South Xtra: Beechview guys retire from Steelers sideline

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Ever notice those guys down on the sidelines holding the first-and-10 sticks or the ball/down marker during a football game?

It's a crew of secondary game officials who have come to be known informally as the "chain gang."

Singer Sam Cooke glamorized the term -- albeit for a different type of chain gang -- in a 1960 song of that title, vocalizing "That's the sound of the men working on the chain ... gang." That song referred to the drudgery of a prison crew "working on the highways and byways" and always "wearing a frown."

Well, two former Beechview guys, who "labored" on a chain gang for decades on autumn Sundays (and sometimes Monday nights), recently decided to call it quits. John Gaultieri and Bobby DeMarco, both 75, have decided to hang 'em up.

Of course, their work wasn't so much drudgery as a "labor of love," playing a somewhat behind-the-scenes, but important role in National Football League games.

When the Steelers ended the season with a win against the Browns at Heinz Field on Dec. 29, it signaled the final chapter in their memorable careers.

Although DeMarco was on the chain gang 25 years, he'd seen it all with the Steelers over 48 years as a fan of the team.

"From Forbes Field to Pitt Stadium to Three Rivers and then Heinz," he said, reminiscing about coaches, players and even officials with whom he had close contact over that nearly five-decade span.

DeMarco credited the Steelers longtime equipment manager Tony Parisi with introducing him to professional sports in Pittsburgh.

"He was a goalie first for the old Pittsburgh Hornets, then he became the team equipment manager," DeMarco said. "He hired me as an assistant. When the Steelers put him to work, he took me with him."

John Gualtieri, a retired boilmaker and DeMarco's close friend, is the more talkative of the two.

"We've been friends since grade school at St. Catherine in Beechview, then at the now closed South Hills High School."

Time passed only for them to be joined again through Steelers football.

Want to hear some genuine Steelers lore? Sit down at his kitchen table with John Gualtieri, who watched the Steelers at ground level for 40 years, and listen as the stories unfold.

"You can't believe what I saw," followed by "and here's another true story" as his enthusiasm warmed up.

"Those players [the Steelers] taught me loyalty and respect and there was very little arrogance among them," Gualtieri said.

"I thought the Steeler teams of the '70s were the best -- on and off the field. And Rocky Bleier was my favorite player, considering his wartime injuries."

And it wasn't just the players who earned Gaultieri's respect and admiration.

"I told Chuck Noll my feet were freezing before a December game," Gaultieri recalled about one memorable instance he had with the legendary former Steelers coach. "He quickly came back with a pair of wool inserts for my shoes!

"In my estimation, Chuck Noll and assistant coach George Perles were great coaches."

"Another true story," he went on, "years ago, players looked for after-season jobs. Mr. Rooney was friends with my brother, Freddy, who was business manager of the boilermakers. Mr. Rooney asked Freddy to give Jon Kolb a job. He did."

Kolb happily revealed: "I made $17,000 while only making $10,000 as a player for the Steelers."

Gaultieri remembered another moment, pointing out the hazards that could accompany working a job so close to the field of play.

"During a playoff game, Bam Morris was driven out of bounds, right into me! I was surrounded by photographers so there was no place for me to move. I was black and blue for two weeks.

"But Bam apologized [for the hit]."

Then there was that day in December, 1972 that Gaultieri will never forget. The Steelers, long an NFL also-ran, were finally surfacing as a legitimate league power and they were playing the Oakland Raiders in an AFC playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium. It was a game that would rank among the all-time greats in pro football annals.

"The Oakland playoff game was the most memorable," Gaultieri said.

He talked about how Oakland had scored late in the game to take a 7-6 lead and all seemed lost for the home team.

"I was ready to pick up my red marker and stick and head to the tunnel. I though the game was over. I heard the roar of the crowd and saw Franco running past me with the Immaculate Reception."

He and DeMarco could go on all day and into the night recalling tales from spending decades on the sideline. There is no football stadium that could contain the memories and unforgettable experiences of these two former members of the Steelers chain gang.

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