Labriola On

Labriola on Greene's speech, Minkah & Jerome

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It's going to be a virtual Alumni Weekend for the Steelers this year, and one of the highlights will be a recognition of 20 seasons at Heinz Field. I choose to remember June 18, 1999 as the birth of Heinz Field, because that was the date of the official groundbreaking for the construction of the facility.

• It was a glorious day, literally so because of the pleasant weather and the number of esteemed guests in attendance. And it was a glorious day figuratively for what it signified for the Steelers and the Western Pennsylvania community.

• Fortunate enough to be in attendance that day, what I remember about the parade of speakers invited by Dan Rooney and his son, Art II, is two-fold: how many of them actually showed up and participated, and how none of them took advantage of the microphone to make the occasion about themselves.

• Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, County Commissioner Bob Cranmer all spoke, as did NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Coach Bill Cowher, and Franco Harris and Joe Greene. Time has swallowed up a lot of what those men said that day, but there are a couple of things that were sufficiently memorable to have survived the passage of 20-plus years.

• The first was an exchange between Cowher and Tagliabue.

• By mid-June the NFL's 1999 regular season schedule already had been announced, and it called for the Steelers to open in Cleveland against the Browns. The Browns had been out of the NFL since the end of the 1995 season because Art Modell had packed up and moved the franchise to Baltimore. The NFL forced Modell to leave behind the team colors, logo, and franchise records/history for the new Browns, and during the hiatus a brand new facility – called Cleveland Browns Stadium – had been built on the shores of Lake Erie in close proximity to where Municipal Stadium stood for 65 years.

• The new Browns would return in 1999, and for the opening weekend of the that regular season, Tagliabue had given the Browns their wish, which was to rejoin the NFL and open their new building with a Sunday night game against their long-time rivals: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

• And so when Cowher stepped behind the podium for his remarks that day outside of Three Rivers Stadium for the groundbreaking of what would become known as Heinz Field, he took a couple of minutes to put Tagliabue on the spot. After explaining to the audience how the Browns' request to open the season at home vs. the Steelers was granted by the league, he asked Tagliabue to promise publicly to return the favor and have the Browns be the opponent when the Steelers were scheduled to open their new facility for the 2001 regular season.

• Tagliabue agreed, and even though 9-11 would intervene and force the NFL to postpone all games the weekend the Steelers were scheduled to open Heinz Field, the Browns in fact were the scheduled opponent that day.

• The second highlight was Joe Greene.

• Then an assistant coach in Arizona under Vince Tobin, Greene still was considered part of the Steelers organization, certainly by everyone in attendance that day on the North Shore. With his remarks, Greene chose to remember fondly what was being replaced and he did it with an anecdote that got his message across and delighted all in attendance in a consummate Mean Joe kind of way.

• It began with Greene waxing about the beautiful view of Pittsburgh that greets people as they exit the Fort Pitt Tunnel and begin the final phase of the trip from the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport. Then Greene moved on to the time when he had out-of-town guests come to visit him in Pittsburgh, people who never had been to the city before.

• According to Greene's telling of the story from the podium that day, as he drove his guests through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and the city presented itself to them for the first time, he began to identify the many landmarks. Moving across the horizon, Greene started naming the buildings, hotels, and other structures of significance.

• "And there," recounted Greene, as he pointed out Three Rivers Stadium to the occupants of the backseat of his car, "is where we kick a lot of ass on Sundays."

• June 18, 1999 always will be remembered as the day ground was broken to construct Heinz Field, but it also was the day the greatest player in franchise history tied an anecdotal bow around the building Heinz Field was going to replace.

• Minkah Fitzpatrick and Jerome Bettis represent the haul of the two best trades in Steelers history, and it's very possible that Fitzpatrick will come to appreciate Pittsburgh much the same way Bettis did and look to become a part of the community in the same way.

• Neither player was particularly comfortable with the situation in which they found themselves before being traded to the Steelers, and the love Bettis felt from the city and his new team's fans was a significant factor when he came upon a fork in the road following the 1996 season.

• The rookie contract Bettis signed with the Los Angeles Rams allowed him to void the final season, which was 1997, if he reached certain performance levels over the life of the contract he signed as a rookie with the Los Angeles Rams after being made a first-round draft pick in 1993.

• The details of what performance levels Bettis had to reach have faded from memory, but what I remember is that it wasn't very long into the 1996 season when it became apparent he was going to reach them and thus become an unrestricted free agent the following March.

• The Steelers at the time still lived in Three Rivers Stadium, and while the building held many fine memories, the team didn't derive any real revenue from the sale of anything inside it during its games except ticket monies. The ability to come up with the kind of cash to pay a blue-chip free agent like Bettis was going to be was not as simple a matter as it became after Heinz Field opened.

• While Bettis may have been perceived by the bulk of the NFL as damaged goods when the Steelers acquired him in that 1996 draft day trade, it didn't take long into that regular season for everyone in football to come to the realization the Rams' decision to go with Lawrence Phillips at running back instead of Bettis was right up there with New Coke.

• Then as the season progressed, and Bettis would end it by rushing for 1,431 yards with a 4.5 average and 11 touchdowns, be voted first-team All-Pro, and do it all as a 24-year-old, well, everybody outside of the Rams front office knew a premium unrestricted free agent when he ran over them.

• Not that money didn't matter, or that the Steelers were offering pennies on the dollar, but if Bettis was going to base his decision on maximizing his bank account he most likely was going to leave the Steelers after one season and sign with another team. But Bettis, with some input from his parents, Johnnie and Gladys, placed value on things other than just money. The Steelers ended up benefitting from Bettis' experiences with the Rams, because he came to appreciate how he was valued by Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher, how he fit in with the Steelers culture and locker room, how he was revered by the football-centric city and region.

• Bettis decided to stay in Pittsburgh, he finished his career with the Steelers, and his professional life was capped by a Super Bowl championship and induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

• Fitzpatrick is still under contract to the Steelers through the 2021 season, and the team can exercise a fifth-year option on his rookie deal to keep him through the 2022 season. There is a lot of time before Fitzpatrick could become an unrestricted free agent, and this is by no means the start of a campaign to convince him to accept a hometown discount, but some of the things Fitzpatrick is saying about his experience thus far with the Steelers sound much like the things Bettis was saying in 1996.

• "It's the culture. It's a great culture," said Fitzpatrick in a story written by Teresa Varley. "It starts from the top on down … I have been in places where it hasn't been the same thing. From the top down it's a winning attitude here. There's constant competitiveness. They're never complacent, they're never satisfied, they're always working, they're transparent. I think it's an accumulation of all of those things.

• "It means a lot to have a coach who looks out for his players," said Fitzpatrick specifically about Mike Tomlin. "There aren't a lot of coaches across the league who are doing that. I'm fortunate and grateful to have a coach like Coach T. He is our head coach, so he deserves all of the credit in the world for us starting off (undefeated in 2020). He's a guy who pays attention to all of the details, he's going to voice his opinion on all of the things he sees. He's transparent, which is something I love about him. He is going to keep it real, keep it honest with you."

• And it also sounds as though Tomlin and Fitzpatrick are building the kind of relationship that Bettis had with Cowher when he was traded to the Steelers.

• "We're around each other a lot," said Fitzpatrick. "There aren't a lot of people who prepare like he prepares. He's a guy who pays attention to all the details, a guy who makes sure everyone knows what's going on. He is transparent. He's a tremendous leader and a great coach. Like I said before, if anyone deserves credit for this season, it's him."

• Like Bettis, maybe Fitzpatrick has found himself a new home in his second stop in the National Football League.

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