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Thomas: 'You built Steelers Nation'

Posted Jun 17, 2017

J.T. Thomas talks about his playing days and life after football.

Legends Series: J.T. Thomas
Defensive Back
1973-81

J.T. Thomas came to the Steelers just as the transformation was taking place. He was the team’s first-round draft pick in 1973, and was part of a core group that brought four Super Bowl championships to Pittsburgh.

And like many of his teammates from the 1970s, the Macon, Georgia native made Pittsburgh his home since he retired from football, going into the food and restaurant business where he has found success.

“When I retired from football my first venture was a Chinese restaurant in one of the first food courts downtown in the PPG complex,” said Thomas. “From there, I ventured to Burger King. Then, back in 1983, Larry Brown and myself brought Applebee’s into the Western Pennsylvania market and started building them in the area for 20 years. I’ve been in the restaurant and entrepreneur environment from the time I came out of ball.

“Since that I have gotten into the dessert business. I have company called the Black and Gold Cheesecake Company. We sell desserts and distribute desserts, primarily cheesecakes. We even have a black and gold cheesecake. Our number one focus is a sweet potato cheesecake that hit Pittsburgh and we are the originators of that particular product. We do desserts and distribute them, but I also am involved with Crazy Mocha, which is a local coffee chain here. So I’m in desserts and coffee, but I guess just food.”

Thomas didn’t just talk about food recently. He also weighed in on a variety of other topics in this exclusive interview:

What did it mean for you to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers?
“It really changed my life. The people that I met at the Steelers organization, it was growing in the sense that we just started winning. More so, the people of Pittsburgh really embraced us, they almost owned us. At the time, the city was going through some transformation. I believe the Pittsburgh Steelers were the catalyst that gave the city momentum, gave the city identity, because they had a great football team. In that environment you built Steelers Nation. Even the people that left because of the exodus of the steel mills, I think those people today are still loyal. It’s just amazing, Steelers Nation. I don’t understand it but I love it. It’s probably one of the most awesome organizations, the Pittsburgh Steelers and this fan base, that I have ever seen. Although I am a part of it, I still don’t get it, but I love it.”

What was one of your best memories from your playing career with the Steelers?
“In terms of the sporting aspect it would be the 1974 AFC Championship game against the Oakland Raiders that took us to our first Super Bowl. We were young and underdogs. In the closing seconds I had an interception against Ken Stabler that kind of sealed the game. To me that was a high point, although at the time reality didn’t set in because we had a tough time believing we were going to the Super Bowl.”

What was it like to be part of that Super Bowl era of the Steelers?
“It was very unique because we were coming out of a very tumultuous time in our society where most of us had just come out of the whole desegregation and integration process in this country. So you can understand coming out of that era into this stage as a professional football player, for a lot of us it was an opportunity. We had gone through the Civil Rights movement, the hippie movement, Vietnam, and here we are on the stage to play football. It was great, but more so we had some great individuals and the time and the commitment and the reason we were playing ball forged who we were, our commitment to the game and really what we did.”

What was special about that group that made it so successful?
“Initially, believe it or not, we came in as a segregated ball club. People always forget that era was buddy-buddy. But I think what happened was that we were playing together and eventually we started partying together and then we started praying together. I think those three components came together and we got to know each other on different levels where typically people, they may work together, play together, party together and they may pray together, but we found a way, we found ourselves in that arena or in that paradigm, and I think that’s what made us unique.”

Talk about some of the guys, the characters on that team that kept things rolling?
“Who wasn’t a character? Defensively, if you start there, you had a mixed bag. Our defense was really composed of two halves. You had the left side, which was the quiet side and I was on, you had (Jack) Ham, L.C. Greenwood, myself, Mike Wagner. When you got to Joe Greene, a metamorphosis took place. You got these psychotic guys. You move from him to (Jack) Lambert, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White, and you had Mel Blount on the other side, and Glen Edwards. The only guy that was out of place was Andy Russell. I think Andy was in that motley crew on the other side really keeping them in order. We had these diverse personalities, but I blame Chuck Noll because he drafted these guys. So I think all these psychotic guys defensively were part of his personality.

“Offensively, we had some of the greatest players with Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, (John) Stallworth, and Rocky (Bleier). Not only great athletes, but great players and great men. Very humble, and I think that humility, the friendship, the bond was something that made the difference.”

What was it like playing for Chuck Noll?
“It was interesting. Chuck was a great communicator. He communicated with every guy differently. It was amazing to watch him go around to each and every player and communicate with them. Chuck really questioned your manhood by looking at you. That’s how good he was. But he had the amazing ability of talking to 60 people at once, but only talking to you. I think his greatest talent was getting to know every player and knowing what buttons to push. For the most part all those guys were programmed by Chuck. If they were psychotic, Chuck programmed that way. If they were dirty and mean, Chuck programmed that way.”

 

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