Elbie Nickel did not become a household name in professional football merely because he helped produce the second most famous play in Steelers history.
The play occurred before television instant replay, it did not help the sorry Steelers' playoff chances in 1954 and it never acquired a catchy nickname.
Yet it is the only play that has held a prominent spot in the Steelers' offices, with a depiction of it hanging on a wall first at Three Rivers Stadium and now at their UPMC facility on the South Side. It was immortalized in a large X-and-O tapestry that shows Mr. Nickel as the receiver catching a long pass from Jim Finks that helped beat the Philadelphia Eagles at Forbes Field.
"He was part of one of the most famous plays we ever had, probably the second most famous after the Immaculate Reception," Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said yesterday. "We were playing the Eagles, and the Eagles had beaten us in a very controversial game earlier that season in Philadelphia where they broke Jim Finks' jaw."
Mr. Nickel, considered the best tight end in Steelers history by Rooney, died Tuesday of Alzheimer's disease near his home in Chillicothe, Ohio. He was 84.
Mr. Nickel was named the Steelers' best tight end when they picked their 50th anniversary team in 1982. He played for the Steelers from 1947 through 1957, served as their captain, was voted their MVP and made three Pro Bowl teams. His team record of 62 receptions in 1953 stood for 16 years. His 329 career receptions -- a team record until Lynn Swann surpassed it -- ranked fifth in Steelers history, the most by any of their tight ends.
He was a triple-sport star at the University of Cincinnati -- end on the football team, a top scorer on the basketball team and a pitcher and outfielder in baseball. His education was put on hold by the start of World War II, where the man known as "Nick the Slick" and later merely "Elbows" served in the Army.
He signed a contract with the Steelers, who drafted him on the 15th round in 1947, spurning an opportunity with baseball's Cincinnati Reds.
His best pro game, as detailed in author Jim Wexell's book Men of Steel last year, came in the last game of 1952. He caught 10 passes for 202 yards against Hall of Famer Dick "Night Train" Lane and the rest of the Rams' secondary.
"We had a picture that hung up in the basement that we'd joke back and forth about all the time," his son, Joe Nickel, told Wexell. "He was catching a pass over "Night Train" Lane. He had him beat by three or four steps."
Said Dan Rooney, "Elbie was a great player, a better player than people really know. In those days, there wasn't a position called tight end, but he really was a tight end. He could block, and he caught the tough passes over the middle."
Mr. Nickel also was a favorite of Dan's father, Art Rooney Sr., the founder of the franchise who also was a great horse player. "Elbie was a good friend of my father's, and he used to go to the Kentucky Derby with him every year," Dan Rooney said. "Elbie lived in Chillicothe, Ohio, which was on the way, because they drove to Louisville. So on the way, they'd pick up Elbie, and they always had a great time."
Mr. Nickel retired from football to join his father in the construction business in Chillicothe, where he lived in the same home for 50 years. He is survived by a son, Joe Nickel a daughter, Susan Dean; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow in Trinity United Methodist Church, Chillicothe.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .