View Full Version : The invisible legend

12-26-2009, 10:27 AM
I found this article while searching for a shot of Chuck Noll about a year ago. Says a lot about that great man and what made him what he is. And the article came from Cleveland of all places. :chuckle:

The invisible legend: A near-recluse in retirement, Chuck Noll brought Browns-Steelers rivalry to life
by Jodie Valade/Plain Dealer Reporter
Saturday December 27, 2008, 11:06 PM


Scott Heckel/The Repository via AP - When the Steelers bid farewell to Three Rivers Stadium following the 2000 season, Chuck Noll was a favorite target for Pittsburgh fans eager to thank the coach for his four Super Bowl titles.

As far back as high school, Chuck Noll didn't want to let the world in. On the football field, it was one thing. Noll would be a gritty, hard-working lineman who directed his teammates with a coach's assurance even as a teenager, and he didn't mind being noticed there. Remark on his savvy play, compliment his understanding of the game, offer him a college scholarship -- all that was fine.

But off the field? The former Pittsburgh Steelers coach cherished his privacy and didn't say much, even then. Few of his classmates at Benedictine High School knew that he worked at Fisher Brothers meat market on Cedar Road after school, applying his 55 cents an hour to the $150 annual school tuition he paid himself. They didn't know his father, William, suffered from Parkinson's, and that the entire family had to help whenever the disease gripped him.

When Noll arrived at the University of Dayton to play football, hardly anyone knew that he was there entirely because Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy was afraid to let Noll play after an epileptic seizure felled him during a practice before his freshman season.

There was the time in 1979 when Steelers receiver Lynn Swann was Christmas caroling through a Pittsburgh neighborhood and reached Noll's door. The coach invited his star receiver inside, played the ukulele for him, showed him pictures of rare birds that he'd taken himself, was relaxed and casual and chatted for two hours.

As Swann walked out the door, he wondered who the man was that he'd just met. "Chuck always seemed to have a real distance between himself and developing a real personal relationship with players," Swann said.

Chuck Noll is 76 now, and cherishes his privacy more than ever. His football days, the ones where he led the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles, are over. Debilitating back problems limit his movement, and close friends whisper of glimpses of the first stages of Alzheimer's. Some days are good. He recently played nine holes of golf near his home in Bonita Springs, Fla., with his nephew. But those days come less often than before.

"It's almost like he's disappeared," former Miami coach Don Shula said recently. "You never see him."


Associated Press file photo - Chuck Noll gave Don Shula's perfect Dolphins of 1972 a big scare in the AFC title game before Miami claimed a 21-17 victory at Three Rivers Stadium.

He was a man of few words even when he was at the top of his game, and he remains that way now that he is out of the public eye. Even so, for Clevelanders in particular, it is hard to forget Noll. He is the foremost reason the Browns-Steelers rivalry that was once so lopsided toward Cleveland became so heated and venomous. He was the one who turned around a 29-9 Browns advantage when he began coaching in Pittsburgh in 1969 to a 50-34 Cleveland edge by the time he retired in 1991.

As the Steelers now lead the series, 58-55, and have won the past 10 contests with their turnpike rival, Noll is held as another example of a homegrown product who got away from Cleveland.

Born and bred on the city's East Side, he attended Benedictine, went to college in Dayton and returned to Cleveland to play for the Browns as one of coach Paul Brown's messenger guards who rotated in on every down. He used Brown's own style against the Browns once he became head coach in Pittsburgh, combining a passion for teaching the game with his own sparse coaching style.

He never rallied his team with pep talks. He discouraged flamboyant demonstrations on the field. He never even spoke of any special venom for Cleveland when coaching Pittsburgh. Noll is a private man, a man of few words who chooses what to say when with great care, but whose impact still reverberates.

The Steelers of the 1970s, the Steel Curtain crew that dominated opponents with its stifling defense, was a direct reflection of Noll's personality. Stingy, demanding and hard-working, they exemplified traits Noll learned growing up in a house near

Cleveland's E. 74th Street. Noll lived in the same house where his mother grew up with her 12 siblings. His father was a butcher, his mother worked for a florist. He was the youngest of three siblings by eight years, which at times made him feel like an only child.

"We never had much, but we always thought we didn't have to have those things," said his sister, Rita Deininger, who now lives in Bedford. "We had one another, and that is what really made us a good family."

Chuck Noll dreamed of going to Benedictine as a child, so he started working after school in seventh grade and saved enough money so that he had two years of tuition by the time he began high school. He was made a lineman when he had trouble holding onto the football as a fullback, and his tenacious play helped Benedictine earn an undefeated season in 1948, its first.

Education was the highest priority, however, as he graduated 28th in a class of 252 -- and he began working on the teaching side during his early years on the football team.
Once, when Benedictine was playing Holy Name and had the team pinned back on its 10-yard line to punt, Noll rushed over to his center, Ray Gembarski. Noll had a brainstorm to pull one teammate off the line, and have Gembarski rush in and block the punt.

"And by God, it happened," Gembarski said. "I blocked the punt.

"He was competitive all the time -- that's what I mean when I talk about him trying to coach out there. He knew what he was doing."

He was such a natural teacher that he was still instructing when he began playing at Dayton after his Notre Dame dream fell through. Though he was a late addition to the Flyers team, he took charge from the start.

"He was really into coaching in that he would tell you something and you'd say, 'That's not the way it is, Chuck,'" said Len Kestner, Noll's Dayton roommate. "And he'd say, 'Yes, that's the way it is.'"

That's how he earned the nickname "The Pope" -- for his unbending belief that his philosophy of football was always correct.

"I used to say, 'What the hell, are you infallible?'" Kestner said. "But he was very firm in his convictions. He was a very humble person, but very strong in his convictions."

Paul Brown liked what he saw in Noll, drafted him to be one of his guards in 1953, and Noll's football education accelerated. Brown believed in the art of teaching the game, and Noll was an eager student.


Associated Press file photo - Chuck Noll maintained a stoic appearance on the sidelines, and in the locker room for his Steelers players.

The article continues in a following post.