The July sun blazed overhead pulsating in intensity like a 60 watt lightbulb someone had stuck in a 100 watt electrical outlet. Looking out over the nearby Laurel mountains gave no relief, nor inspiration for that matter. The mountains were barely visible due to the humidity hanging in the air. The water vapors were so dense, gills would’ve worked better than lungs. Saint Vincent College was like one giant heat vapor rising from the turf with the backdrop of air conditioned buildings teasing you like a desert mirage.
I was a rookie offensive lineman with the Pittsburgh Steelers, just recently drafted a mere coupl’a months before and now in the early stages of week two of training camp back in 1980. The daily grind of two-a-days in the heat and humidity of Latrobe were bankrupting precious reserves of energy. And the well rested, fresh legs i came into camp with were nothing but a painful, distant memory at this point.
I had a headache pounding inside my forehead like a drum-beat in a marching band from a brand new, too tight helmet. Not to mention it felt like something was loose and rattling around the insides of my noggin. My attitude meter was running a little low.
It was the afternoon practice, which means the legs were already shot from the full-go, running game-dominated pads (what else?) practice we had in the morning. The temperature, which had touched the mid 80’s in that morning practice, had now soared into the 90’s.
After stretch, team takeoffs, individual period, then one-on-ones, the focus had shifted to special teams. The flavor of the day was the punt team. Of course, when you have a punt team, you also need to field a punt-return team. Unlike the pre-determined depth chart of selected players manning the punt team, the punt-return team would have to come from a group of “Volunteers.”
As we straggled around the sidelines, trying to suck down more Gatorade than humanly possible, few of us rooks were in the volunteering mood. As a matter of fact, since we rookies had already been in camp for an entire week, it seemed that the new guys, the vets who had just checked into camp a day or so ago ought to step up, or so we thought.
Suddenly a menacing, snarling Jack Lambert stepped out from the sidelines and whirled, facing the gathering of bottom-feeders, that being us rookies.
“Every one of you (blankety-blank) rookies, get your (blankety-blanks) out here on the (blankety) volunteer team right (blankety-blank-blank-blank) now!!!” (I will leave you to fill in the blankety-blanks.)
Understand that this was no polite asking for help, nor a genteel urging to participate. This was a directive from Jack fully articulating what he thought of us rookies, and furthermore, what was expected of said rooks in the future. In other words, all “demonstration” teams from here on forward would be manned by the “volunteering” rookies, and don’t you dare be caught trying to get a water break instead of fulfilling your duties
Every one of us rookies scurried en masse like lemmings, pouring out onto the field until there were too many volunteers rather than not enough. Because you didn’t want to be the rookie that Jack Splat focused his unwanted attention on. To do so would be to put yourself in the gunsights of a veteran that could make life miserable for you in the remaining four and-a-half weeks of a six-week stay at Saint Vincent.
But you see, this was leadership. This was how a rookie back in the day was expected to fulfill his duties. Leadership is always direct and to the point. Leadership demands, and teaches. Because there is (or used to be) a caste system in the NFL and the leaders had to teach the newbies where their place was on the feeding chart. And life for a rookie always began at the bottom.