
Two years later they called me back to be a scout. I did that for a short while but it just conflicted too much with my coaching job.
I was just a kid from a small school – they didn’t have to do all of that for me. I was just wonderful….