First, can you tell readers about your new book – the Steelers Encyclopedia. What inspired you to write the book and how it differs from other Steelers books?
It wasn’t so much an epiphany or lightning bolt from above. Rather, about a month after I took a voluntary buyout from half my life as a newspaper wretch, a call came from a publisher: “How’d you like to write a Steelers book?” It’s an idea that knocked around my cranium for years. But I held back, wanting to wade into the deep end of the sports-book pool with a craft more seaworthy than a ducky innertube (nothing against them, so long as you’re under the age of five).
These publishers found a niche with an Encyclopedia-style book, and that concept struck a chord with me. It allowed a laser focus on the coaches, the players, the Rooneys, the important moments and the few people who comprised the down-then-up arc of the Pirates/Steelers franchise. Moreover – and here’s where this book differs from the rest – this broad approach allowed for nearly 100 different voices and 150 rare photographs. From Hall of Famers to assistant coaches to trainers to media, from Joe Greene to the virtual Joe Blow, men with roles big and little in the 80-year history were given the ability to show their faces and share their oral histories. It’s a fun ride. It’s a fun read, I hope.
How can readers order the book?
It comes out Sept. 8, but you can preorder already via online sales:
+ And here is the publisher’s page http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/2194_reg.html
Come September, it will be in bookstores throughout the Western Pennsylvania and, so we hope, anywhere Steelers fans shop. Make sure you ask for it!
How has your experience as a sportswriter and columnist for the Post-Gazette affected the way you approached the book – and did that experience make it in any way more challenging for you to come up with a different approach?
Actually, it felt as if that quarter-century of background and experience prepared me to write a better book on a familiar subject. Even beyond than that work experience, I was fortunate to grow up as a family friend of the Steel Curtain’s backup, Steve Furness. From an early age, I got to meet teammates and hear stories from behind the ‘70s scenes. So when it came time so many years later to call on folks I’ve known for so long, it seemed like renewing old acquaintances and them launching into, “Here’s one you never heard…..” Out poured stories that few outside of the team circle ever heard. Like when Gary Dunn prefaced one tale, “Here’s one you can retire on.” (If only that were true!)
Long answer short, my experience and familiarity allowed me to hold intimate conversations. My career as a journalist gave me the diligence and the doggedness to interview so many, to double- and triple-check stories, to back up statistics and to pore through accounts from a variety of different Pittsburgh media sources. Combined, those factors made the fresh approach – oral histories and hardly-seen photos – flow almost seamlessly together.
In researching the book, what are some of the biggest perceptions about the team that were debunked from the 100+ interviews you conducted?
Not sure if anything was debunked, but instead it was reinforced: somewhere between great fortune, divine providence and overdue karma came together this amazing amalgamation. Talent met character met camaraderie met fortitude met intelligence. These folks take you inside the draft room, inside the trainer’s room, inside the meeting room, inside the weight room, inside the locker room, through the tunnel, onto the practice field, into the game, to the Super Bowl. . . and on the raucous bus afterward. In quite a few occasions, they simply collided with dumb luck.
For example, take the John Stallworth story. Bill Nunn pulled some shenanigans in scouting Stallworth, then played poker on draft day: There was war-room sentiment to take Stallworth in the second round rather than Jack Lambert, but Nunn calmly convinced them that Stallworth would last until the fourth round (they had no third-rounder, remember). Later, on the practice field, Chuck Noll suggested that Stallworth shed his glasses for contacts. And from there Stallworth competed with Lynn Swann for Terry Bradshaw’s attention and passes. It all worked – the three each became Hall of Famers. Oh, and Stallworth owns a piece of the club now, too.
Hindsight and maturity allows many of the significant people of those ‘70s Steelers to talk about the rise of those players, those coaches. I found it to be a fascinating look inside a club I heretofore thought I knew pretty well. . . and I thought wrongly.
Who were some of the biggest characters you interviewed, and what made them so? Any examples?
So many characters have crossed the thresholds at Forbes Field, Pitt Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field – Lord, how I wished Bobby Layne, Johnny Blood McNally and Bullet Bill Dudley were still around to take out for a brew. So many people whom you might not expect suddenly were outspoken, such as Dick Hoak’s recollections of the South Park training facilities or Troy Polamalu’s personal pick for his favorite coach of all-time.
Every person interviewed will have a story or quote to make readers laugh, think, drop their jaw. But my personal favorite was 95-year-old Chuck Cherundolo, a star center in the 1940s and a coach thereafter. The delight that Buck O’Neil brought to Ken Burns’ baseball documentaries (certainly on a grander scale), Cherundolo brought the same sheer joy to this Steelers history. Through his thick glasses, you could almost see him replaying moments in his eyes. Bullet Bill Dudley, he growled? Not that fast. Is Bill still alive? (No.) Walt Kiesling, he still living? He’s gone, too? I guess when you get to be 94, they’re all gone.”
What interviews stand out to you the most, and why?
Beyond Chuck Cherundolo (about whom so many older players raved and asked for his address) and Hoak and Polamalu, some open and honest and incisive and funny tales came in particular from Joe Greene, Andy Russell, Larry Brown, Mike Wagner, Gary Dunn (he had me howling), Jon Kolb (he has a great line about the Immaculate Reception), Frenchy Fuqua (speaking of), John Stallworth, Jack Ham (now he has quite the story to tell), Ralph Berlin (he misses the players’ poker games), many of the Rooneys… even Bill Cowher had a good crack about playing racquetball with Kevin Colbert.
Who knows, this might be the last book where Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior talk together. I don’t want to give too much away quite yet, but they just were so at ease talking about their days that their words prove both entertaining and informative.
In speaking with many of the older players – the pre-70’s Steelers – do you think the post-NFL adjustment was easier for them versus the more modern day players because they had to create non-football careers and non-football for themselves while they were still playing since they got paid so much less?
There was little adjustment in those days. People tend to forget, but the NFL wasn’t a big deal until the 1970s… and even then it wasn’t as monolithic as it is today. Franco Harris rode a PAT bus to work his Rookie of the Year season, for goodness sakes. In the decades preceding, players HAD to make a living outside of football.
Tim Rooney Sr. remembered marriage being a barrier – some guys had to retire from the NFL so they could make a real living somewhere else and support their brides. Ernie Stautner, one of the toughest Steelers ever? He owned a drive-in theater in Lake Placid, N.Y. His business was so successful, he was allowed to report to camp late because it was still the high-season at the drive-in.
Who were some of the more under-appreciated players and coaches in Steelers history, from your perspective?
Wow, talk about an idea for a book!
As for coaches, I’m not sure Bud Carson receives as much credit. Several players loved telling how he could change gameplans in the tunnel before the game. And how they reveled in telling famed 49ers coach Bill Walsh how Carson solved Walsh’s offense all those years. The under-appreciated players could be summed up thusly: The Steelers historic line of centers doesn’t begin and end with Ray Mansfield (who came to the Steelers as a defensive player), Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Maurkice Pouncey. No, Cherundolo and his replacement Bill Walsh (not the 49ers coach) were two of the best linemen in their day, let alone centers.
As a sportswriter and now author, you get to talk with players and see them outside of the on-field, game-time environment. How different is the perception that fans have of players from reality, and how much do you think that frustrates the players?
Some relish their roles and personnas, others spend careers – if not lifetimes – trying to avoid perceptions… or misconceptions. The intrusive, 24-7-365 nature of this society and media, and that includes social media, plays a role in that. Little is perceived to be either private or off-limits anymore. For some players, Pittsburgh actually is a haven: most fans give them their space, allow them to breathe and act for what to them is normally. Otherwise, a beard would never have its own Facebook.
What’s next for you – another book on the horizon? Or did you want to get back into sportswriting?
This was my first solo book project, and it was a lonnnng, draining process. But it was, and is, enjoyable, fulfilling and, if people like the book as much as I hope they will, rewarding. I’d love to do it all again. The future for me is, well, filled with unwritten chapters.
After I left sports writing, several roads opened: this book, some online work with CBSSports.com, some free-lance writing, teaching opportunities, and a new career in media relations. Hey, I still got two boys, a wife, a father and a mother-in-law, three dogs and two snakes to look after. The heck with a plate, that’s a full buffet in front of me.
Any last thoughts for readers?
The same as the Steelers quiz on your website – and many of those answers are found in “The Steelers Encyclopedia” – there is so much more to learn about this franchise. I spent twenty-five years around them, inside the locker room, and for years before that I knew many of them off the field. And in compiling this book I found out: You think you may know a team, but you really don’t.
Feel free to pass the time until September with blogs about the book every Friday on my immodestly named site, ChuckFinder.com (hey, it was available!). Once the season arrives, here’s hoping fans get an enjoyable season from the team and an entertaining education from “The Steelers Encyclopedia.”