By CRAIG WOLFLEY
I think I'm pretty much like everybody else when it comes to funerals. It's a tough time, especially when the person being laid to rest is someone who has played a significant role in your life. So it was with a heavy heart that I willed my feet to walk into the funeral home with my wife Faith to pay our last respects to the Noll family and the man who had changed the arc, range, and trajectory of my life.
The large viewing area in the funeral home loomed as a soft backdrop to the gathering of former Steelers players, coaches, front office personnel, the Rooney family, as well as the many league officials who had gathered to say goodbye and pay their last respects to a man who had touched so many lives.
Take a look at the top 10 photos of Steelers former head coach Chuck Noll.
Fidgeting with my tie, as I am wont to do in uncomfortable situations, I coughed and glanced around the room taking in the moment. I gripped my wife's hand a little tighter, cleared my throat again and inwardly chastised myself for not having the foresight to bring a handkerchief.
My eyes drifted from family members, to Tunch Ilkin and his wife Karen, to Roger Goodell and others, only to settle on Joe Greene, the man who kick-started the Steelers franchise that came to define the word "Dynasty" before it became a hit TV series.
Joe was, as you would expect given the circumstances, respectfully quiet, withdrawn even, the customary smoldering aura that generally preceded him into any room he's ever entered now gone like a campfire doused on a rainy night.
Joe stood to my left, Tunch to my right, as I rounded out a rough circle of those who had the good fortune to have their lives touched by Charles Henry Noll. I couldn't help but look at Joe, as I've always looked at Joe. He's always been larger than life to me.
The Samurai say that the window into a man's soul is in his eyes, and if you've ever been on the wrong side of a glare by Joe Greene, then you know that to be true. But it was in those very eyes that I saw such as I've never seen before in Mean Joe.
I saw pure, unadulterated grief so deeply profound that words were incapable of expressing its depths. In that moment I saw the enormity of what Coach Noll had meant to the life of Charles Edward Greene.
Memories, reflection, and introspection during a period of mourning are a natural by-product of grieving. It was then as I stood in Joe's shadow that I began to reflect on my own interaction with Coach, how he had influenced my life and how I viewed life in general through the prism of a player who got to spend a decade under the tutelage of the greatest coach in the history of the NFL. A man who personally shunned the spotlight but walked in it wherever he went.
Whether it was the first time I met Coach or the last time I saw him, it always seemed to be a time to remember. Because you were always learning something from your time with Chuck Noll.
Standing there adjusting, re-adjusting and then finally waving the white flag of surrender over my rebellious tie, I talked, pretended to listen and then just drifted away, doing the slow mental fade to the first meeting I had with Chuck, which was when he traveled to Syracuse University to work me out before the draft in the spring of 1980.
Our first meeting
Nervous mind you, doesn't even begin to describe the churning in my gullet as I shook hands with Chuck Noll. He was, as he always was, just himself. Coach was comfortable in his own skin whether he was coaching, directing a symphony orchestra at training camp, piloting an airplane, captaining a ship, discussing French cuisine or the characteristics of fine wines.
I can truthfully say that I was in a state of awe, having Coach Noll there to work me out. There was an immediate awkwardness on my part as I began warming up while trying to act like I had coaching legends drop in to work me out all the time. After spending 20 or so minutes on footwork and run blocking, Coach wanted to work on pass pro, he wanted to teach me how to "punch."
Photos of Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame head coach Chuck Noll.
Chuck was always big on explaining things, always wanting us to know the "theory behind what we're trying to get done." It wasn't enough to know what to do, it was just as important in Coach's mind for us to know why we were doing it.
After carefully explaining the whys and hows of punching a pass rusher in the chest, with attention to detail in footwork, angle of the elbows and timing, not to mention head position and point of aim, Coach started to pass rush from a three-point stance across from me.
Now, I don't know about you, but lining up across from and being asked to punch a living legend who had already re-written the NFL record book and produced more wins in a decade than anybody else in the 1970s with four Lombardis already in the trophy case is no easy task in my book.
And if you've been brought up by your parents to respect your seniors, your betters, and your heroes, then you would immediately understand the my dilemma.
The first couple of attempts went as bad as could be expected, given my awestruck frame of mind at the moment. Any one of my three daughters could have punched Coach Noll harder than I did. My mind was saying "PUNCH!" but my body immediately threw the emergency brake on the outcome, and the combination left me in a posture that more resembled a kindly priest blessing one of his parishioners than a potential professional athlete attempting to rock someone's world.
I followed those few miserable reps up with a couple more abysmal attempts at punching Coach, and I could see he was getting a little exasperated. Apparently what he was trying to convey wasn't getting through to me.
"Punch me like you mean it!" Coach Noll said in a tone that was much sterner tone than the conversational one with which he had started. I became anxious and unnerved. I was starting to panic. I began talking to myself and mumbling like Dustin Hoffman in the movie "Rain Man" which only made the moments in-between the latest attempt to defend a pass rush and the bulldog "look" he was casting my way more awkward than it already was.
Understanding that it was a now-or-never moment, I lined up with a sense of desperation. Coach rushed me and threw an uppercut. I lashed out powerfully with both hands. My left hand hit his shoulder, ricocheted straight up into his face, snapped his head back like a Pez dispenser and stopped him immediately in his tracks.
I froze in mid recoil, staring stupidly at Coach as he slowly turned towards me with blood beginning to ooze from his mouth. My eyes started to glaze over as I stared dumbfounded at my left hand, looking for all the world as if it had a mind of its own and had just betrayed me and single-handedly dashed all my hopes and dreams of ever wearing a Steelers jersey.
The volume in my noggin pumped up to an ear-splitting decibel level. "You IDIOT! You just punched the Head Coach of the four-time Super Bowl Champion Steelers right in the grill! You drew blood, you jerk! How stupid can you be? Go ahead and cross Pittsburgh off the list for the draft, bonehead!"
One can only imagine the thoughts going on in Chuck's head as he viewed this stammering, stuttering, apologetic kid from Buffalo, New York, standing before him looking for a hole to crawl into. All the while Coach was looking at me with a bemused expression on his face while wiping his mouth off on the back of his sleeve. With a slow smile creeping over his face and the teacher who has realized the lesson had been learned, he said simply, "Now, that's a punch."
I shook my head and absentmindedly chuckled to myself. Cherished memories began spilling out, one after another. Chuck spotting Ray Pinney and the can of silicone spray; Chuck telling Jerry Glanville to meet him out in the parking lot outside the Astrodome; Coach and the pool ingredients – one of his in-depth stories whose meaning we couldn't seem to grasp. The memories moved through my noggin faster as I stood there next to Faith, oblivious to my surroundings.
Teaching the difference between pain and injury**
Coach was always big on teaching. And one of his pet peeves was in learning to be a pro, and part of that dealt with pain and injury.
"There's a difference between pain and injury," Chuck would often lecture us. Yes, there was. And it was amazing how, with just a single look from Coach you might experience the healing of an injury which only moments before you might have thought would keep you out of practice.
It sure worked on me.
After becoming an established starter for several years and then in the middle-to-latter part of my career, I had pulled my groin the week before in a game against the Buffalo Bills. My left leg was black and blue, swollen two-and-a-half inches larger than my right. I had gutted it out through the Wednesday and Thursday practices, but with another game coming up, I felt I needed a break.
I entered the training room and jumped up on the taping table, a bit disgruntled and feeling unappreciated on a Friday morning while getting ready for practice. Tunch and several others were already getting the ankles done up, and I said determinedly to Tunch, "I got to have a day off. You know what? I'm telling Chuck I need to rest this thing. No way he's gonna make me practice today. I mean it!"
Tunch, always the instigator, laughed and then went straight to the heart of the matter. He issued the double-dog dare with the rest of the training room listening in. "Sure, go ahead. I think you're entitled to a day off. Louie Lipps got time off for his hammy. Just tell Chuck you're hurting and you can't go. I dare you! No, I double dog dare you!"
Looking at the rest of guys in the room, who now, with Tunch chortling away, found themselves in on it, I loudly reiterated to Tunch, trainer Ralph Berlin and anyone listening in that I would be taking the day off.
Hear me now and believe me later when I tell you there were a lot of doubters in that training room. With all the boldness of an idiot sawing off the very tree limb upon which he sat, I repeated yet again my determination to take off the padded practice scheduled for that afternoon.
You wouldn't believe it unless you were there. Not 10 seconds later, as if all of this was orchestrated and carried out on cue without my knowledge, right after that second public declaration of defiance, in comes Chuck into the training room. As Coach passed by the front of the taping table, with Tunch and me sitting side by side, he paused, turned, "looked" at me and said, "Wolf, how's the leg?"
My head froze up like a block of ice. I tried to remember my reasons for not practicing. A clammy sweat suddenly broke out on my forehead like I had a fever. In my mind, I was stating my case defiantly like a teenager standing up to perceived unrighteous parental authority. In reality what came out of my mouth was entirely a different matter.
In the midst of having an out of body experience I suddenly blurted out, "Great coach. I'm ready to go!"
"Good," He said as he whisked out of the training room and into the locker room.
You can only imagine the grief I took and the gales of laughter that erupted in the training room AFTER Chuck made his exit. And yes, I did practice that day.
A tap on my arm from my wife started me on the road back to the present, to the last time I saw Coach. Even though we were beginning to move forward into the line to pay our last respects I couldn't shake the vestiges of one more trip down memory lane.
It was during the 75th anniversary of the Pittsburgh Steelers, in 2007. Chuck was honored before a game at Heinz Field. As the sideline reporter for the Steelers Radio Network, I was standing ringside during the ceremony, enjoying every minute as the man who had changed my life basked in the thunderous applause that washed over Heinz Field like a vocal tsunami.
As Chuck slowly walked to the sidelines with his wonderful wife Marianne at his side, as she has been for virtually all of his life, I found myself needing to see him once more. I dodged in between a number of people and came alongside Chuck. I extended my hand and bent over and said, "Coach, it's me. Craig Wolfley."
The handshake brought me close to Coach, almost shoulder to shoulder. With eyes that seemed to smile much broader at this moment than any I remember as a player, he smiled and with a slight chuckle said, "I see you've gotten into your life's work."
The pure pleasure of having Coach smile on me one more time leaves me forever grateful for my time spent with Chuck Noll. He didn't just make me a better football player. He made me a better man.