Mel Holmes, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 1971-1973
First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?
First, after reading certain excerpts of your newsletter, I find it to be a good newsletter that is long overdue. It interviews real players, and get real facts about life in the NFL, and not second-hand opinion from someone that’s never played the game!
Right now life could not be sweeter! Since leaving pro football, I like many present and former players, ventured out into a few private business ventures of my own, most notably as a Burger King Restaurant franchisee/owner.
After acquiring this venture and having to work almost 90 hours a week trying to make it work, I decided it was not my calling and made a conscious decision to get out of the business.
Subsequently, I went on to own a few other ventures (seafood business, medical waste management, etc.) Upon exiting the entrepreneur side, I eventually taught and ran a veterans program at a local community college in Miami, Florida.
Currently, I’m retired and living in a rural area in South Carolina where my wife have roots and family.
You were a fifth round draft pick by the Steelers in 1971. There was no guarantee you’d make the team – what about your play do you think helped you make the team?
Nothing is guaranteed in this life except taxes and death! I don’t think any player is guaranteed to make an NFL team. However, there are certain exceptions to that rule that we all sort of know that exist! I have never known a player that was cut taken in the first round of the draft. I was just honored to have been chosen to play in the NFL.
You have to remember the Steelers picked me in the fifth round, ahead of players that played all across the country, including major football programs and powerhouses such as USC, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Penn State, etc. and others to name a few. During my time the college draft consisted of 17 rounds, 442 players drafted. Not like today where the draft is composed of 7 rounds. I think being drafted in the fifth round was an accomplishment.
I’ve always had confidence in my ability to be a good football player! However, coming from a small NAIA small historically black college, I realized that my chances of playing in the league would be slim. Remember, this was a time during segregation. I came out of high school in 1967, in the South, toward the ending of segregation. Large predominately major White colleges just weren’t recruiting Black athletes at that time, especially southern major colleges in Division I. If I may recall, I cannot think of not one major Southern white college with a single Black athlete on their roster at that time.
Funny thing, when USC came to play Alabama, USC had a plethora of black players. They completely ran over Alabama and ended up beating them bad.
After the game Bear Bryant, the coach at Alabama made the comment that if they are to win football games they must get some black players like USC. That sort of set the trend for southern white colleges getting black football players.
A perfect example being our fine offensive guard who I played with. Sam Davis attended Allen University, a small all-Black college located in South Carolina. Sam went on to play, I believe 15 or more years in the league. One of the best offensive lineman I ever met, bar none. I believe he was a product of segregation.
In addition, he also told me he ran the 440 (quarter) on the track team. Is that spectacular or what? Can you picture an offensive guard running the 440 on a track team. Nevertheless, the Steelers took a chance on him and it paid great dividends for them.
Remember, football is all about the battle of the hitting as Chuck Noll would so artfully often say.
Who on the team helped you adjust to the NFL both on and off the field and how did they do so? Any examples?
As far as technique goes, I can rightfully say the majority of veteran lineman helped me tremendously. That was one thing that stood out. I was amazed at how helpful these guys were in sharing their advice on helping you become a better football player at that level.
I can say the same for off the field adjustment. All the veteran players that I was cordial with helped me. I cannot mention any specific names, per se, because I do not want to offend anyone and leave out any names.
What was your biggest adjustment to the NFL from college, and how did you make that adjustment?
The biggest factor in comparing the NFL with college, is the business-like approach the NFL offered compared to college. I guess that once you’re playing in the NFL, a certain approach to the game in expected in all aspects.
The biggest adjustment that I had to make was in the area of pass protection. In small college football, not much emphasis is placed on pass protection. I can surmise to say that this can be contributed to many of the small college coaches had not experienced during a stint in the NFL as coaches, and as a result, major emphasis was not placed on that aspect of the game.
This was first noticed by me during my senior year in college. I was chosen to play in a post-season all-star game in Miami, Florida, called the “Mahi North-South All Star Game.” A combination of senior football players from across the country, and perhaps future pro prospects. I had a terrible time initially pass blocking some guy from, I believe University of Kansas. I eventually adjusted, and went on to have a good game.
My reason for doing poorly at first contributed to my lack of having good technique in pass blocking. We were not taught to pass block effectively in college. Only how many players you could “pancake.”
As an aside, our coaching staff for our South squad in this All Star game were coaches from the University of Miami. One day after having a good practice, our offensive line coach came over and asked me about my hometown. After telling him I was from Miami, Florida, he in-factually asked me “how did UM overlooked you in recruiting,” I responded by telling him that he already knew the answer, UM did not recruit black players during that time, can he name any that UM had on their roster at that time?
You were there during Chuck Noll’s “early days”. How did the team adjust to Chuck Noll’s coaching style and what about him made him such a successful coach, from your point of view?
It appears that in the overall scheme of things, the team adjusted well to Chuck Noll’s style. You’re looking at professionals, and their ultimate motive and desire is to win, and that winning eventually culminates into a world championship.
I cannot compare Noll to anyone else. However, I believe he approached the game of football from a more business prospective. Technique, mental preparation, being physical aggressive, these were all factors Noll placed great emphasis on.
Noll should go down in history as one of the all-time greats!
What would surprise fans most, do you think, about those early 70’s Steelers teams?
I think that what surprised fans most was the fact that Noll came in and began a winning tradition. From what I’ve been told this sort of thing was lacking in the past. Pittsburgh was a good football town, however it never had a winning tradition. Noll brought in good football players who knew how to win, and also kept the ones that were winners also. He instilled a winning attitude in you.
How much of a part did humor have to play in your time in Pittsburgh and who were some of the funniest guys on the team and what made them so?
Humor played a great part in our fervor for winning. I always had this demeanor that you have to be “loose’ in order to play football. Eventually Chuck Noll believed in that concept also. Noll would always have this saying that “SUNDAY WAS FUNDAY.”
Without a doubt, we had many funny characters on our team during my tenure! I think we can all agree that the trophy goes to “Frenchy Fuqua.” One of the most hilarious individual I ever met as a player period. Yet also a darn good football player.
Matter of fact, I played against Frenchy in college. He attended a school named Morgan State in Baltimore, Maryland, and my school was named North Carolina A&T University. Our schools were members of the same sports conference (CIAA). To name just a few in my book would be, Ernie Holmes, Warren Bankston, Dwight White, LC Greenwood, Terry Hanratty, there were plenty others. However, there are may others these are individuals that stood out.
How is your health today – and do you think the NFL and NFLPA should be doing more to help players from your generation with game-related ailments?
Like most players, I had my share of injuries, however none that were major. Only a knee injury that I can recall was serious. I injured it above all, in practice, on the artificial turf we had at the time called poly-turf. This stuff was not perfected during that time. I think quite a few injuries happened to players as a result of playing and practicing on this artificial turf.
These days I have suffered a couple strokes and battling diabetes. I don’t complain though. If you do complain, no one is going to listening although they say they are!
What do you think about today’s NFL – both on the new rules and the players today?
I seldom follow football these days. I consider it my “dead life.” My son and I talk frequently about the game. He is always saying to me that “Dad this is a “young man’s” game today! He is so right. My son is a Pro Scout for a NFL team.
What were your favorite memories as a Steeler and what made them so?
Basically, having the opportunity to play the game of football at the NFL level. Being around good people! You gotta remember a lot of people have never seen the inside of a NFL team locker room.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Yeah, when life is getting the best of you, and you feel down, just back up 10 and punt!! I’m outta here.