Anonymous Star: Steelers Tight End Randy Grossman, Part 1

A photo from 1974

by Ivan Cole

Like Ivan’s previous series, this was originally written for a now-defunct publication. Being as it is rather long even by our standards it has been divided into three parts. Part 1 gives you the background of Randy Grossman and his connection with Ivan Cole.

I’m crossing the Highland Park Bridge in Pittsburgh to reconnect with an old college football teammate.  It is an unseasonably cold, gray, wet day even for Pittsburgh. Sort of like the kind of day when Bradshaw would pick apart opposing secondaries which were unable to cover Swann and Stallworth even on a dry field, let alone a wet one. Weather is so often a factor at home games in the city where I was born and raised. Ice brings to mind the Steelers pummeling the Houston Oilers in the playoffs. Some snowy days take you back to Brian Urlacher being run over by a Bus. Today is Bradshaw and Franco in the rain.

I park behind a nondescript building a couple of blocks from the base of the Highland Park Bridge in Aspinwall, along the north shore of the Allegheny River. And while I have never been to this place, I quickly realize that I am only about two miles as the crow flies from where I grew up. Of course, never having been a crow, navigating this part of Pittsburgh proves to be a more complicated task – a mix of horizontal and vertical challenges that make the journey more formidable than it might seem at first glance.

It’s all hills and valleys, streams and rivers in this part of town.  All of this reflects the complexity of my task. I am shining a light on one of the most successful professional football players to have played the game in two generations. Yet the most common response I have received except from a handful of older Steelers fans is: “Who is Randy Grossman?”

It’s raining harder as I arrive at what I think is the location of Grossman’s office. It would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. Accustomed to the more sprawling office complexes of northern Virginia, it took me a moment or two to identify the unassuming space where Randy conducted his work as a financial counselor.

I enter the spacious reception area, relieved to be out of the rain. His receptionist Deborah eyes me somewhat suspiciously as rain makes its way off my jacket and onto her floor. I disarmingly introduce myself and mention that Randy is expecting me. We relax in a matter of seconds and lapse into an easy, almost family-like conversation. This isn’t uncommon for native Burghers, even complete strangers.   Like me, Deborah had been part of the Diaspora. After leaving Pittsburgh years ago for sunny skies in Florida, she had made her way back home to Pittsburgh in recent years. We talk about how just how much Pittsburgh has changed. And about how the city has stayed the same. Family talk.

When Randy emerges from his office, I suffer the same disorientation that anyone attending a 40th class reunion might feel. It had been nearly that long since we had last seen each other. A distinguished looking middle aged gentleman, Grossman has close cropped gray hair and is nicely dressed. As we shake hands, I wonder what I look like to him.


A Rarefied Fraternity

Of the tens of thousands of players who have suited up since the advent of the Super Bowl era, only a relatively small group have won a Super Bowl ring. Fewer still have two, while only a select handful can lay claim to three.  Randy Grossman owns four.

Let’s put that achievement into context. Grossman is one of just 32 players in NFL history with four rings. Only one, Charles Haley has more than four (five) as a player only. Of this elite fraternity of champions, 21 are Steelers. Nonetheless, the roster of Steelers who played during the team’s dynastic era of the ’70s without four rings is long. It includes some of the franchise’s most celebrated heroes – Andy Russell, Ray Mansfield, Ernie Holmes, Glen Edwards, Ron Shanklin, Frank Lewis, Robin Cole and Sidney Thornton to name just a few.

Of all currently active players, only Adam Vinatieri (Patriots and Colts) has four rings. And if I haven’t beaten the issue to death already; ‘superstars’ such as Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp, Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk all have just one, and are grateful. John Elway, Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Lawrence Taylor and Joey Porter have two. Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Jerry Rice and Steve Young have three. Let’s not mention the long list of greats who never were fortunate enough to hoist a Lombardi Trophy.

Grossman’s name may not be familiar to every last member of Steeler Nation – particularly younger fans – but hopefully all find my conversation with him about the Game both then and now to be insightful and interesting. It was certainly a pleasure for me to spend time with a man whose NFL career spanned the Steelers’ entire Super Bowl run. And I can safely say that I won’t have the opportunity to spend an afternoon sharing stories and talking football with a four-time Super Bowl champion again anytime soon.

An Intersection

In the spirit of full disclosure, there was one more reason I tracked down Grossman to talk about his decorated but unheralded career with the Steelers: Our lives intersected forty years ago in 1970.  I left my hometown of Pittsburgh that summer and headed east across the state to begin college at Temple University in Philadelphia.  I was there to get an education, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up my dream of playing football. When I suffered an injury midway through my senior season of high school, college coaches stopped showing up at my games and sending me recruiting letters. The whole process left me unsure of how good I could be, but my first objective upon arriving in Philadelphia was to push myself to see if I could walk on to the team at Temple and compete on the college level. 

At that time freshmen were not eligible to play on the varsity team in sports such as football. The program had just recently joined the ranks of Division I and was experiencing some natural growing pains as it tried to catch up and keep pace with established football programs. Temple had hired Wayne Hardin, a well known, successful coach who brought in a talented and deep recruiting class. One of Hardin’s prize recruits was a high profile tight end from the Philly suburbs by the name of Randy Grossman.

My experience that fall was illuminating. I discovered I could raise my play to a much higher level than I ever could have imagined. I steadily ascended the defensive line depth chart, and quickly felt just as part of the squad as my new friends and teammates with full scholarships. The team seemed united in trying to find our bearings as first year students, and in our disdain for our freshman team head coach.

I played significant minutes in our first game, including during crunch time with the game in the balance. A shoulder injury in our next practice derailed my season and would eventually be complicit in ending the dream altogether. For good this time. Nonetheless, I didn’t miss a practice and continued to travel to the games. It was tough not being able to take the field with my teammates on game days, but I still loved the camaraderie and brotherhood that went with being part of the team.

Early Memories

I’ll never forget my freshman year at Temple for many reasons, but there are two primary memories about Randy that I have from that year.  The first was his remarkable performance in a 22-21 victory over arch-rival Delaware. Grossman was quarterback Marty Ginestra’s (another Western Pa. player from Clairton) favorite target during two length of the field scoring drives in the fourth quarter that erased a two touchdown deficit. I know I wasn’t alone in thinking that he was destined to much bigger things than freshman team stardom. I also recall Grossman being a bright, affable guy with a well honed sense of irony. 

After the conclusion of our freshman year in the late spring of ’71,  it was pretty much an express lane to college stardom for Randy. At the same time, my path to gridiron greatness had been derailed by yet another debilitating injury. By his senior year, Grossman had earned third team All America honors after the Owls, a Division III team just a few short seasons ago, posted an impressive 9-1 record. Then after enduring the disappointment of not being drafted in 1974, he signed a free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Despite his relatively humble football origins and pedigree, Grossman ended up being part of the greatest rookie class if NFL history in 1974. Four of Grossman’s rookie teammates went on to have Hall of Fame careers – an unprecedented accomplishment in talent evaluation that has yet to be matched 36 years later. This marked the beginning of an eight year career that would encompass six playoff appearances, five conference championship games and four Super Bowl victories. Fewer than three dozen men have actually played on four Super Bowl winning teams, and Grossman is one of that select group, even though no team deemed him draft-worthy because he was either too small, too slow, or too this or too that.

“Never One of the Superstars”

Dan Rooney, while still serving as team President, described Grossman as, “one of those guys who was never viewed as one of the superstars, but he did everything you asked him. He caught the big touchdown pass in the Super Bowl (Super Bowl X). He was one of those guys who got you the first down when he would go in and play. He was just a real good competitor who really proved his value. He was just a good team man.”

Though his touchdown catch in SB X was certainly a high point, (he scored as many points as game MVP Lynn Swann), his best year with the team was probably 1978. He moved into the starting lineup after Bennie Cunningham suffered a knee injury during the sixth game of the year. Grossman’s 37 receptions in 1978 were the most by a Steelers tight end in twelve years. More significantly, he started in what many still consider to be one of the great championship games of all time, Super Bowl XIII.

Super Bowl XIII (Steelers vs. Cowboys) marked the first time that two organizations would meet in the Common Era having already achieved multiple SB championships. It was the first Super Bowl rematch (There have been three other such games since; Redskins vs. Dolphins, Bengals vs. 49ers, and Cowboys vs. Bills). The winner would be the first three time winner of the Lombardi Trophy and would be likely to be crowned team of the decade.

Each roster was stocked with big name superstars. Grossman’s presence in the starting lineup was the subject of some controversy in the days leading up to the big game. Cowboys linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, in typical trash talking provocateur, declared that Grossman was a player that you would only use if someone had died.  In case you had forgotten, it was Henderson who famously accused Terry Bradshaw of being so dumb that he couldn’t spell C-A-T if he was spotted the ‘C’ and the ‘T’.

The game lived up to its hype. Grossman had a solid performance with three receptions as the Steelers prevailed 35-31. Henderson cried like a baby in the Cowboys locker room. The fine NFL Films series America’s Game, which tells Super Bowl stories with on camera commentary from three or four of the key contributors from each team, featured Joe Greene, Rocky Bleier, Mel Blount and Randy Grossman in its episode about the classic 1978 title game.

Obviously, my college connection with Grossman, and in turn, his connection with my hometown team, were certainly reasons enough to find his story personally intriguing. My feeling that his story had broad and lasting value was based upon a brief conversation we had after he had joined the Steelers. Our paths crossed on Temple’s main campus in June following the Steelers first Super Bowl victory. He was attending summer school finishing up his bachelor’s degree. I was an administrator, and a graduate student.

Most of our brief conversation has been lost to the fog of time, but what did stay fresh in my mind to this day were his comments about how the glamor of the game goes away quickly as it becomes a struggle to just keep your job. At the time, his comments struck me as odd because in a very real sense, Randy was living out what so many Western Pennsylvania kids fantasize about growing up – someday playing for the hometown team (and winning multiple championships at that!). Over time, his comments resonated with me more and more as I thought back on my own college experience; that all the talk about the ‘pageantry’ of the college game (as the drum line played in the background) was partly a fabrication designed to distract you from the cold blooded business that it was.

It was that level of perspective on several topics related to his experiences with the Steelers and the Game I was hoping to capture as we sat down that cold, wet morning, face to face for the first time in 35 years.

Part 2 continues with the interview.

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