The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Gerry “Moon” Mullins in the fourth round of the 1971 NFL Draft with the 86th overall pick. Mullins would go on to start 87 games for the Steelers during the 1970’s dynasty mostly at guard, but he did play two seasons at tackle for the black and gold.
Thanks to the Starless Steelers author Steve Massey’s Twitter account, I became aware of an interview that Mullins gave to Steelers.com as part of the Steelers Legend Series back in 2018 and was fascinated by his stories of his days with the Steelers. Mullins commented on his being drafted by Pittsburgh the year prior to the beginning of the 1970’s playoff runs:
“When I first got drafted, I have to be honest, I thought I was going to Siberia. My second year here, I got to know a little bit more about the city, I felt better about my teammates. After three or four years of going back and forth to the west coast, Pittsburgh finally grew on me, and I became a homer.”
The 1970 Steelers were 5-9 and were in the midst of a 38-year run dating back to the start of the NFL with one playoff appearance and 0 playoff wins. They occasionally had good teams, but overall, the Steelers were still a joke, although Chuck Noll was building the greatest team in NFL history. Mullins started five games for the Steelers in 1971, but appeared in all 14. It makes you wonder, since he relates that he moved to Pittsburgh full-time in 1975, if he meant Super Bowl IX was the deciding factor in deciding to call Pittsburgh his home. Mullins shares:
“We didn’t realize how good we were, it was a process. It was drawing together as a unit. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work making the whole a lot better. In retrospect looking back it was a really great team, but I don’t think we really realized how good we were.”
This is a common thread that runs through many players that Noll drafted. He seemed to instill a sense of team that has permeated the entire Super Bowl era for the Steelers. It was important to Noll and embraced by his players that the best man for the job played and that the success of the unit was more important than the individual. Mullins continues:
“Probably the highlight of my career was Super Bowl IX seeing Mr. [Art] Rooney get the Lombardi Trophy. You know after all those years of frustration, he was a great individual, he really cared about the players, visited the locker room every day. He wasn’t just popular with the stars, he visited all of us, made you feel important to him. You wanted to give your all for him. I think he was a big part in motivating guys to the next level.”
Mullins in his first Super Bowl appearance made a key block to spring Franco Harris for the Steelers first touchdown in the Super Bowl era against the Minnesota Vikings. He pulled to the left and delivered a crushing block on Wally Hilgenberg who was the only man Harris had to beat on a 9-yard dash to paydirt. Jerry Kramer turned a block on a Bart Starr quarterback sneak into an excellent lucrative book, Instant Replay, about the Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers. It says a lot about Mullins that having such an important highlight block in Steelers history, that his proudest moment has nothing to do with the play, and everything to do with Mr. Rooney.
Mullins spoke about how he became such an effective blocker for the high-powered Steelers run offense:
“I was fortunate, if you could say fortunate, that I had to go up against Joe Greene for the majority of my career. One thing about Joe, he took it easy on me, he was really interested in speed off the ball and how to react to the opponent. He wasn’t interested in dealing out a whole lot of pain to me. The same couldn’t be said for the other side of the line. Jon [Kolb] and Sam Davis over there against Ernie Holmes and Steve Furness, those guys were maniacs.”
Greene and L.C Greenwood shared the other side of the line and while Greene is recognized as the most important Steeler ever and a Hall of Famer, Greenwood was also secure in his place on the team and he is the single most egregious Hall of Fame slight in the history of the NFL. Holmes and Furness were fighting for their football lives on every play, and it is informative to hear how that carried over to practice. Mullins shared how close the players really were:
“Franco had a poker game every Tuesday night or Tuesday afternoon after a light workout. I played cards with Joe Greene, Frenchy Fuqua, Franco and Lynn Swann, you know a number of people played. It just got to be important to be taking care of your teammates that were your friends instead of just a face. I have to be honest with you, I wasn’t really motivated by football like some of my teammates. I enjoyed the social life after the games, you know after practice.”
You can watch the whole interview here. Head coach Mike Tomlin, who is part of the Tony Dungy coaching tree, which finds its roots in the Noll tree is a huge believer in this philosophy. This is really the foundation of the famous Steeler Way of doing things. Mullins credits Mr. Rooney for fostering the environment, and it has bled through the family and organization for years.
Today’s NFL is littered with “me first” players who are making millions of dollars and it would be hard to envision most modern stars the level of Greene and Harris spending so much time in fellowship with all players on the team. It is why even in today’s NFL, the Steelers are never out of a game and why year after year the rest of the NFL cannot understand that when they have teams devoid of equal talent, they still find ways to win. Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson once observed that “it is not about the X’s and O’s, it’s about Jimmy’s and Joe’s.” Luckily the Steelers organization was born with that knowledge and Noll and the rest of the organization has been finding the right men for the job ever since.
We could all use a little of Mr. Rooney’s philosophy towards our fellow man on this July 4th weekend.