First, can you let readers know about your start in the NFL. You were drafted by San Francisco in round 17 in 1951 – how did you learn about being drafted and were you happy about being drafted by San Francisco?
I was still in school and Larry Moon Mullins told me I was drafted. The funny thing is, I got another notice at the same time from the service, telling me I had to report to an internment center. So I went to the Marine Corps instead. I told the 49ers and they suggested I go and return to the team when I came back.
I was in the service for twenty-three months – in fact I was still in the service when I returned to 49ers camp. I took my fifty days of leave – I had them in the books – so used them at the end of my stay and made the team.
That’s when I also started pro wrestling with Leo Normellini. I was a wrestler in college and he suggested that he and I start wrestling to make some extra money.
You were in San Francisco for two years before finding yourself in Pittsburgh. How did you end up in Pittsburgh and were you disappointed in being traded to Pittsburgh?
I was traded to Pittsburgh in my second year. I blew out my knee and back then you only signed for a year with a one-year option. There weren’t multiple year contracts then so it made it easier. The team doctor was also a stakeholder in the team so he felt like I wasn’t going to play again there before the contract ended. So they traded me to Pittsburgh. The funny thing is I got a raise when I got to Pittsburgh! Rooney was a great guy.
Walt Keisling was the head coach then in Pittsburgh- what was he like to play for – and how hard was it then playing for a team that was struggling at the time?
Keisling was a good man, but he was old school. We’d practice for 2 1/2 hours in the morning and in the afternoon. They wanted to try me out at center in Pittsburgh. I came into camp early – a week before the veterans all came in. I came in at 228 pounds, At the time all we had was a skeleton crew – quarterback, receivers and centers. By the end of the first week I was down to 212 pounds!
Pittsburgh was a great city. It was night and day between San Francisco and Pittsburgh. In San Francisco you were just another person. In Pittsburgh you stood out. The people were outstanding. They used to send us to a special car dealership – they’d give us all great deals! After my last year in Pittsburgh I was traveling to Calgary to wrestle when the general manager of the Calgary Stampeders asked me what I was doing in Clagary – and he asked me to come back and play for them. The coach was Jim Finks – former quarterback of the Steelers. Back then, you could only have twelve Americans on a team and only six could start at a time.
Tell us more about your time as wrestler and tag team champion in the National Wrestling Alliance. How did you get into the wrestling profession and how did your time in the NFL help your wrestling career?
Well I was a conference champion in college for four years. I started wrestling in the offseason when Leo Nomellini – a teammate in San Francisco – suggested that I go with him to talk to a promoter in San Francisco. I started working with Leo as my tag team partner and as a single wrestler. I found it very interesting – it allowed me to travel six times to Japan. On one trip, they had the American servicemen play football against the Japanese wrestlers. The American guys weren’t allowed to weight more than 160 pounds – the Japanese were sumo wrestlers! I was asked by the promoter to help coach the Japanese team! As a job, it helped me make more money. Football didn’t pay so well. It helped me see lots of the world and the Japanese loved us. They would all come to the stadiums and sat on mats. We would have 8,000-10,000 people but we didn’t get a cut of that – just our guarantees! When the train we rose on stopped at depots, the fans would all wave and cheer for us.
Do you watch the NFL today? What do you think of the want the game has changed?
Yes, I do. It’d really different now. Now it’s mainly about money. We played hurt. We’d use novacain to kill the pain. When we had a concussion we’d use smelling salts and that was it. After football, I coached for thirty-eight years. I coached in high school and junior college and taught them what Moon Mullins taught me about that old school mentality – that’s winning is mostly about attitude.
You’re famous in part for causing the introduction of the facemask into the NFL. How did that occur?
Oh yeah – that was Otto Graham. We played the Rams in L.A. and flew back to San Francisco afterwards. My two eye teeth were knocked back, so they pulled them both out Monday. On Wednesday we flew to Cleveland and they hemorraghed on the plane. They rushed me to the hospital and I got out that Saturday, just in time for the walk-through, and I played on Sunday. That game, I hit Graham across the face and he had to have eleven stitches – he was sewed up at halftime. He was allergic to novacain so he did it without any help. But the next game, he needed a facemask I guess and that’s how it started.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Football gave me my livelihood. It put me in college and gave me my education. No one can take that away from anybody. I enjoyed the time we had and tried to instill that in the players I coached in high school and junior college.
I see the coaches I used to play with and against sometimes. We get together once a year – we call it the Legends Golf Tournament. Twenty-five to thirty of us get together – former players and coaches – those of us who are left.