Labriola On

Labriola on 'On The Clock'

"Tell me a fact and I'll learn. Tell me the truth and I'll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever."
-- Indian Proverb

Books can inform, sometimes teach, and when it comes to books written about sports, they better entertain, too, because, well, because reading about sports is more about enjoyment and entertainment than the feeling you're doing homework. And one of the best ways to present a topic to the reader in an entertaining and enjoyable way is through the use of anecdotes.

"On The Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Pittsburgh Steelers at the NFL Draft" is Jim Wexell's latest book, and because the franchise participated in the inaugural "Annual Selection Meeting" as it initially was called by the NFL when it was instituted back in 1936, and because the 2022 NFL Draft was the 87th in which the franchise participated, the pool of names and potential facts is voluminous. The best way to prevent that from becoming an antiseptic recitation of names and numbers is through storytelling, and "On The Clock" doesn't waste any time before leading the reader down that path.

The book's Foreword was written by Craig Wolfley, once a starting offensive lineman for the team and currently the color analyst on the Steelers Radio Network, and the Foreword adheres to this theme by relating an anecdote about his "encounter" with Chuck Noll during Syracuse's Pro Day in 1980 when he was coming out for the draft. And having read a good bit of Wolfley's work, I can guarantee he penned that himself.

Wexell's introduction follows the Foreword, and it begins with, "Odd as it may sound, a book's introduction is a great place for leftover stories that are too cool to leave on the cutting-room floor." Wexell then launches into a story about the first No. 1 pick in franchise history, a single-wing tailback from Notre Dame by the name of Bill Shakespeare, who decided against playing professional football but did once look up Ernest Hemingway in a bar in Havana, Cuba.

That's just the beginning, and in the interest of full disclosure, the author admits that some of the anecdotes in the following 300 pages of "On The Clock" have been gleaned from other journalists' work/research, but since all of that is properly chronicled in the bibliography the reader can simply turn the pages and enjoy the ride.

"I focused primarily on the Hall of Famers drafted by the Steelers," wrote Wexell in the Introduction. "Since we probably know more than necessary about the playing careers of, say, Joe Greene and Terry Bradshaw, I wanted to focus on the stories that got them drafted, how the team viewed them, how the drafts broke for them, and the reasons they were selected.

"In Greene's case, the story of an angry teen in a racist time and town who, by himself, scared an opposing high school team off its bus is as important to me as why he threw a ball into the upper deck of a stadium in his second pro season. And Bradshaw learning to throw a javelin farther than anyone else his age had ever thrown one in this country was just as important to the future of his career as the 82-yard Hail Mary he threw at Louisiana Tech."

But rest assured, "On The Clock" doesn't make the mistake of believing the NFL, and by extension, the NFL Draft, didn't exist before the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, because the author directs the reader through Art Rooney Sr.'s attempts to steward his football franchise to the same levels of success he enjoyed as a thoroughbred handicapper and a boxing promoter.

Without giving away too much, there are stories from professional football's infancy about Rooney's decision to bypass someone who would become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history for a lineman from a local college whose career was cut short by a broken leg; about how Rooney had been told, along with the NFL's other owners, that the best prospect in a subsequent draft had no interest in professional football but picked him anyway; about how the best all-around football player Rooney ever drafted was a young man from Bluefield, Va.

Into the 1950s, and the tale is told of a boy born in Bavaria, Germany, who came to America as a 3-year-old, enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school, saw combat in Okinawa and Borneo during World War II, was turned away by Notre Dame Coach Frank Leahy and then Giants Coach Steve Owen for being "too small," came to be nicknamed "Horse," and dominated NFL lines of scrimmage for over a decade despite weighing less than 220 pounds.

There are the stories of one Hall of Fame player the Steelers didn't draft but kept (Jack Butler) and another they drafted but didn't keep (John Unitas). Stories about Buddy Parker's reign of terror through the mid-1960s and the impact on the franchise's hiring of the man who led it out of the wilderness.

And with that, Wexell brings the reader into the golden age of Steelers' drafts, which began with the selection of Greene fourth overall in 1969. Even die-hard fans who have consumed everything they could find written and/or said about the Steelers for the last 40 years will find some nuggets in the anecdotes told about the 1970s drafts.

I had heard the story about why Noll and Nunn disagreed about Mel Blount, and I knew which of Noll's assistant coaches was an unsung hero when it came to identifying and deploying some of the players who were so integral to those four Super Bowl championships over a six-season span. But I had never heard about the player who stepped up and defended Franco Harris when the Steelers No. 1 pick in 1972 was very underwhelming during his rookie training camp, nor about how Noll used to measure Ernie Holmes' impact during a game, nor how Roy Blount Jr.'s definitive book about the 1973 Steelers, "About Three Bricks Shy of a Load," got its title.

Once the tales of the 1970s have been told, the reader is guided through the drafts, both good and bad, of the next 40 years. Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley, to Tom Donahoe, to Kevin Colbert, from Noll, to Bill Cowher, to Mike Tomlin. From Rod Woodson, to Hines Ward, to Plax instead of Chad, to Ben instead of that University of Arkansas offensive lineman, to the Pro Day dinner with T.J. Watt.

And just as there's nothing like a memorable dessert to cap off a great meal, Wexell ends with a Q&A with Colbert after the final draft of his Steelers tenure, and a special section on Bill Nunn told by the guys who spent so much of their professional lives working with him and learning from him. Once you read that final section of "On The Clock," you'll come to understand what is meant by "the long good-by," but when you're finished with the book, you'll wish it wasn't over.

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