Labriola On

Labriola on Larry Brown and the brotherhood

Ready or not, here it comes:

• The Pittsburgh Steelers often are referred to as a family, and players will speak of themselves and their teammates as brothers. The natural assumption made by those of us hearing these references is that the genesis has to do with events that have happened on the football field during heated competitions vs. bitter rivals with championships at stake.

• Not always, though, and the instances of the Steelers coming together as family or offering support to one of their own as a member of this brotherhood reinforces this notion, and if we’re paying attention it becomes clear the bond transcends even those events that might have happened inside the boundaries of a football field.

• Allow me to take you inside the 2019 Hall of Honor Induction Ceremony, which took place on Sunday, Sept. 29 inside the Champions Club at Heinz Field. It was the evening before the current Steelers were to host the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football, and the purpose was to recognize the Class of 2019, which included Larry Brown, Bill Cowher, Elbie Nickel, and Hines Ward.

• The inductees were presented to the audience that night in chronological order, meaning in order of their careers as Steelers that had earned them this special recognition. That made Brown the second honoree to speak, and what happened during his nine minutes at the podium reinforced what the Steelers are all about.

• A family. A brotherhood.

• Even though Brown stood at the podium for nine minutes, his speech was considerably shorter, with the extra time being necessary for him to compose himself sufficiently to get through what he wanted to say. That it was the biggest and baddest of the inductees who was the one fighting back tears spoke volumes about the emotions Brown was feeling on the occasion of being recognized as one of the great players in franchise history.

• “It’s never been lost on me how very fortunate I have been to play under the leadership of a great coach in Chuck Noll,” said Brown shortly into his remarks. “and to play with a rare collection of arguably the greatest football players all on one team at one time in the history of the NFL.”

• Then he got into the portion of his remarks that brought his emotions to the surface. “It is not lost on me, I have never taken it for granted, how fortunate I am to have even been given the opportunity to play football, either in high school, college, or professionally. I grew up in a small town in North Florida where there was no perceivable path for me to play football on any level. There were two high schools in my hometown. One of the high schools had a football team. The other one did not.”

• It was at this point that Brown stopped for the first time. He got himself under control, and before he resumed his remarks he passed off the pause with a joke about his age. Then he continued.

• “I attended the high school that did not have a football team,” Brown said. “Just before my senior year in high school, a ruling came down to desegregate schools in my town. That gave me the opportunity to attend the other school in my town, one that had a football team, which gave me the opportunity to play football for the first time. In my senior year, my last year of high school.”

• Again, Brown had to stop to gather himself, because he was about to explain that it was only through a court-ordered desegregation of the two high schools that he found himself at the better school, at the one with more facilities, at the one with the football team. But before he could get the words out, someone seated in the audience offered some encouragement aloud. “You can do this, Bubba.”

• It was Joe Greene, and “Bubba” was the nickname Brown’s teammates had given him rather early in his 14-year Steelers career.

• And so Bubba soldiered on.

• “If the ruling for the desegregation had come just one year later, I would not have had the opportunity. Needless to say, without that opportunity I would not be standing here today, being inducted into the Steelers Hall of Honor. That opportunity changed the trajectory of my life, and so I know the value of being given an opportunity. Though I am proud to receive this honor, I am equally proud to have worked for an organization that historically has believed in and practiced giving opportunity to those who would not have traditionally gotten it.”

• At this point, Brown had to stop again. He was sniffling audibly, and at this point it was evident to all that he was close to weeping openly. Then came another voice from the audience, and like Greene it offered support in a gentle tone. This time it was Franco Harris.

• Brown took a deep breath and continued. “I have been part of an organization whose founder’s name is on an NFL policy that is all about opportunity. The Rooney Rule. (Applause) The Rooney Rule requires all NFL teams, when hiring head coaches and people for senior football operations jobs to interview at least one minority candidate. That policy doesn’t require a team to hire a minority candidate, but it does require that they at least take a look at them. That rule has opened up opportunities for some who otherwise may not have gotten an opportunity. So I am proud to be in this Hall of Honor of an organization that believes in giving opportunity to all people. That makes me proud. (Applause) And I’m proud to be here tonight receiving this honor. Thank you all for being here tonight, and thank you all for your contribution to the Chuck Noll Foundation for Brain Injury Research.”

• Bubba did it. He got through his speech. Spoke from his heart. Told the story of a man who when he was a boy just needed an opportunity, who almost didn’t get it in time, but when given that opportunity took advantage of it to create a wonderful life for himself and his family.

• And when he needed a little help from his other family, from his Steelers brothers, to tell that story to make people understand, they were there for him to give him just what he needed at the precise time he needed it to get the job done.

• Which is what it always has been about, and what makes these Steelers special.