On the Steelers: Chuck Noll's is a story worth telling

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At training camp in 1990 or '91, Chuck Noll and I were discussing a book of some sort when I asked him if he would ever write an autobiography. "Never," he said with conviction. He implied he would never help anyone else write a biography of him, either. Noll retired after the 1991 season, and 21 years later, he has been true to his word. However, it has not stopped another writer from trying. Michael MacCambridge, author of the acclaimed "America's Game" about the NFL in 2004, has been interviewing people for a proposed biography on Noll.

It's about time someone writes one. Whether Noll likes it or not, his story should be told in book form. Noll likely won't assist the author because he may not be able to even if he had changed his mind.

Noll, who turned 80 this year, has not been in good shape for a number of years. Friends thought he was near death almost two years ago before he made a remarkable recovery. In addition to back and heart problems, Noll has a form of dementia and has contact only with close friends. Even Tony Dungy, who played for Noll and was made his defensive coordinator, could not reach his old coach as Dungy prepared his Indianapolis Colts for the 2007 Super Bowl. He wanted to thank Noll, Dungy told me.

Noll appeared briefly at Heinz Field during the Steelers' 75th 2007 anniversary celebration, but he did not attend the gala the Steelers threw at the convention center that year. He also did not appear at ceremonies for the naming of Chuck Noll Field at Saint Vincent College, nor when they named the street for him outside of Heinz Field.

Yet former Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer told me last year that he recently had spent time with Noll in Florida, and his old boss seemed fine.

MacCambridge should do a good job on Noll's biography without the subject's help.

Now onto some books already published and out recently:

The Steelers Encyclopedia

By Chuck Finder

I can attest to the fact that this former Post-Gazette sports writer is a meticulous researcher and interviewer, and you will find both in this coffee-table tome. Finder interviewed about 90 people and writes much of it in vignette form. The book also contains many old photos.

The stories, though, are its backbone, and Finder always has been a good storyteller. The tale of Johnny Unitas getting cut by the Steelers, told many times, is seen through the eyes of many, including the Rooney brothers who pleaded with their father, Art, to keep him. The Rooney boys caught passes from Unitas, pictured at left, in training camp. In 1962, long after he carved out his reputation with the Colts, Unitas found himself playing against the Steelers in an exhibition game in Jacksonville, Fla.

"I went under the stands" said Pat Rooney, one of Art's five sons, "and Unitas was warming up there. He buzzed a pass right past my ear."

Said Unitas to Rooney: "Aren't you going to say hello to me?"

Finder also interviewed people about Dave Smith's infamous "spike" of the ball on a long reception -- a spike that came yards before he crossed the goal line. It occurred on "Monday Night Football" in Kansas City in 1971, except it wasn't a spike. Smith, an eighth-round draft pick in 1970 who continued to play basketball for IUP that year after he was drafted in January, was simply doing what many players do today -- hold the ball aloft as he broke into the clear near the goal line. The ball, though, slipped out of Smith's hands and rolled through the end zone for a touchback instead of a touchdown.

You can find the book in all local bookstores and all the other favorite spots like Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Also, Temple.edu/tempress.

Memory Lane, Volume 2

By George Von Benko

Von Benko, longtime Pittsburgh area media member and, yes, personality, is out with his second book. Like the book he wrote last year, Von Benko has published a collection of stories he has written though the years, mostly about famous athletes and teams from Fayette County. Among those he features is Harry "Flash" Clarke of Uniontown. He was the only player to score two touchdowns in the famed 1940 NFL Championship game, when the Chicago Bears beat the Washington Redskins, 73-0. You can find the book in the usual spots, or go to www.fayettecountysportshalloffame.com.

Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book

Not a book about the Steelers, but many of them are in it since it's titled The Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book. Trying to describe it won't do it justice because the old photos are the stars, like the one of Harry Mason playing in the first indoor pro football game Dec. 28, 1902, New York vs. Syracuse. Mason wears a headgear that can only be described as oversized earmuffs held together by a jock strap-looking thing that covers the nose.

There's also the advertisement from the official program of the Chicago Bears of 1936 that touts "Next Sunday, Oct. 18th, Chicago Bears vs. Pittsburgh Pirates, With the League Leading Forward Passer Ed Matesic, Who has Completed 18 Out of 34 Forward Passes, For an Average of 52 per cent."

There's the original radio-receiver helmet, no not from 1994, but from the Cleveland Browns in '56 when coach Paul Brown fitted quarterback George Ratterman with one. It worked, but, after three games, the NFL outlawed it and did not bring it back until 38 years later.

You can find it in stores or order one at http://www.profootballhof.com/50th-anniversary-book/

Best of Rivals

By Adam Lazarus

Here's another pro football book with a Pittsburgh connection because it features Monongahela native Joe Montana -- a Ringgold High School graduate -- and Steve Young. Lazarus details the great quarterback controversy of the late '80s and early '90s when two future Hall of Famers were 1-2 on the depth chart of the San Francisco 49ers.

Imagine Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady on the same team. That's pretty much what it was like with the 49ers back then. Perhaps the closest thing in the modern game was Philip Rivers and Drew Brees in San Diego or Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay.



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