The Good Guys – Tight Ends and Centers

via Post-Gazette/ UPI: Steve Yakub photo

In this edition of “The Good Guys,” I choose my favorite tight ends and centers.  While these positions don’t exactly exude glamour, this installment features four dedicated and hardworking guys who I admire.

TIGHT ENDS

No. 2.  Randy Grossman

This pick was more difficult than most.  I always liked Randy Grossman.  It wasn’t the out and out Steeler bromance I have with Lambert and Deebo (hey, if your name is Roxanna, you can handle the heat), but I liked him well enough. Although he was primarily a backup to Benny Cunningham, his great hands made him a solid contributor to the Super Bowl teams of the 1970s.  Grossman played eight seasons, from 1974 to 1981.  His most celebrated play was catching a touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw in Super Bowl X against the Cowboys. I selected Randy as my backup tight end, however, based on more arbitrary and esoteric criteria.

Grossman was an undrafted free agent in the days when undrafted really meant something. During the seventeen rounds of the 1973 NFL draft, 442 players were chosen, but Grossman was not among them.  The Steelers signed him the day after the draft for $15,000, the rookie minimum salary.  This year, the rookie minimum is $435,000.

The odds of Randy making the Steelers were long indeed.  It took a great deal of hard work to just make the team, much less stick around for eight seasons.  Not bad for a 218 pound tight end!

I like guys with a good nickname.  Grossman was “the Rabbi,” courtesy of defensive tackle, Dwight White.  According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article, White, who bestowed nicknames upon a number of teammates, explained, “he and I were locker neighbors and, yeah, what are you gonna call a white kid from Philadelphia who’s Jewish? Sparky?”

Grossman clinched his spot on the Good Guys by virtue of the fact is that he played ball at Temple with Going Deep’s own Ivan Cole.  Thus, Grossman is practically family here. Ivan’s excellent in-depth article and interview with Randy is in three parts and can be read here.  In Ivan’s interview, Randy’s use of “functioning Neanderthals” to describe the type of player sought by the NFL is priceless.

I love underdogs and long shots. Randy Grossman was both.  His is the type of success story which fuels my love for pro football.

No. 1.   Heeeeeeeaaaaaattttttttthhhh
This was a no brainer.  He Has no nickname.  An elongated first name, no matter how many times it’s chanted by thousands (actually, millions) of people, is really not a nickname.  If he did have a nickname, it would probably be Vanilla, or  . . . Bob.

That is the charm of Heath Miller.  No frills and no drama.  He is the ultimate professional. A great blocker, a great pass catcher, and an absolutely clutch receiver.   The Steelers’ number one pick in the 2005 draft quietly does whatever is asked, whatever is needed.  He’s been to three Super Bowls, winning twice.

He has played a vital role in the success of the team over the past ten years.  Forget the clutch catches and all the great blocks which sprung the Bus, Willie Parker, Le’veon Bell and others.  Are you confident that Big Ben would have survived the re-building of the offensive line without Heath helping out Max Starks, Trai Essex, Mike Adams, Flozell Adams, Jonathan Scott (remember Jonathan Freaking Scott?)?.  Do we have a guess how many more passes he might have caught if he wasn’t, in essence, the sixth offensive lineman for those three or four years?  I’d say zero, because Ben is extremely inaccurate when a 320 pound defender lying on top of him.

Seriously, we’ll never know.  We don’t really need to know.  Heath does what he’s asked without complaint and does it exceedingly well.  Additionally, he is totally humble and one of the nicest Steeler players as attested to in Rebecca’s piece, Humility and How I Got It: Brown, Bryant and the Evolution of “Humble.”. Btw, best title ever.

When 83 hangs it up, it will be a cold day in Pittsburgh.  It will be a cold day in Miami too, if you’re a Steeler fan. We’ve had this gentleman for ten seasons and I hope we get a few more.  This is one Good Guy who is the very best Steeler to play his position. That first round pick in 2005 –pretty good!

CENTERS

No. 2.  Ray Mansfield
This is toughie.  I knew who my number one center was.  Number two is really hard.  There’s Dermontii Dawson, Hall of Famer.  Jeff Hartings, good guy, nice player. You got Maurkice Pouncey, Pro Bowler.  However, I’m going to go deep and pick the Ranger, Ray Mansfield.

Ray was drafted in the second round 1963 by the Philadelphia Eagles.  He joined the Steelers in 1964, having been claimed on waivers from the Eagles for $100.
Mansfield played defensive tackle for two years, before being switched to offense. He became the starting center in 1966 and held the job for the next ten years, twice Selected for the Pro Bowl.  Ray’s replacement was Hall of Famer, Mike Webster.

The Ranger’s best friend on the Steelers was Andy Russell.  Mansfield and Russell were very close; two of only five players from Chuck Noll’s first team who survived Noll’s purge,  playing on first Super Bowl championship team five years later.  Except for punter Bobby Walden, they were the two oldest players to play for the Steelers in that first Super Bowl.

Ray was an old school tough guy.  Coarse in his speech and prodigious in his drinking, Mansfield would often lead the way to the 19th Hole, the bar closest to St. Vincent College, where the Steelers still hold training camp.  Ray estimated he drank about fifteen beers a day during camp. I guess he was trying to stay hydrated.

The Ranger was someone my dad would have called a “character.”  He was  known for his humor and pretty much a wild man.  When Joe Greene first came to camp, Ray, one of the Steelers’ toughest players at that time, stepped forward in the one-on-one drill, bragging he’d teach the rookie a lesson.  Mean Joe destroyed Mansfield, duly impressing his new teammates.

Ray died at age 55, hiking with his son in the Grand Canyon.  According to an article in the Grand Canyon Explorer, due to a bum ankle, Mansfield was having trouble keeping up.  He told his son and a friend to go on ahead and he’d catch up at the campsite.  Ray never made it, suffering a fatal heart attack.  He was found the next day, with his back against a large rock, facing a beautiful vista where the sun would have set the previous evening.  In his hand was one of his ever-present cigars.

Andy Russell went out to the Grand Canyon to help Ray’s son bring him home.  According to those at the funeral, Andy gave a moving eulogy at Ray’s sendoff. Fittingly, he was buried with one of those ever-present cigars.

I only remember the Ranger in the last few years of his career.  He remains one of my favorites, old school all the way. He still holds the Steeler record for consecutive games played; 182.

The just don’t make ’em like that any more.

(The Ray Mansfield Wikipedia page, and the books “Their Life’s Work,” by Gary M. Pomerantz and “About Three Bricks Shy of a Load,” by Roy Blount, Jr. were used as sources for this article).

No. 1  Mike Webster

My favorite center couldn’t be anyone else.  Iron Mike Webster is the best center to ever play in the NFL.  He played an incredible 17 years, the first 15 with the Steelers.  He is second to Ray Mansfield in consecutive games played by a Steeler. During one stretch, Webbie played every offensive snap for six years.  Mike earned four  Super Bowl rings.

Mike was born in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, growing up on a potato farm.  Obsessed with becoming the best he could be, he became a workout fanatic.  When he came his first training camp, he weighed 225 pounds, small even by 1974 standards.  Yet, Webster handled much larger men with ease with mythical strength and perfect technique.

Webbie was selected all-pro nine times, a tribute not only to his talent, but to his obsessive conditioning and dedication in the weight room, where he was a legend. Once, upon his discharge from the hospital for knee surgery, Mike went directly to the team complex to lift.

He had a great sense of humor and was beloved by his family and teammates.  Tragically, the years of repeated head trauma playing football caused depression, dementia and marked personality changes.  Even before retiring from the game, he began a steep descent into confusion, poverty, and divorce

Mike Webster became trapped in a muddled hell due to to the ravages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  His pride and the CTE made him unable to accept help from his former teammates, who repeatedly tried to intervene.

That Mike Webster is remembered more than his suffering and homelessness than for the good man and great player he was is dispiriting. Instead of joy, his Hall of Fame induction in 1997 brought sadness, as Iron Mike speech was erratic and rambling.

Mike died in 2002.  Most of his teammates from the Super Bowl teams were at his funeral.  So was his ex-wife, Pam, and his children.  Webster was only 50 years old.  Only his untimely death quelled the demons spawned by CTE.

The word “great” is one of most overused in sport.  Applied to Mike, it is inadequate.  He was a great man, a constant teammate and a center with no peer.  He loved the game so much, but it broke him and killed him.  I’m quite sure he never regretted one minute of his seventeen years on the field, even though a shorter career may have limited his suffering.  I hope that his legacy will be better protection for players at all levels and humane treatment by the NFL of those who incurred traumatic brain injuries playing the game.

It’s too late for Iron Mike.  The NFL in concert with the NFL Players Association must act now, before the growing list of victims gets any longer.

The entire Mike Webster story can not be told here. My hope is that players and fans will demand better protection and fair treatment for players suffering head injuries.  Many Going Deep regulars have voiced their concern on this issue.  I hope they and others will take the time to continue learn about the problem and use their voices to push for reforms.

The following sources were used for background in this piece:  Post-Gazette – A life off-center:  Mike Webster struggles; Wikipedia – Mike Webster; Their Life’s Work – Gary M. Pomerantz.

To learn more about Mike Webster’s case and CTE, the following sites are highly informative: PBS – League of Denial and GQ – Concussions in the NFL.

2 comments

  • These are wonderful. Like the Roxanna Firehall/Little Darling Football Jamboree, they remind me why I like not just football, but also other football fans. I would be bereft if you stopped writing these, although I don’t have much to say.

    I’m guessing there are so few comments because you’ve left us with nothing to do but admire–your appreciation which is all too rare in these days of internet complainers and critics, and your attention to the details of these men’s lives and careers. Thank you. I knew some of this for some of these people, but not all of it and not all of them. My spotty fandom is missing a few years (decades?) when I was no longer a child growing up in western PA and hadn’t yet realized how much I cared, As a lazy sod, I’m also learning to rely on Rebecca for real analysis, you for history (and downright fun–please take another trip–there are Trader Joe’s everywhere now and some of them in CA are 2 stories!) and Ivan for an odd mixture of common sense and deep philosophical issues. This small safe place on the web has become a pleasure I indulge much more often than I comment. Again, thank you.

    Earthling the Anonymous

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Earthling for your kind words and time to comment. As a fledgling writer, your words are appreciated.This site is truly a blessing. Little Darlin’ is loving the info on Trader Joe’s which will no doubt hasten a trip to California.

      You should comment more. You are very wise. 🙂

      Like

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