STEELERS 1979 TRAINING CAMP OPENS

Entering his eleventh training camp, Chuck Noll reflected on the age of some of his veterans including Rocky Bleier. Noll acknowledged that he had spoken to Bleier about playing and said the player was working out every day. “Working harder than people on this ball club who are a lot younger than he is,” the coach noted.

The aging of the Steelers wasn’t a concern for the coach. “We’re not interested in any kind of transfusions. The thing we’ve been trying to do is bring younger people along every year, so we don’t run into the problem of everybody getting old together.”

Coach Noll felt that he should give more playing time to his young linemen, Steve Courson, Tom Dornbrook, Ted Petersen and Tom Beasley. “If training camp goes well for them, they’ll get their share of playing time this year,” he admitted.

On veteran Terry Bradshaw, Coach Noll reaffirmed what he said after the Super Bowl. "I always felt Terry had the capability to be the best. Last year he did it. Now we have another challenge.”

After the first day of practice, the injuries began to accrue. Second-year defensive end Fed Anderson suffered a broken right hand. Rated eighth of the eight defensive linemen on the roster, Anderson would be concerned for his place.

“He shouldn’t worry,” said George Perles. “We’re not worried. I saw half an hour of Anderson in action and he looked super. He came here ready to go. Anderson is an NFL player. We’re grooming him.”

Anderson would be held out of contact work for a couple of days to allow the swelling on his hand to go down ready for a cast to be put on.

The Steelers top draft choice Greg Hawthorne and guard Steve Courson were also casualties with pulled hamstrings.

MATT BAHR TO CHALLENGE ROY GERELA

The Steelers drafted kicker Matt Bahr as a possible replacement for veteran Roy Gerela with a sixth-round pick. Their contest in training camp should be interesting with Gerela a Steelers’ legend with his own groupies known as “Gerela’s Gorillas.”

Bahr was realistic about the competition he would face. “It will be even tougher on me because I’m seeking a position held by a very popular Pittsburgh Steelers.”

Bahr won three football games with his field goals for Penn State in his final season, but he also sparkled on the soccer field for the Pennsylvania Stoners. “I don’t want to leave them (the Stoners),” he said. “I have never enjoyed sports as much as I have in Allentown as the Stoners try to make a name for themselves.

“But there is the business end of it I have to think about. If I can set myself up financially as a front-line kicker in the NFL, then I have an obligation to myself to do it.”

Although the Steelers had reached an agreement with Roy Gerela on a new contract at the end of last season, he never returned a signed contract to the team. Gerela is required to sign a contract before he arrives in camp with the other veterans.

GREG HAWTHORNE STILL SIDELINED

“You don’t want to see anyone injured,” explained Coach Noll, talking about the Steelers first round draft pick. “You have to roll with these things. We don’t know when he’ll be ready to run. We want to give him complete rest and see what happens. He pulled a hamstring shortly before our mini camp but wanted to keep playing. But it’s like having a cut. If you keep picking at it, it won’t heal.”

Hawthorne understood what his inactivity meant. “Every day I miss, I’m getting that much further behind. I’m not a vet or an older guy who can get hurt and not have to worry about picking up the system.

I need to be down with the rest of the guys, but when I do go back, I don’t want it to happen all over again.”

ROOKIES BRING SMILES TO 1979 TRAINING CAMP

While the Steelers had to deal with a rash of injuries in the first week of training camp, some of their thirty rookies were ensuring Coach Noll and his coaches were still smiling.

Larry Douglas, a receiver out of Southern and Rick Kirk, a defensive end from Denison were displaying skills that coaches were keen to see in camp. Kirk exhibited quickness and a nose for the ball while Douglas was fast off the line.

“Kirk looked pretty good over there in your drills, didn’t he,” Coach Noll inquired of George Perles who was now the team's assistant head coach.

“He sure did,” confirmed Perles. “My, he’s awful quick and he’s always around the ball,” added Perles. “That’s the difference. A lot of people are quick, but they don’t know where the ball is. Kirk knows where it is all the time.”
“That’s what we want,” a smiling Noll acknowledged. “People who know where the ball is.”

Defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer spent time tutoring the Steelers second choice in the draft, 220-pound linebacker Zack Valentine. Widenhofer showed a lot of patience with the rookie who was hesitant in covering his man.

“Control him. Control him,” shouted Widenhofer to encourage Valentine to handle the receiver rather than allowing the receiver to gain the upper hand. “If you don’t control him,” he’s going to control you,” explained the coach.

CUNNINGHAM NOT SLOWING DOWN

Of the veterans in camp, tight end Bennie Cunningham (pictured left signing autographs at camp) showed no signs of slowing down despite undergoing surgery during the off-season for an injured knee. Cunningham had entered camp with the rookies to take advantage of early drills.

Robin Cole, the team’s first round draft pick in 1977 was also returning after surgery. Cole played all the 1978 season with a broken arm. A calcium deposit that formed over the break hid the damage from X-rays. Every time he made a hit, Cole felt pain, but doctors put that down to a nerve resting on the calcium.

After the Super Bowl, the player underwent surgery to remove the calcium deposit and the doctors discovered the break hadn’t healed. A bone graft was performed to correct the problem.

Cunningham and Cole went head-to-head for the Oklahoma Drill. “It always seems to be me and Bennie one-on-one,” said Cole. “I guess we always know it’s going to be me and him. We enjoy it.”

Both players came out of the drill with no ill effects giving Coach Noll more cause to smile.

VETERANS ARRIVE IN CAMP

The veterans arrived at their Latrobe training camp July 20th in Jeeps, Lincolns, Saabs and a Volkswagen.

Unlike the previous season, they arrived as the champions and Joe Greene observed, “I think we wear the crown pretty damn well. Getting back to being king felt good. I missed it. I’m sure so of the other guys did too.”

The Steelers were enjoying making football history. Only the Green Bay Packers had previously arrived in camp in search of a fourth NFL championship in a six-year span.

Greene was realistic about the challenges ahead. “You don’t defend the Super Bowl during the regular season. You don’t let the pressure of trying to defend it bother you before you get there. That’s how you lose it. You defend it on the turf you won it.

The only thing that can keep us down is injuries. Injuries are always a factor, but we want it and we’ve got the talent.”

OKLAHOMA DRILL ON THE FIRST DAY WITH VETERANS IN CAMP

Before their enthusiastic fans, the Steelers banged heads in the annual Oklahoma drill. When it was put to Coach Noll that it was reminiscent of gladiators in the Coliseum, he joked, “Maybe we should have the fans go thumbs up and thumbs down.”

As expected, it was usually the veterans who came out on top of the rookies. Naturally, it was Jack Lambert who led the way with an aggressive exchange with Thom Dornbrook.

The offensive linemen were generally outstanding. Assistant head coach George Perles praised Rollie Dotsch the offensive linemen coach. “You can see Rollie’s character come out in the offensive linemen,” he acknowledged. “Rollie’s a tough, rugged customer and his linemen are just like him.”

Although the veterans who had played in all three Super Bowls were getting older, Coach Noll likes to think they seem to be aging like vintage wine and getting better.

Roy Gerela signed his new contract and will face Matt Bahr and Rick Snodgrass in a kicking competition.

THE ROCK IS READY

Pro football’s oldest starting running back has second thoughts about retiring. Weary after a long 1978 season, Bleier had intimated his playing days were over. But, refreshed after the offseason, he was ready to go into action once again.

“I don’t remember exactly what I said,” he admitted, “but at the end of the season, you’re tired, run-down, sore, beat-up and you think, ‘oh my gawd, can I do it again?’”

Bleier was keen to play another season. “I don’t have a timetable, but my thought each year is that I’ll play one more season and see what happens.”

Looking ahead, the Steelers selected two running backs with two of their first three draft picks, but Bleier wasn’t ready to move aside. “There are better runners and better receivers,” Bleier acknowledged. “But this game is consistency. You’ve got to put it all together and come up with a consistent game. When you come down to that big game, it’s hard to beat.”

The combination of Franco Harris and Rocky had only seen losses in two playoff games since they have been playing together and both of those defeats saw one of the players on the sideline.

Lancaster Sunday news photo
Franco Harris with fans at camp

Randy Grossman Finds Job Security
Bob Smizik - Pittsburgh Press

Media photo Randy GrossmanAll he did last summer was catch more passes than any other Steeler tight end caught in twelve years. In addition to that, in one game he caught more passes than any other Steeler receiver had caught in a decade. Against Houston, Grossman caught 9 passes for 116 yards. With Lynn Swann and John Stallworth on the team, that was no small accomplishment.

Randy Grossman, who signed as a free agent the day after the 1974 draft, maintains that this year will be no different than the past five. That means the only thing he’s campaigning for is a spot on the roster.

Too many years of looking over his shoulder at bigger, stronger and faster competitors have left Grossman with a case of insecurity that not even his superb 1978 season, when he stepped in for Bennie Cunningham, has been able to erase. Despite his fine play while Cunningham was out with a knee injury, he is once again listed as the team’s #2 tight end.

“This is a tenuous time of year for me,” he said. “I’ll be a little more relieved after the season begins and I can actually see what the situation is.”

When it was pointed out to Grossman that tight ends who catch 37 passes in 10 games usually don’t have to worry about job security even if they weigh only 215 pounds and have ordinary speed, he merely shook his head.
“Look at last year,” he suggested. Grossman seemed to have a lock on the backup tight end position behind Cunningham because he was the only other player in camp at that position. Then, as Grossman puts it, “I looked up one day and Paul Seymour is coming in.”

The acquisition of Seymour from Buffalo indicated to Grossman that Coach Noll’s idea of a tight end is a 240-pound bruiser who runs over people after catching a pass and who destroys defensive ends in blocking situations.

Many believed that if Seymour had passed his physical, Grossman would not have been around to become a hero in the Steelers drive to the Super Bowl.

As he points out, the Steelers did take two tight ends in the draft. “They’ve had a lot of competition here for me,” he acknowledged, “but I’ve always been confident of my skills. If they weren’t good enough to be used here, then they could be used somewhere else.

Some people say I can’t block. Those are people who think if you’re not a great blocker you’re not any good at all. There’s something in between. My blocking isn’t great, but it’s not bad. I contributed as much to our running game as anyone else. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here.

They say I’m too small, too slow and too weak. But I’m like the guy in the decathlon who doesn’t win any individual events, but who ends up winning the whole thing.

I just put everything together and come out with a reasonable excuse for a football player.”

Grossman is a lot more than a reasonable football player. He happens to be a fine tight end who just happens to play behind a potentially great tight end.

Sam Davis: Steeler Portrait of Stability

Soon after the Steelers won Super Bowl XIII, Terry Bradshaw was presented with a portrait of himself. He liked it so much that he commissioned portraits of the Steelers starting offensive line by the same artist. It was Bradshaw’s thank you to the players who helped him win the MVP.

Steelers offensive captain Sam Davis said, “It’s a warm thing on Terry’s behalf. It’s one of the many reasons he’s my hero. It’s what I mean when I tell you we have a special group of guys here.”

I think it’s a little different from what people think we play football and then just go our separate ways. But there’s a team effort, a family effort here. We’re very close.”

As he viewed his portrait, Davis joked, “My complexion looks even smoother on this. He got just the right lighting on my high cheek bones. Nice, huh?” Bradshaw sighed, “He made you better looking than me.”

Davis had an outstanding season in 1978 and played more than any time since 1973 as the Steelers discarded their three-guard system.

As always with the Steelers, there were new candidates in camp seeking jobs at every position. One player making a big impression is Thom Dornbrook, who’s learning to play center, guard and tackle.

“Thom has great attitude and I like that,” said Davis. “He has what it takes to be a good offensive lineman and we’re a unique breed. An offensive lineman has to be strong inwardly as well as outwardly. There are things people don’t see that enter into it. The frustration comes from many directions. You might be in pass protection for instance and nullifying your man.

The man might be slapping you upside your head or grabbing your jersey and doing a lot of illegal things, but you can’t lose your head. You have to keep your proper position and worry about technique, not the other man. Even if he pulls your face mask.

You can’t let it get to you and let it affect you. A defensive man loves to see an offensive lineman frustrated. To keep him off balance you have to have control and confidence and be cool. You want to strike out, but you can’t.”
Davis wasn’t concerned about Dornbrook taking his job. “We have a different brand of athlete on this team.

There’s nobody that’s concerned about whether they’re going to get cut. When you start worrying about that, you’re not a championship player and you’re not a championship team.

Our veterans will help the new guys. They are going to make us a better team. If it were a greedy type situation, you’d tell yourself to lighten up and not help a guy so much. But that’s not the case. The Steelers did a helluva job of finding the kind of people we have.”


Rocky not looking to retire

Weary after the wear and tear of a long season, Rocky Bleier indicated that 1979 would be his final year. “I don’t remember exactly what I said,” he admitted to reporters, “but at the end of the season, you’re tired, run-down, sore, beat up and you think, ‘oh gawd, can I do it again’”

After resting during the offseason, Rocky knows the answer and is eager for another season. “I don’t have a timetable, but my thought each year is that I’ll play one more season and see what happens.”

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