50-year friendship with LeBeau a high for former Steeler
Bill Priatko, of North Huntingdon, holds a replica jersey of Fran Rogel, a fellow former Steeler, from North Braddock.
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Bill Priatko will have a keener interest in Super Bowl XLIII than many Steelers fans.
Mr. Priatko, of North Huntingdon, a former Steelers player, has a bond with Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau that goes back a half-century.
They were roommates during the Cleveland Browns' 1959 preseason training camp in Hiram, Ohio. Over time, they have become close friends and, no doubt, confidants.
They meet in the lobby of the Steelers offices in Heinz Field following every home game.
"It's become a ritual with us," said Mr. Priatko, 77, a North Braddock native.
The two talk over the phone on Monday and Friday nights during the season.
"We never miss a week," Mr. Priatko said. "Monday nights we talk football, critique the last game, Friday nights, we just chat about things other than football, mostly reminiscing about the old days.
"We always sign off before 11 o'clock. Dick calls his mom in London, Ohio, every night at 11 no matter where he may be. She's 95 and a Steelers fan, of course.
Mr. Priatko, a linebacker out of the University of Pittsburgh, played with coach Buddy Parker's 1957 Steelers team. He and his daughter, Debbie, will be in the stands of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., Sunday evening to watch the Steelers face the Arizona Cardinals.
This will be the Steelers' seventh Super Bowl appearance, and Mr. Priatko will have seen all of them personally.
"Once a Steeler, always a Steeler," he said. "You're part of a big family; I always pull for the Steelers, but I'll be rooting harder this time."
But securing an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl championship isn't what fuels his passion.
Rumors are swirling that Mr. LeBeau, 71, may retire if the Steelers prevail.
He is the architect of the zone blitz, a key to the Steelers annually finishing among the NFL's top defensive units. Mr. Priatko is among a legion of supporters who believe that Mr. LeBeau, an outstanding defensive back as a player, deserves to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
If the Steelers assistant does decide to retire, Mr. Priatko fears that Sunday's game might be the last opportunity to convince the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee that Mr. LeBeau is worthy of a niche in Canton, Ohio. A loss to the Cardinals, Mr. Priatko believes, might extend Mr. LeBeau's already incredibly long wait even longer.
"Dick's waited an eternity to make that cherished trip to Canton," Mr. Priatko said. "So much hype is focused on a Super Bowl. It's his opportunity to make his case with the world watching. You never know if the Steelers will get a Super Bowl again.
"Dick's spent 50 years in [the National Football League] as a player and coach. I admire whatever it is that drives him so hard to succeed at his age. The desire to be involved in football is still there. He got a Super Bowl ring when the Steelers won three years ago. I'd like to see him get another one.
"If Dick does decide to retire, the ring just might put the exclamation point on a marvelous football career. I don't know what he'll do. Personally, I just want to see him go out on top."
For Mr. Priatko, it was hard to envision all of this nearly 50 years ago.
"Those six weeks with the rival Browns in August of 1959 will remain cherished memories for Dick and me forever.
"Back then, who could have envisioned a Super Bowl? I don't have regrets that I never got a chance to win a championship ring. It was a different time. Pro football, as we know it now, wasn't even on the radar. I do, though, envy the opportunity players today have."
In 1959, Mr. Priatko was a grizzled veteran trying to catch on with the Browns after seasons with the Steelers and Green Bay Packers.
Mr. LeBeau was a rookie fifth-round draft pick from national champion Ohio State. He was cut in training camp and caught on with the Detroit Lions, where he played from 1959 to 1972.
Mr. Priatko's playing career eventually ended because of knee injuries.
"The NFL didn't have the injured reserve list like now," he recalled. "You got hurt, the team either waived you or signed you up for the taxi squad. I practiced with the team. I was just glad to be getting a paycheck every week.
During those Browns practices, he bumped helmets almost daily with Chuck Noll, an offensive guard in his final season as a player.
Mr. Noll, of course, became the Steelers' head coach in 1969 and guided them to four Super Bowl victories in six years.
"Isn't that ironic," Mr. Priatko said with a smile. "Who would have ever thought I would make lasting friendships with two of the NFL's greatest coaches in Cleveland Browns training camp?"
First Published January 29, 2009 12:00 am