Labriola On

Rooney reflects on Nunn, Faneca

Timing. Also known as, being in the right place at the right time, is an important element of so many things in our daily lives. Where we work. Where we live. Our relationships. Our accomplishments and achievements. The good things, and the not-so-good things often come down not only to what we do, but also when we do them. And who happens to be watching when we do.

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It's a way of ending this particular discussion, and it's meant to do so in a condescending way. The nature of sports, particularly at the professional level, is that the games and the people playing them and coaching them, are going to receive scrutiny from the media. And the attention from the media isn't always going to be flattering. And at some point, every professional athlete or professional coach has sought to belittle the individual asking pointed questions about things gone wrong with some variation of, "What does a sports writer know about football anyway?"

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Alan Faneca. Timing.

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Bill Nunn. Sports writer.

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Last night both Alan Faneca and Bill Nunn received the highest individual honor their sport can bestow when they were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as members of the Class of 2021. Faneca cleared the final hurdle for induction on his sixth time as a Modern Era finalist, and Nunn was elected after being nominated by the Committee in the Contributor category. That both Faneca and Nunn are qualified and deserving of the honor they officially received on Saturday night is undeniable, but why now? Why did this turn out to be their time?

Faneca played offensive line for 13 seasons in the NFL, and that alone sentenced him to a career in anonymity for the most part, but in addition to being on the offensive line Faneca was a guard, which sentenced him to an additional level of anonymity. Centers touch the ball on every play and tackles match up against the game's most fearsome pass rushers, but guards?

The COVID-19 pandemic postponed the induction ceremony for the Class of 2020, and those men will be honored this summer in addition to the Class of 2021, which makes the following statistics still relevant. Only three guards were enshrined from the Modern Era category in the 10 years previous to 2020, and guards made up only 6.6 percent of all Hall of Fame players — 18 of 273. So what's to distinguish the guards who are deserving of enshrinement? Maybe it's timing.

Not so much timing in terms of when they advance to the level of Finalist, but maybe it's timing in terms of when they authored a signature moment of their NFL career.

"At Super Bowl XL," said Steelers President Art Rooney II, "I was seated in one of the boxes, and it was a play that almost as soon as it started to happen you could see there was a huge hole there. And if you give Willie (Parker) a big hole, he's going to run for a while. Willie got into the secondary pretty quickly, and of course he was able to out-run all of the defensive backs. Truth be told, it wasn't until we got back to Pittsburgh and looked at the video that you could see Alan's block, which was one of the blocks that created such a huge hole. I think it's accurate to say Willie was untouched on that run. One of the great plays in Super Bowl history, and a record, and I was glad to be there to see it."

The play referenced by Rooney was Parker's 75-yard touchdown run, still the longest touchdown run in Super Bowl history, and at the time it came 22 seconds into the second half and turned a 7-3 Steelers lead over Seattle into a 14-3 lead in a game they ultimately would win, 21-10. What Rooney, General Manager Kevin Colbert, Coach Bill Cowher and the others in that select audience saw during that viewing of the video at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex was this: tight end Heath Miller cracked down on defensive end Bryce Fisher to allow Faneca to pull smoothly from his left guard spot and arrive uncontested at the point of attack. There, Faneca encountered linebacker LeRoy Hill and turned him into road kill, and Parker was on the road to Super Bowl history.

"It's great that Alan was recognized for that block that led to the longest touchdown run in Super Bowl history because, unfortunately for a lot of guards, including Alan, they make those blocks in every game but no one notices," said Rooney. "It really is great that happened on a stage like a Super Bowl, and it became part of his story. It really is rare that a guard is associated with a play like that, and I know Alan made blocks like that every week during his career, but it's nice he had one that became a famous block."

Timing.

The Steelers have been in business since 1933, and no team has won more than the six Lombardi Trophies they can line up in a nice, neat row. That level of success could not have been achieved without some great offensive linemen, but when great Steelers offensive linemen come to mind, they are centers. Mike Webster. Dermontti Dawson. But guards? Based on what happened Saturday night during NFL Honors, the list has to start with Faneca.

"I'm always a little reluctant to anoint somebody like that since we do have such a long history, but it is difficult to argue," said Rooney when put on the spot to identify the best guard in franchise history. "Look, I'd probably throw Sam Davis and Gerry Mullins into the conversation at least, and I go back long enough to remember a guy like Bruce Van Dyke (from the 1960s). We've had some good guards over the years, but it would certainly be hard to argue about Alan. He ranks up there as probably the best, but I'm sure some of the guys from the 1970s would argue for Sam and Moon Mullins."

Back to Ford Field and the culmination of the 2005 NFL season.

"For his size, Alan was athletic and had the kind of speed that is rare," said Rooney. "For somebody of that size to be able to pull and get outside in front of running backs like Fast Willie Parker. That's just a very unusual physical ability that he had, and then obviously his tenacity and his mental toughness as a football player. The combination of all that was pretty tough to beat, and he just became someone who was a dominant player on our offensive line.

Faneca found a way to exhibit tenacity and mental toughness when his playing career ended, too. As a guard, Faneca played at around 310 pounds, but not all that long after he retired he re-shaped his body to a size that allowed him to enter and complete a marathon.

"It was shocking to see him after he lost all that weight," said Rooney. "He basically lost a whole person, and when I heard he had run a marathon it was amazing to be able to do that for someone who had been that size. Again, it just goes to show the tenacity that Alan has, the kind of determination he has as a person. The kind of makeup he has made him into a Hall of Fame football player."

That finally, finally, finally made him into a Hall of Fame player.

"There's no question that offensive linemen, and guards in particular, are probably the hardest people to evaluate for the Hall of Fame voters," said Rooney. "But I have to say I always felt like Alan belonged with the people who were in the Hall of Fame, and I really believed he eventually would get in there, too. I never lost hope, and I don't think he did either."

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He always has been the perfect comeback to the put-down, "What does a sports writer know about football anyway?" But now that he has been recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the sport's greatest individual honor, all that needs to follow the name, "Bill Nunn" is a dropping of the mic.

"I obviously knew he was a sports writer before he joined us, and the truth of the matter is – even though I was young at the time – I could pick up a little bit in the initial years, the scouts we had kind of had a question in their minds about what's this sports writer doing in our business," remembered Rooney. "Everybody overcame that pretty quickly, but I do remember that was the initial view of Bill by some scouts. There wasn't a great appreciation that he was an accomplished sports writer before he came to us, but then over time – particularly through his son – I learned a lot more about what he wrote and how he wrote and what went into selecting the Black College All-America Team and what went into that. He was a remarkable person, an intelligent person. With all of that, he never went out of his way to try to impress anybody. He was who he was, and he was as genuine as a man could be, and that's what made him so special. The humility he had, based on all of his accomplishments, even down to the end, was just very special."

Any Steelers fan who's worth his weight in Terrible Towels knows about Nunn's contributions to the Steelers, starting in the 1970s when he opened their eyes to a wealth of talent that helped turn the franchise into a dominant force in the 1970s. But Bill Nunn's significance to professional football and the NFL never was restricted to the Pittsburgh city limits.

"It's fantastic that he is getting this recognition, not only because of the tremendous contributions over so many years with the Steelers, but really because of his impact on the NFL and on college scouts in particular," said Rooney. "I know there are literally hundreds of scouts who have been through the league who would point to Bill as one of their most important mentors. It's great, and it took a while for the Hall of Fame to develop this Contributor category, but for someone like Bill to not be in the Hall of Fame would be just a crime. It's just very special that he's going in and finally being recognized for just an outstanding career."

Nunn was a scout, yes, but what separated him from the large group of other men doing the same job – beyond his keen eye and a sense for what makes an athlete special – was the significant role he played in helping the NFL become the sports powerhouse it is today and accomplishing it by creating opportunities for a group of young men who weren't and hadn't been getting them.

"The first time I met Bill, he had just joined us in the late 1960s, and I was a teenager who was working as a ballboy at training camp," remembered Rooney. "Bill became the camp manager, and so Bill was my boss. That's how I met him. Over time, our relationship evolved in a lot of different ways, into him being a friend and someone whose counsel I relied on and my father relied on tremendously. I just learned so much about life and about the experience of Black athletes in this country. Nobody in this country was able to talk more knowledgably about that than Bill, and of course his role of being on the ground floor in terms of opening the door to the NFL for all those great players who were coming from the Historically Black Colleges was so significant.

"Bill understood athletes, or 'ballplayers' as he called them," added Rooney. "So he understood how they should act and what they should look like, and his ability to evaluate people – and not just ballplayers – was something we talked about. I did have the opportunity to get to know Bill's son, also Bill, who was also a ballboy and he became one of my best friends. So my connection to Bill and his son, and the whole Nunn family was really one of the great benefits of my life in terms of having friends like that."

And it was a lot more than feel-good when it came to what Nunn brought to the Steelers, or more accurately, who Nunn brought to the Steelers. As Rooney said, "The group of people he brought to the Steelers over that first 10 years with the team, was just a remarkable track record."

The Steel Curtain might be the most famous defensive line in NFL history, and it was Nunn who first found L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, and Ernie Holmes, and then convinced Chuck Noll that speed and athleticism could be just as important to a dominant defensive line as size and strength. Mel Blount. John Stallworth. Donnie Shell. Frank Lewis. Joe Gilliam. Glen Edwards. When a Pittsburgh newspaper followed Chuck Noll's first-round selection in the 1969 NFL Draft with a headline that read, "Who's Joe Greene?" Nunn had known the answer all along.

"The John Stallworth story is notorious, and I'm sure other people have told it and so I don't need to go into that," said Rooney about Nunn's Greatest Hits. "But certainly being able to draft John in the fourth round was perhaps Bill's biggest coup, and then I'd have to throw Mel Blount into that discussion. I could go down the list, and there are a lot of people I could mention. Sam Davis coming from a small college. Joe Greene, a lot of people talk about him, but Joe was a top first-round pick and so it wasn't somebody people didn't know about. The guys like Sam Davis and John Stallworth, guys drafted a little later, and even going back to Ben McGee, guys who weren't well known but Bill brought them in and they wound up making major contributions. Those are the kind of guys I tend to think about."

Those players made major contributions to the Steelers' rise to NFL prominence, and some of them are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. But Nunn's contributions to that rise were just as significant, and it's only just that he is to be enshrined, too.

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