You started off lifting weights in high school, correct? What got you started as a weightlifter and what did you enjoy so much about it?
Well, I wanted to gain weight to play football. I always was a skinny kid. A fellow in class lifted – I could see his huge arms, so I asked him for his help to get me working on it too. I was a Senior in high school and really wanted to gain that weight. I thought I was a good athlete but skinny isn’t good in football (laughing).
Your weightlifting career earned you numerous medals and found you on the Olympic teams in 1964 at the age of 38. How exciting was it for you to travel to Tokyo and participate in the Olympics?
It was a great experience. I made the American team in 1961 and traveled to Vienna for the World Championship before the Olympics. Unfortunately, I pulled a groin in the Olympics. If I had done what I expected to do – what I did before – I would have come in second. I had pulled my groin before the Olympics but was feeling ok until it happened again.
In 1970, Chuck Noll approached you about the possibility of becoming a strength coach for the Steelers. Had you ever considered coaching for football before? How surprised were you at his call and what made you decide to consider the idea?
Well, I got a call at the office and it was Chuck. He said “Hi, it’s Chuck Noll”, and I asked what I could do for him (laughing).
He said he wanted to talk to me about putting in a weight program in Pittsburgh. The Steelers didn’t have a weightlifting program then. They didn’t even have a weight room. When he was the Assistant Coach in San Diego he saw what a weightlifting program did for them and one of the guys there recommended me to Chuck, so he called me.
He told me to get a first class ticket to Pittsburgh and charge it to him. So I went to Pittsburgh and we talked for a couple of days first on how to do it. I was the weightlifting coach for the New Orleans Athletic Club and I got a free membership to the club for that. But that was really my coaching history before then – I never thought of doing it for football.
What did Coach Noll tell you was the biggest issue he needed you to resolve on those Steelers teams?
He really wanted his players to gain weight and get stronger.
How did the other players and coaches react to you being brought on board? Were they skeptical or excited to have you there?
I had to sell the program to the players first. I had them come in – first Joe Green and the stronger guys. I lifted some weights and asked them if they could do this too. And they couldn’t. I was only 158 pounds, so they were ready after that (laughing). I told them this couldn’t make you anything but stronger and faster. That impressed them.
Some of them were worried and asked me if it would make them too muscle-bound. So I did a standing back flip and asked them if this looked too muscle-bound to them? (laughing).
Who were some of the players that adopted your weightlifting regimen most aggressively when you first arrived? And since the whole idea of lifting was somewhat new to the team, how did you get players started initially?
All-Pro Mike Webster told me after starting the program that he really wanted to thank me. He said he was going to quit but because of the program he felt like I added three more years to his professional life.
Webster, Larry Brown and the rest of the offensive line were the guys that took to it most, I think. Bradshaw was exceptionally good too.
And sure, some were skeptical. But I had great backup – the head coach told them to do it (laughing). And he’d come in and watch them, so they did it.
One of the things I did too was to run with them. I ran track in high school and college – the 100 meters. After practice, the coach would have them run sprints, so I ran with them. As fast as they would run, I would keep up with them and that impressed them too. They were concerned about getting too big and too slow and stiff – this showed them they wouldn’t.
How was Coach Noll and the team able to measure the success/impact of your work and what do you think your impact was with the team?
In the first place, the stronger you are the more force you apply – the stronger you push, the higher you jump and the faster you run. I had a great head coach who believed in it. He really watched them, and when he did, they worked harder.
It was interesting, the better the player I think, the more they took to the training.
You installed the “Riecke-Rack” at Three Rivers and in training camp. Can you describe what this rack was and did for players?
I was working with a fella who was an engineer – he was a big guy. He built one and put it in his back yard. I had him build one for me, too. It let me lift more weight with less risk.
What was the rack and how did the team handle this new contraption?
It enabled you to lift bigger weights without a risk of accident. The weight couldn’t fall back down on you when you lifted. They moved up and down on an iron rod so you couldn’t get off-balance and fall.
I had them do that and free weights. Coach Noll loved it. I showed it to him and he said it was great and should build one for the team too. He was a great guy – a brilliant man.
Who were some of the biggest characters you worked with on those Steelers teams, and what made them so? Any examples?
Bradshaw was a clown – he was really funny. And Terry Hanratty too.
The first time I met Bradshaw was after he was drafted as the team’s number one pick. There were a bunch of teenage girls that used to come and watch him in practice – to see the new young star. They would yell out to him and he’ll yell back “Come over here – that’s to far to walk for me!” So they’d all come running (laughing).
Once when I was lifting Webster and Brown rigged the weights so they wouldn’t go up. They nearly killed themselves they were laughing so hard.
What are some of your greatest memories of those Steelers teams of the 70’s?
It was wonderful. Chuck is a terrific guy and was a brilliant coach. To see him go from last place to the championship was tremendous.
The most satisfying thing for me was that I helped extend careers by telling them what to do with weightlifting….