Anonymous Star: Steelers Tight End Randy Grossman, Part 2
by Ivan Cole
You can read Part 1, which gives the common background between Grossman and Cole, here.
It was [Grossman’s] 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.
Ivan Cole: When was it that you realized that you could compete on an elite level?
Randy Grossman: Every sport has its infrastructure where kids progress from level to level. It doesn’t matter if it’s swimming or football. That’s why kids stop playing when they hit the wall and all of the sudden they aren’t starting any more. They aren’t progressing. For me at every level from middle school through high school I was able to get over the bar.
By college I began to feel really confident that I was as good as there was and that my performance would at some degree indicate that. Until you get close to hitting that wall where you are not as competitive, you have this belief to your core that ‘I can make it.’ So I never felt that I couldn’t play at the next level. In college I was excited about getting to the next level, the professional level. You don’t have the reality of what it takes ‘til you get there on the first, second or third day.
I was very disappointed that I wasn’t drafted. It was even more demoralizing in ’74. There weren’t only seven rounds. There were fewer teams, but a lot of rounds. So, I was disappointed. I thought I had evidenced my ability. I signed the next day after the draft. The Steelers had a representative in Philadelphia. I met him the next day, I signed the next day.
When I got here, the first day of training camp, it was an unusual situation because there was a strike. There were very few veterans there. It was like an all star camp; rookies, draftees, free agents and it was seriously for real. I had played in one college all star game, but there wasn’t the intensity even though you were playing against all stars. There wasn’t the intensity of making a team.
I was up against a kid from Boston University. He was actually a corner and I’m a tight end having to go against this kid. I’m usually matched up against a safety. I ran a good route. At the previous level, the college level I would have been open. He was all over me. And the light went off, ‘you’re gonna have step it up to the next level. You’ve got to hit another gear or you’re going to be history. Reality hit fast and I realized I had to do even better than I thought I had to do. But I had the capacity to do that. I had the reserve that I didn’t know I had in order to do that. But I never thought that I didn’t have the capacity to do that.
IC: While watching you through college it occurred to me that you lacked the ’look’ of an NFL tight end. Might that be part of the reason that you weren’t drafted?
RG: Oh, I had the look. I had the big hair, the mustache. I just didn’t have the size. To some degree I was close to the edge though. I was definitely too small for my position. I did not have great speed, but I had adequate speed for my position. But no, obviously I wasn’t drafted. So as people were going through their criteria, I wasn’t meeting their criteria. Performance wise I met the criteria, but package wise I didn’t meet the criteria.
IC: Did you find with the strike that you had the opportunity to get looked at a little more?
RG: Well, you know, coming out of college, you’re a kid. You’re young, you’re dumb, you don’t really know what’s going on. So I didn’t have any thoughts; ‘well it’s a strike year I’ll have a better opportunity’. I didn’t even know what the opportunity was. I didn’t know what it took. I didn’t know what practices were like, what travel was like, what competing on that level was like. It’s all different.
In hindsight I realized that the strike made a big difference making the team. But there were a lot of things that went into it. That was one of the things. Another thing was the structure of the preseason back then. The preseason was six games long. So, when you put that together with the veterans being out for four to five weeks that gave the rookies a great opportunity to evidence what they could do. They got a lot of repetitions.
Coupling that with the fact that the Steelers had drafted one tight end in the fourth round but they didn’t pick anyone higher, that was good. You gotta be good, but you gotta be lucky too. You gotta be at the right place. The Steelers organization was a performance based organization. They were not enamored with a fixation on the “package”. That made a big difference.
Chuck Noll being a small guard when he played didn’t have a problem with someone who didn’t fit the mold. He didn’t fit the mold. He wanted to see what someone could do. That was a great benefit coming to Pittsburgh. Whereas if the Cowboys had contacted me or the Kansas City Chiefs at that time had contacted me they were much, much more focused on the package. They just had a different mindset. You had to fit a mold before you got a serious look. I was fortunate coming to Pittsburgh and the coaching staff here.
[Not discussed during the interview, but certainly worth remembering is that this was the famous 1974 draft class that included Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. And in addition to Grossman the group included a free agent by the name of Donnie Shell.]
IC: I had the opportunity to talk to you a couple of times after you began your NFL career. That was 35 years ago, but there were one or two things I remembered over the years. One was that you mentioned that the glamor of job went away quickly.
RG: Well, things are more glamorous now. But it was work and it was real hard work. I mean it was a real, real competitive workplace. It was serious work, cutthroat work. You get a lot more money to be glamorous now. They date super models now.
IC: That’s true, but even so, they’ll be talking about your group and bringing you back until the last one of you are in the grave.
RG: That’s a big joke. Mike Wagner often laughs, ‘I can see it now. I can see them wheeling us all out in our wheelchairs for the 50th and the 75th reunions.’ But it was a special time here in Pittsburgh. It was a wrinkle in time where all the pieces just came together. And everyone tries to engineer it, but there’s a lot of luck that goes into it. You can’t just engineer an outcome. It’s not like putting someone on the moon—you just follow the formulas and you’re there. You can be right on and do everything correctly, and then the ball just bounces a funny way. So, it was just an unusual time.
It was also an unusual time for the NFL. That was the explosive takeoff of the NFL. The NFL blasted past Major League Baseball. It was just the right time in history for the NFL. The first year (the Steelers won the Super Bowl) was only nine years after the merger. So you had the dynamics of the AFL and the NFL together. You had the explosion of media on television. People look back on Joe Namath and the excitement that he brought to the league, the excitement that the AFL brought to the league as a whole. It was just a real fertile time for the NFL. So, good luck again.
IC: In addition to the physical talent that people brought to the table, was there anything else special about how you got along as a team?
RG: It’s like a chicken and an egg comparison. Which comes first? Teams that don’t do well have dissension. Teams that do well don’t have dissension. Unless T.O. is on the team [laughter]. The media plays a great part. The game is entertainment. It’s no different than ballet. We’re providing entertainment.
I think the guys got [along] together so well because we had so much success. If we weren’t winning we would have had a potential classic scenario for dissension because we had two premier quarterbacks on the team in Joe Gilliam and Terry Bradshaw. If we hadn’t been winning Pittsburgh would have gone through a classic quarterback controversy. But when you win, people can’t piss and moan too much. That was the predicament Joe Gilliam found himself in that first year, 1974. He crossed the picket line. He actually came in. We had great success with Joe. We won all of our preseason games. We won all our regular season games with Joe as a starter.*
[Actually, Gilliam’s record when he was replaced was 4-1-1, after a humiliating shutout loss to the Raiders when he repeatedly threw into double and triple coverage; still a very robust performance overall.]
He only got benched after a tie game in Denver where the offense scored 35 points. Bradshaw comes in, he had been the previous starter, and we continued to do well. But had we faltered and not done so well maybe there wouldn’t have been that cohesion. You would have had some people in the locker room who would have wanted Joe to play and some people who wanted Terry to play. But we’re winning and you’re not going to rock the boat. The business was structured such that Joe was stuck here. He couldn’t get out. Joe imploded. But if Bradshaw had stumbled there would have been dissension.
[If anything Grossman may have understated the explosive potential of this situation. The Steelers had attracted national news attention with their decision to name Gilliam as their starting quarterback as, once again, the Rooneys proved to be well ahead of the curve in terms of their treatment of minorities. ‘Jefferson Street Joe’ played well, but remained a controversial choice for many fans. Bradshaw had many detractors as well. Entering his fifth season he had yet to fulfill his potential. Bradshaw certainly had the potential to implode as well if the decisions had gone against him.]
Another thing is that we were insulated here in Pittsburgh. If we had been in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles…One of the things that Noll had a semi-mantra about was that when we’re not doing well the reason is because of distractions. We’re not focused on what we are supposed to do. Well, there are a lot more distractions in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, big city markets where celebrity means more than it means in Pittsburgh.
I think its one of the reasons that Green Bay was so successful before Pittsburgh. They didn’t have the distraction of being in a major media market. Players on those teams weren’t getting the celebrity status that players in other cities were getting. That puts a chip on their shoulders. That’s a major motivator. So, it’s a chicken and the egg kind of deal. Which comes first—the continuity of the team or success? Well, they come together.
Part 3 focuses on Chuck Noll and on Grossman’s “life after football.”