training-camp_category-logo_horizontal_180x24

Steelers_Training_Camp_1964_URI_University_Rhode_Island
Life Before Saint Vincent College
The Steelers have moved the host location of their annual camp a number of times throughout team history
By Mike Prisuta Jul 04, 2020

They're so accustomed to spending their summers at Saint Vincent College, the historic fields and hallowed halls of the pastoral campus in Latrobe, Pa. have become such an entrenched part of Steelers' lore and legacy over the last five-plus decades that conducting a training camp in any other location seems almost unimaginable.

But it's far from unprecedented in franchise history.

There was a time when Art Rooney Sr.'s team bounced from place to place for preseason preparation, never spending more than a handful of years in the same location. The list reads like the back of a concert T-shirt.

Moore Field, Pittsburgh, Pa. (1933-37); St. Francis College, Loretto, Pa. (1938-40); Hershey, Pa.(1941-42; 1945-46); Philadelphia (1943); Waukesha, Wi. (1944); Alliance College, Cambridge Springs, Pa. (1947-51); St. Bonaventure College (1952-57); California State Teachers College, California, Pa. (1958-60); Slippery Rock College, Slippery Rock, Pa. (1961); West Liberty College, West Liberty, W.Va. (1962-63); and the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, R.I. (1964-66).

Included in that collection of destinations are the training camps the Steelers held prior to a couple of seasons played as part of World War II-necessitated mergers (in Philadelphia as the "Steagles" in 1943, and in Waukesha, Wis. under the "Card-Pitt" banner in 1944).

It'll be different this July and August, when the Steelers won't set a cleat on the grass at Saint Vincent for the first time since they began practicing there late in the 1966 preseason, in many respects remarkably so.

But the show must go on.

Here's a look back at how different it was (and in at least a couple of respects, how similar) the last time the Steelers adopted for the first time a preseason base of operations that wasn't Saint Vincent College:



FIRST THINGS FIRST

Preparation for the 1964 season actually started before the Steelers ventured to the University of Rhode Island. A group of 15 players, referred to back in the day as "early birds" (mostly quarterbacks and pass catchers) spent four days working out at South Park in Pittsburgh (the Steelers' practice quarters in the regular season) the week before training camp commenced under the observation of eighth-year head coach Buddy Parker. The one-hour sessions emphasized the passing game.

The four quarterbacks posed together for the Pittsburgh Press, each wearing a blank, white T-shirt and with a ball cocked and ready to be delivered Ed Brown, Terry Nofsinger, Bill Nelsen and Tommy Wade in a shot reminiscent of the images football cards used to display.

They threw to pass-catchers Paul Martha (a flanker from Pitt and the Steelers' No. 1 pick in 1964), Gary Ballman, Bill Barber, John Powers, Wayne Fullerton Jim Kelly (a tight end and a No. 2 selection from Notre Dame).

This was the apparent equivalent of OTAs back in the early days of the Lyndon Johnson administration.

GETTING IN SHAPE

Defensive back/halfback Dick Haley was listed at 185 pounds entering camp, down significantly from the previous season by design.

"(Linebacker) John Reger and I got jobs with a pick and shovel group at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport and really worked it off," Haley explained to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 27 regarding his offseason approach. "I guess about 20 pounds apiece."

“(Linebacker) John Reger and I got jobs with a pick and shovel group at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport and really worked it off... I guess about 20 pounds apiece." Dick Haley on how he got down to 180 lbs

THE NEW DIGS

Parker arrived in advance of the camp's July 21 opening at the University of Rhode Island and was reportedly there to greet his players and shake their hands as they checked into Adams Hall.

"This is a terrific place," Parker beamed to the Press. "We have the cross-country course laid out for the preliminary running drills. We have no hills like at West Liberty where the boys got out of sight part of the time. I'm happy with the entire setup."

Parker, a veteran of training camps with the Steelers at St. Bonaventure, Cal U., Slippery Rock and West Liberty, boasted to the Post-Gazette the URI campus presented "the best layout since I joined the Steelers."

The 66 candidates for the 40-man roster listed in the Press on July 19 spent the weekend prior to training camp at the Roosevelt Hotel in Pittsburgh, undergoing pre-camp physicals one at a time. They all passed, unlike the previous season when the Post-Gazette reported "several rookies had flunked and were sent home."

The P-G headline celebrated the development: "No 4-Fs on This Team! Healthy Steelers Squad Heads for pre-season Camp."

The story also made mention of the Cleveland Browns reaching an agreement with running back Jim Brown on a contract for the upcoming season. The Associated Press reported the "top salary in football" would pay Brown "around $50,000."



LIFE AT URI

Parker may have loved the layout, but he wasn't a big fan of the weather as camp progressed.

Hot enough for you?

It wasn't for Parker.

"I just read in the local paper that this has been the coolest July and August in New England in 37 years," Parker observed in the Post-Gazette in the wake of a 42-7 loss to the Browns on Aug. 22 in Akron, Ohio that dropped the Steelers to 0-2 on the preseason. "I don't want to alibi but maybe lack of hot weather has hurt our conditioning."

A Press headline issued a challenge: "Unglued Steelers Must Get Together And Avoid Pastings." The accompanying story maintained "the efforts of the gallant crusaders who go out to do battle for Rooney U. were pitifully ineffective."

Maybe the problem was the food.

Offensive tackle Dan James rated the grub highly in the Aug. 4 edition of the periodic diary about camp life he was providing for his hometown paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer:

"Our chow hall has nothing but the finest food, which is unusual for most training camps. But being close to the ocean, there are all sorts of goodies; things such as shrimp, clams, lobster and so forth. This adds to my greatest weakness _ eating.

"It's cool at night, and except for the lack of TV and the abundance of mosquitoes, it's livable."

The Post-Gazette reported the presence of lobster in a dining hall as a first in Steelers' training camp history.

That wasn't the only dinner-time alteration in '64.

Since the Steelers were sharing space with URI summertime students, the tradition of making the rookies sing for their suppers was paused.

"We're not going to make idiots out of our rookies in front of these strangers," James told the Press.

The mosquitoes also got to running back Dick Hoak, among others.

"They bore right through my trousers," Hoak complained to the Post-Gazette.

There was also this from the Aug. 3

edition of the P-G: "On Tuesday Parker will take his squad to the beach for practice. It's a combined publicity stunt and a break in the monotony of camp for the gridders."



TRANSITIONING

Camp opened with 14-year vet and nine-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Ernie Stautner, listed initially as a player-coach, leading the defensive linemen in a jog around the practice fields.

But Stautner watched the first preseason game, a 24-13 loss to the Eagles on Aug. 14 in Allentown, Pa., from the press box and, according to a Press report on Aug. 18 "appears to be drifting into the role of a coach rather than playing" (Stautner wouldn't play in 1964 or ever again; he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969).

Former quarterback Bobby Layne (he had spent the last five seasons of his career, 1958-62, with the Steelers and would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967) was way ahead of Stautner. Layne joined the Steelers in Rhode Island on Aug. 3 to assist the staff after coaching the team of Texas high school all-stars that had opposed Pennsylvania in the Big 33 Game in Hershey. The plan, according to the Post-Gazette, was for Layne to commute to Steelers games on the weekends and help out with the coaching chores, as he had the previous season.

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE

The drill that helped perfect pass protection didn't have a catchy name in '64. But a predecessor to today's "Backs-on-'Backers" was nonetheless revealing.

Running back John Henry Johnson had a habit of dominating in such situations.

The Post-Gazette detailed "an exhibition of almost brutal blocking on" by Johnson on July 29.

"The linebackers have the momentum as they cross the scrimmage line, but John Henry Johnson has the knack of being ready and delivering the block perfectly."

"He's the best in the business," Parker assessed.

Added defensive back Brady Keys: "If there's a harder blocker I don't know who it would be."

Johnson had rushed for 1,141 yards in 1962 and 773 in 1963.

He'd go on to pile up 1,048 yards on the ground in 1964 and eventually land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

"In this particular drill, Center Buzz Nutter hands the ball back to one of the four QBs in camp. One linebacker crashes through and is met head on by the protecting back, either the left back or the fullback." Jack Sell describing the "Backs-on-'backers" predecessor

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The Steelers had ended the '63 season needing a win against the New York Giants to reach the NFL Championship Game (they lost, 33-17) and spirits were apparently high at the outset of the '64 campaign, especially among the prospects.

The Post-Gazette reported "no drop outs to date" on July 27. "Usually a few aspirants get glimpses of giants like big John Baker, Lou Cordileone and Ernie Stautner and decide there are better ways of making a living back home."

On July 30, the P-G noted "huskies like Mo Pottios, John Reger, Bob Schmitz, John Henry Johnson, Frank Atkinson and promising rookie tackle Ben McGee seem to enjoy cracking into rival aspirants."

There had been only seven departures from the '63 team (including linebacker Andy Russell, who was in Germany with the Army fulfilling ROTC requirements from his days at Missouri after starting 13 of 14 games and intercepting three passes as a rookie; Russell wouldn't return until 1966).

Still, the roster was anything but stable.

Parker, described by the Press as "the master of hounds for Rooney U. and a man who will never walk to a conclusion if he can jump to it," was short on patience and big on changes.

Among the transactions that stood out as representative of the times:

Two rookies, 19th-round end Don Marshall of Lehigh and undrafted defensive back Steve Bailey of Baylor, were cut after the first practice of camp (the first morning workout on the first day of two-a-days).

Linebacker Sam Tidmore was acquired from Cleveland for a draft pick on reporting day, July 21 ("Line Backing has been a hoodoo for Rooney U," the P-G maintained).

Tidmore was returned to the Browns after the first scrimmage of camp on Aug. 2.

"Linebacker Sam Tidmore, acquired in a trade for a draft choice on the opening day of camp, was returned to the Cleveland Browns. Coach Buddy Parker, wary since the Buddy Dial giveaway, had made this one an 'if' deal." Jack Sell on the Steelers returning Tidmore to the Browns

On Aug. 7 the Steelers traded for the rights to Cardinals punter Wayne Crow (who had played with Oakland and Buffalo in the AFL). Brown had averaged 39.6 yards in 57 punts around his QB duties in '63 and Parker aspired to take punting off of Brown's plate (Crow never punted for the Steelers or any other NFL team).

And in late August the Steelers traded "two higher draft choices" (P-G) to the New York Giants for halfback/fullback Phil King (the Giants' first-round draft choice in 1958). King initially contemplated retirement rather than playing for the Steelers before eventually relenting and reporting.

"He was all right after I talked to him about it," Parker told the Press. "He told me he was bothered and upset on hearing that the Giants had traded him. But after he had a chance to think it over, he was all for joining us."

The addition of King gave the Steelers three of the NFL's Top 11 rushers from the 1963 season (John Henry Johnson, 773 yards, fourth; Dick Hoak, 679 yards, seventh; and King, 613 yards, 11th).

King carried 26 times for 71 yards in 1964, his only season with the Steelers.

Camp had opened with No. 1 pick Paul Martha unavailable (the halfback from Pitt was practicing with the College All-Stars in Evanston, Ill., in advance of their exhibition against the NFL champion-Bears on Aug. 7 (guard Tom Jenkins, a 14th-round pick, was summoned to Evanston to play for the All-Stars early in camp).

And offensive tackle Charlie Bradshaw didn't arrive until Aug. 17 after finishing his law school studies at Baylor University's summer session.



HOLD THAT LINE

The preseason in '64 included tune-up drills for the Steelers' cheerleaders yes, they had a squad back then as well as the players. The Press ran a photo on July 26 captioned "Getting in Shape" that featured four members of the "Steelerettes" getting in a little stretching. All four were identified as students at Robert Morris Junior College.

RUMOR MILL

Steelers founder Art Rooney found himself shooting down suggestions the Steelers could potentially moving to Atlanta during the early days of their stay in Rhode Island.

The Steelers had played exhibition games in Atlanta in 1962 and in 1963.

"They have never made a formal bid from Atlanta," Rooney told reporters on July 30. "Of course, there have been many queries by Southern sportswriters. I never gave them any encouragement whatsoever."

"The Chief," or, as he was referenced in print back then, the "Prez" endorsed Atlanta and New Orleans as suitable NFL destinations eventually.

"I believe both are fine sites for pro franchises in the future," he said.

The Atlanta Falcons debuted in the NFL in 1966 and the New Orleans Saints played their first season in 1967.

KNOW YOUR ENEMY

Defensive back Brady Keys was back in top form for training camp after missing the final five games of the '63 season following an encounter with running back Jim Brown in a 9-7 win over Cleveland on Nov. 10 at Pitt Stadium (the game was played in front of 54,497, the largest crowd for a professional football game in Pittsburgh history).

"Jimmy Brown was running in front of our bench," Keys recalled in a story in the Post-Gazette on July 31. "(Defensive back) Clendon Thomas had his arms around him, but you know how Jimmy manages to get loose.

"I was coming up full speed with a good angle on Brown and I really creamed him. I believe it was as hard as I ever hit anyone. But when the play was over Brown was still standing while Thomas and I were stunned on the ground."

Defensive back/halfback Dick Haley discussed the challenge tackling Brown presents in the Press on Aug. 4.

"First, you're scared to death," Haley said. "And I have learned the only way to bring Brown down and stay out of the hospital is to hit him low and, at the same time, hang on."



PHENOM TO FLAMEOUT

NFL training camps had sleepers in the 1960s, too. The early attention-getter in terms of a great storyline as a long shot with great potential in 1964 was halfback Dave Fleming, a rookie with no college playing experience.

Fleming, a product of Pittsburgh's Hazelwood neighborhood, arrived after a season with the Pittsburgh Valley Ironmen of the Atlantic Coast League and inspired sandlots-to-stardom contemplation similar to what had transpired a few years earlier with Johnny Unitas (who was cut by the Steelers and became a star for the Colts) in the early days of camp.

"He's going to become a fine player," Parker told the Post-Gazette on Aug. 2. "He's got speed and guts. We could use him on kickoff and punt returns. Now if he can only learn the plays."

Fleming apparently couldn't and was eventually cut.

A FIGHT, A FINE AND ANOTHER TRADE

Defensive end/kicker Lou Michaels was suspended indefinitely on Sept. 2 over his role in a fight with a teammate.

"Some of the players reportedly had been 'riding' Michaels over the Steelers' acquisition, earlier in the day, of Mike Clark, a place-kicking specialist, from the Philadelphia Eagles," the Press reported on Sept. 3. "During the squabble, Michaels is reported to have kayoed Defensive Halfback Jim Bradshaw. An assistant coach was among those who tried to break it up."

Michaels was reinstated but left home when the Steelers traveled to Canton, Ohio for their preseason finale, a 48-17 loss to the Colts on Sept. 6. He was fined (a "substantial fine," according to the Post-Gazette) and placed on probation (Michaels was also denied the $6 a day he had coming for participating in training camp while on suspension).

The probation ended when the Steelers traded Michaels to the Colts for linebacker Bill Saul and defensive back Marv Woodson prior to the start of the regular season.

LIMPING TO THE PRESEASON FINISH

Losing to the Colts proved more costly than dropping the Steelers to 1-3 on the exhibition season. They also lost linebacker Myron Pottios to a broken arm (Pottios' last-play block of a field goal attempt had preserved the only win of the preseason, a 16-14 victory over the 49ers on Aug. 29 in Omaha, Neb.) and linebacker Bob Harrison to a separated shoulder.

Those injuries necessitated yet another trade (a draft pick to Detroit for linebacker Carl Brettschneider, who had suffered a knee injury in 1963 and never played another NFL game).

Rooney had been indicted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's second enshrinement class prior to kickoff against the Colts.

For the Steelers, the feel-good apparently stopped there.

"My gosh, you'd think the world came to an end the way people are acting and looking around here," Rooney said in the wake of the Colts game and the Michaels trade in Post-Gazette Sports Editor Al Abrams' column on Sept. 9. "The skies didn't open up and shower fire on anybody. The world will go on just the same."

Abrams assessed the Michaels swap as follows: "In short, we gave up a topnotch performer for two young fellas who are short on pro savvy and have yet to prove themselves. Like most Steelers' followers, I didn't like the trade."

Added Rooney: "We make deals because we think they can help the club. After all, if they don't work out we're the biggest losers."

Retorted Abrams: "In the lingo of the bleacher fans, he can say that again."

LESS-THAN-GREAT EXPECTATIONS

The Associated Press predicted a fifth-place for the Steelers in advance of the regular-season opener on Sept. 13 at Pitt Stadium against the Los Angeles Rams. The Giants (Eastern Conference) and Packers (Western Conference) were projected as the two teams that would ultimately play for the championship in the NFL's one-game postseason.

The Press, in a story attributed to "M. Olderman, NEA Sports Editor," was likewise pessimistic about the Steelers' prospects:

"On paper, it's hard to believe the Steelers came within 60 minutes of carrying off eastern title (in '63). The club lacks an offensive spark and the defense is thin in reserves. In fact, except for running back, there's a general lack of classy depth on squad. Steelers could slip a rung or two."

The Steelers ended up sixth in the East at 5-9 in what would be Parker's last season as the head coach.

Cleveland (East) and Baltimore (West) played for the NFL Championship and the Browns won, 27-0.

"Jimmy Brown" rushed for 114 yards on 27 carries and caught three passes for 37 yards.

The Colts probably should have seen that coming.

back to top

Advertising