With the Steelers rich history and tradition, it's never easy to narrow down the list of legends who belong in the team's Hall of Honor.
And once again this year, the men chosen truly represent what it meant to play for the Steelers, both on and off the field.
All of the members of the 2021 Steelers Hall of Honor Class have crossed the white line with at least another member of the class, with three of the four of them teammates at one point in their career.
The Steelers legends who will be inducted into the Hall of Honor for 2021 include Tunch Ilkin, Jon Kolb, Carnell Lake and Louis Lipps.
"It's a great time in Steelers' football," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "We have some great Steelers going into the Hall of Honor and some great Steelers going into Canton next week. It's a great time in Steelers' football.
"Our selection committee, as well as our fans, come up with names every year and as we start to sort through everybody it does become difficult. There have been so many great players and people that made great contributions to Steelers football, that is why we are so proud to be able to do this every year.
"It was a special day to announce the 2021 Hall of Honor class, which four great Steelers, longtime contributors to the organization, three of them on and off the field. Jon Kolb played on the great teams of the 70s, Carnell was with us for a long time as a player and a coach. Made some special plays throughout his career. Louie Lipps played in a time when we didn't win Super Bowl, but he was still a standup, dynamic player. Tunch not only a great player, had a long career with us on the field, but an even longer career off the field as a great broadcaster for us. I'm excited to have these four people join the Hall of Honor."
The Hall of Honor announcement took place at Heinz Field in the FedEx Great Hall in front of fans, something that Rooney enjoyed.
"This is the first time we ever have done it with that many fans as part of the announcement," said Rooney. "So that was great. The last few days felt really special getting people back in the building, having people feel like they are part of Steelers football again. It's long overdue."
The Steelers will formally induct the Class of 2021, along with the Class of 2020, the weekend of Nov. 13 and 14 when the team hosts the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field. Ticket information for the Hall of Honor event will be available on steelers.com once available.
Steelers announce four new members to the Hall of Honor in 2021
If you are looking for someone who truly and honestly represents what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steelers legend, look no further than Tunch Ilkin. And Ilkin credits the legends before him for landing him where he is today.
"It is an incredible honor to be included in the Steelers Hall of Honor," said Ilkin. "I looked up to Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Larry Brown, Jon Kolb…all the guys from those great Super Bowl teams. I learned so much from them. They not only taught me how to be a pro football player, but also how to be a husband, father and man of faith. This is more than a football team…it's a brotherhood I am grateful to have been a part of."
When Ilkin was drafted by the Steelers in the sixth round of the 1980 NFL Draft out of Indiana State, his mother, Ayten, who is from Istanbul, Turkey, panicked for a moment, thinking he was drafted into the Army.
Once her son cleared the air, her and all of Pittsburgh were thrilled to welcome Ilkin to the fold for what wouldn't just be a 13-year Steelers playing career, but a lifetime of being a staple in the city.
Ilkin came to the Steelers as a center and transitioned into a tackle. Ilkin, who was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1988 and 1989, never gave up a sack to Hall of Famer Reggie White, despite White having 198 career sacks.
Ilkin played in 177 games in the NFL, 176 of them with the Steelers and one with the Green Bay Packers in 1993 before his retirement. He started 143 games, earning a starting spot in the 1983 season, and never letting go of it. Ilkin was selected to the Steelers' all-time team in 2007 to celebrate the team's 75th season.
His relationship with the team didn't stop there. After his playing career he joined the Pittsburgh Steelers Radio Network, spending 23 years in the booth before retiring in early June to focus on his treatment for ALS, which he was diagnosed with in 2020.
"Obviously, we're all thinking and praying for Tunch every day," said Rooney. "And so to have him part of the class this year, it makes it even more special."
The announcement of his retirement brought love for Ilkin, from inside and outside the organization, and from those he touched the most, including those at the Light of Life Rescue Mission, where he has done everything from led Bible study at the mission, spoke at Chapel services, hosted a walk, served meals and invited members of the Light of Life's programs to training camp, along with a lot more for 35 years.
"There is no question we will lock arms with him, fight this fight, pray with him, stand with him as he goes through this battle and cheer him on just as he has cheered us on for 35 years," said Doug Smith, executive director of Light of Life Rescue Mission. "We can't even put into words how grateful we are as an organization for the two of them, him and Craig Wolfley. The challenge in today's world is how many players actually stick around a city for 35 years. I think what is special is, and Tunch always shares the story, is that he walked into Light of Life as a player. There are a lot of charities you can go to as a player, but he said once he walked through the doors of the mission, he has never been the same. That was almost 35 years ago, which is half of our existence at Light of Life."
Take a look at photos of former Steelers offensive tackle and broadcaster Tunch Ilkin through the years
Jon Kolb was part of Chuck Noll's first draft class with the Steelers, selected in the third round of the 1969 NFL Draft. And now he is going in to the Hall of Honor with players he said had the same mindset that his former coach had.
"Art Rooney II called as I was getting ready to drive back from Idaho this week to give me the news," said Kolb. "I had so much time to think about it. It makes me so happy to go in with this group, as those people had the mindset that Chuck Noll used to have. They are guys who are always going to do more than you ask them to do. Those are the kind of people that make the Steelers who they are, make this Hall of Honor group special. It's really emotional to me."
While Kolb was thrilled to get the the call from Steelers President Art Rooney II sharing the news, the day he was drafted and received a call from Art Rooney Sr. was much different.
But let him tell you the story.
"The day before the draft I got a letter from the Pittsburgh Steelers. I opened it up and it said, 'Dear Player.' It didn't have my name," recalled Kolb. "The signature at the bottom was stamped, not signed, so I just threw it away because they didn't know my name.
"Then the draft comes, and I thought they would just pick, and it be over. I didn't know it would take all day. I waited in my room and nobody called, so I went to class.
"After class I went to work out. When I walked into the dressing room Mr. (Art) Rooney had called the dressing room because they just drafted me. All the guys were around the phone because they said somebody named Rooney from Pittsburgh is on the phone.
"He said hello, and that they had just drafted me. I didn't know Mr. Rooney. He asked if I was excited. I thought they were playing a trick on me and found some man to say you were drafted by the Steelers. I thought it was a joke on me. So, I was really rude to Mr. Rooney. I was so rude. He told me they were excited to have me come to Pittsburgh and he asked if I was excited, and I said no. He said, well we're still excited, we're looking forward to seeing you.
"He hung up and I thought that is a terrible trick. That night I thought I have some friends, my roommate and some friends who might be drafted, I watched the news to see where my friends are going. I will never forget the news came on and they said Jon Kolb is going to Pittsburgh. I thought, 'Oh my gosh. That was for real.'
"The very next day I called the Steelers office. I didn't know who to ask for because I was so rude, I didn't pay attention. They put Mr. Rooney on the phone. I was almost in tears apologizing. He was so gracious."
Kolb never took his selection as a joke after that, having a stellar career as a part of an offensive line that helped a prolific offense win four Super Bowl championships in the 1970s.
He started 177 games in 13 seasons, going against some of the best in the business and always holding his own. He might not have won some of the honors others did, although he was selected to the Steelers' all-time team in 2007 to celebrate the team's 75th season, but that didn't matter to him. Playing for Noll he was accustomed to not getting patted on the back often.
"After one game he said good job," said Kolb, who played with Ilkin and is helping him with his treatment for ALS at his training facility, Adventures in Training with a Purpose. "It was the first time he said it. Then he said if you weren't doing a good job, you wouldn't be here. That was Chuck. That good job lasted for the next eight years. I still hold to it. That was my one good job, and I will hold onto it for as long as I live."
Take a look at photos of former Steelers offensive lineman and coach Jon Kolb through the years
Carnell Lake exemplified what it meant to be a team player from the time he arrived with the Steelers. And his selection to the Hall of Honor is something he knows is the ultimate honor for a team player.
"I was shocked when I got the call," said Lake. "The Steelers organization is so legendary. It's hard to put it into words. All of the great players, coaches and scouts who have come through the years, to be in the Hall of Honor is a dream come true. There are so many people I looked up to over the years, it's almost God-like football wise. It's so nice for the Steelers to say you are part of history, you made a small contribution that was noteworthy, so it's great."
Rod Woodson, the future Hall of Fame cornerback, tore his ACL in the season opener of the 1995 season. A struggling Steelers team sat at 3-4, without a true replacement for Woodson at that point. Coach Bill Cowher knew there was just one option. Carnell Lake. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau ended up calling Lake on an off time to tell him the plan, and the following morning Lake was at Three Rivers Stadium before 6 a.m. to learn his new spot. The mid-season move paid off as the Steelers advanced to Super Bowl XXX, with the secondary being a key to the success.
"I had mixed emotions about it," said Lake about making the move. "One, I was upset because we knew we were turning into a good team. It was the start of the 1995 season, and we opened against Detroit. Rod Woodson went down with an injury. That was a big letdown for the whole team. He was one of our star players. We felt good as a defense having a player like that. When he went down it took the air out of us.
"We went another six games before Coach LeBeau came to me on a Sunday night and said we have been trying to fill Rod's shoes and it's not working. He asked me if I would be willing to move to corner. I said, I am not sure, why don't I practice corner for the week and on Friday let's talk about it and see if it's something we still want to do. By Friday, after practicing there for a few days, I felt like I can do this.
"That Sunday I was playing corner. We played Cleveland. That was my first game at corner. It was non-eventful. I thought this corner stuff isn't so bad. Then we went to Cincinnati and we played against a bunch of Pro Bowl wide receivers and it was a different game. I was taken to task out there. I had a bad game, and I was sitting on the bench and Coach Cowher came up to me and said corners have to have a short memory. That right there freed me from the levity of it all, the burden of making the change. I thought after that corners are going to get beat occasionally, it comes with the position. I took off after that."
Lake's efforts didn't go unnoticed, as he was voted to the Pro Bowl four consecutive years, 1994-97, including making it as a cornerback in 1995 and 1997. He was also voted Associated Press first-team All-Pro in 1997. He became the first defensive back to lead the Steelers in sacks in a season (six) in 1997 and finished his career with 25 sacks and 16 interceptions.
"I played with some of the best players that have ever played the game. I played in a city that has a history of winning. A fan base that is probably the best in the NFL by far, around the world. I couldn't have asked for a better experience," said Lake, who returned as the team's secondary coach from 2011-18. "I think for any organization the culture of it starts at the top. The Rooney family has been very supportive. I played 10 years for the Steelers and then coached. They have always been rock solid in their support of players and coaches. They are very approachable, always in the building. I think that starts it off for everybody. The Rooneys have always picked quality head coaches. Fortunately for the Steelers there has been consistent leadership and there hasn't been a lot of turnover. I think that is a reason the Steelers have been able to win as much as we are. That trickle-down effect, from picking good coaches, to staff and ultimately it comes down to picking good players. The Steelers have always had a knack for finding good talent. You combine all of those things and put it in the pot and what comes out are Super Bowls."
Take a look at photos of former Steelers safety and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake through the years
To this day, when Louis Lipps runs into Steelers fans, he hears the old familiar cheer. 'Louuuuu,' they will yell, sometimes just passing him on the street, sometimes on the way into Heinz Field, just about anywhere he goes he still hears it.
But nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to hearing it at Three Rivers Stadium when he made a big reception.
"I almost get the question asked of me every time I go somewhere," said Lipps. "'What was it like?' I could sit here and tell you 20 different stories. But you actually had to have been down there and listen to it. I had goose bumps as big as marbles on my arms and throughout my body. It just made you want to go out there and do something fantastic or something big just to hear that crowd go crazy and scream your name. The fans in the stadiums make you do things that when you see it on film, you look up at yourself and think, 'How the heck did I do that?' And that's because of people in the stadium, they make you do unbelievable things."
Lipps, who is from New Orleans, Louisiana, remained in Pittsburgh after his playing days because of that love affair with the city and the fans. And it was a two-way street for the former first-round pick who made an immediate impact on the team.
Lipps was the team's No. 1 pick in the 1984 draft out of Sothern Mississippi. He finished his rookie season with 45 catches for 860 yards (19.1 average), led the NFL with 656 punt return yards, and scored 11 touchdowns. He was voted to the AFC All-Pro team and Pro Bowl as the kick returner his rookie year and was the NFL Rookie of the Year.
Lipps, who played with Ilkin and Lake, led the Steelers in receiving in 1989, 1990 and 1991, while finishing tied with Merril Hoge in 1988 for the lead. His 358 receptions and 6,018 receiving yards still rank fifth in team history, while he is also fifth in 100-yard receiving games with 16, and seventh in receiving touchdowns with 39. It doesn't stop there. Lipps is fifth in team history with 107 career punt returns and punt returns yards with 1,212 and is tied for third with Ray Mathews in punt return touchdowns with three.
A two-time Pro Bowl selection he was also voted the Steelers MVP twice.
"My high school colors were black and gold, my college colors were black and gold, so my cousin said, 'Naturally, I knew you were going to Pittsburgh.' And that's what happened," said Lipps. "But playing in Pittsburgh was special for me. Here in Pittsburgh, you feel so attached to the fans because the fans are so attached to us. That's what makes it special. It makes you want to go out there and perform, not only for you and for your coaches and your other teammates, but for the people that would do anything for you. Playing in Pittsburgh is just a special place to play.
"You'd be surprised at what some of them would say after you take a picture with them, sign an autograph for them. They'll tell you, 'Good luck next year.' I'm like, 'You know I don't play anymore.' But it really is neat. You don't hear very many other players from other teams talking the way former players from the Steelers talk."
Take a look at photos of former Steelers wide receiver Louis Lipps through the years