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Exclusive with Former Steelers WR Roy Jefferson



Our Ron Lippock spoke with former Steelers receiver Roy Jefferson, who played for the team from 1965-1969 before being traded to the Baltimore Colts. In 1968, Jefferson was named an All-Pro and was the first Steelers player to achieve back-to-back 1,000 yard receiving seasons (1969, 1969). Jefferson clashed with Chuck Noll and was traded after the 1969 season. Jefferson was named to the Steelers Legends team in 2007 as one of the 24 best players to play for the franchise before 1970.

First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself since you retired in ’76?

Back when we played we had to work in the offseason – we didn’t make much money then. In the offseason I worked for WAMO radio station my rookie season helping to cover sports. Porkey Kenwood was one of the DJs then and he used to have sock hops all over the area.

Well, he got calls to do so many of them he had me go to some of the high schools and teen centers and do some for him when he couldn’t do it. I loved it – I would dance while playing the music. It was a ball!

Later on in other offseasons I worked at Gimbels Department Store selling furniture. Then US Steel hired me and I worked for them while they paid for me to get my degree at the University of Utah.

After the NFL, I worked with some builders and contractors selling carpet, tile and kitchen cabinets. Then, when I went to Washington in ’72 and ’73, I worked with the Washington metro system, working with youth in high schools to deal with the vandalism on the buses there.

I also worked with Warner Wolf reviewing Redskins games on TV. Then I opened up the Learning Center in ’73-’76 to help elementary school kids to develop their reading skills. We used to get them bus passes to come to DC and attend classes after school. I was also an Information Officer for the NFL, making sure players were aware of the CBA situations and helping them with their problems.

I opened up a barbecue business in ’88 – three of them and turned it into a catering-only business afterwards. Lastly, I went into the mortgage business from 2003-2009. But in 2009 my mom got ill, and I lost my job taking care of her. Since then I haven’t worked really. I’ve been depressed you could say….though my wife and I are doing OK now.

Among those other ventures, you played the lead role in the 1976 movie Brotherhood of Death. How did that come about and how much did you enjoy that experience?

Oh, a local guy was doing documentaries then. His father owned a chain of movie theaters in Maryland and he wanted to make this, what he called a Black Exploitation movie. He asked me to do it and showed me the script. Those days, $7,500 and half-a-percent of the profits went a long way. Though I never got that half-percent. I know they got a million from selling the rights to India – I saw an article on it. But I never saw that money.

It was grueling. I didn’t realize how tough it was — nine-to-ten hours on the set to film just forty-five minutes. You have to be there all the time — different things may look done until you see them in a certain light…so the schedule was always changing.

You’ve had a few football related surgeries and a few more slated in the upcoming months, including hip and knee surgeries. Has the NFL helped you financially and otherwise – and have you been satisfied with how the NFL has supported you and your peers as they deal with football-related injuries?

I had carpal-tunnel surgery on my hand twice — though I think the need for the second time was the doctor’s fault. I had hip replacement surgery and will be scheduling the first of two knee replacement surgeries soon. Medicare took care of all of the injuries — the NFL had to take care of none of it. They would have if I didn’t have insurance — and the insurance took care of my surgeries in ’75 and the 80’s as well.

I also got some workman’s comp for my back and knee. The NFLPA had assisted me financially when I had some issues dealing with depression when my mom died. They also helped when I developed shingles – it was a mild form luckily. Then I developed hyper-thyroid issues and lost twenty-five pounds in two weeks. It turned to Graves Disease and the NFLPA helped with that too.

My thyroid’s normal now. I’m playing golf again – my hip and carpal-tunnel are well enough now and I’m playing golf better than ever.

Are you happy then with how the NFL and NFLPA have helped you over the years?

I’m not content at all. I received $15,000 from our lawsuit against the NFLPA for defrauding players. The attorney that represented us is now working for the NFLPA! They didn’t take the advice of Larry Parish to go after the $100 million – they only went after $7 million. We should have gotten much more.

You were the second round pick in 1965 of both the Steelers and the AFL Chargers. What made you decide to play for the Steelers over the AFL?

Well, the Chargers were part of the new league. I chose to go with a proven league. Money wasn’t a determining factor. The AFL was the new boy on the block – money just wasn’t a prevalent thing to go after for me. If I was a money-grubber, I would have gone for more money, but I was satisfied then to sign with the Steelers.

Who helped you most as a rookie in ’65 – what players and coaches helped you most on and off the field – and how?

Bobby Layne was the quarterbacks coach then and he said “Roy, if you work hard, you could be a star in this league.” I was impressed with that.

Brady Keys was responsible for me. He made me look at film of Paul Warfield and told me that “This is what you should incorporate into your style of running.” He was hard on me – I worked out with him and was instrumental in my becoming a better wide receiver.

You played for Coach Nixon first season in Pittsburgh. What was your relationship with him and what was his coaching style like?

Austin was not an imposing  guy. He was very nice – mild-mannered. I have nothing negative to say about him. I was a young rookie then – I couldn’t say much about him either way. I didn’t know much as a rookie.

What were your experiences with Scout Bill Nunn and Coach Austin, who replaced Nixon?

Bill Nunn was the conduit for those guys coming to the team from the smaller, Southern Black colleges. Those guys were more intimidated by the coaches than I was, I grew up in California and wasn’t intimidated.

That’s where Coach Austin and I didn’t see eye-to-eye. He was a dictator and I wasn’t mild-mannered in my reaction to him. He’d curse at me and I’d curse him back. He was just one of those guys that wanted you to be afraid of him… that’s my thought on his coaching technique, anyway.

You were the first ever Steelers receiver to have over 1,000 yards receiving two years in a row (1968, 1969). What factors led most to your success on those teams?

All of those years before my success, I just didn’t have anyone to throw me the ball. I was averaging fifteen, sometimes over twenty yards a catch, but I didn’t have many passes thrown to me.

I caught more in ’68 and ’69 because our offensive line was better – they were good pass blockers. And Dick Shiner was brought in. He made the final difference. The offensive line was really good – Hoak had good years then too, and Shiner complimented the group well.

Much has been said of the conflicts that occurred between you and Coach Noll that eventually led him to trade you in 1970. What, from your point of view, were the issues between the two of you and why did they reach a point where you, despite being an elite receiver, ended up being traded to Baltimore?

I was a high-strung, young guy. I thought I was smart – I knew the offense and would not be intimidated. You can’t put fear into me. I was also a guy that liked to go out at night and had curfew problems, and Coach Noll and I argued about that.

I remember we played the Giants in Toronto and I was out after curfew. He sent me home and suspended me for a week.

Then, it all came to a head in training camp in 1970. Noll was running back-to-back passing drills, 7-on-7’s then 11-on-11’s. I had a cough and the trainer told me I was not allowed to practice. I said I was OK and I kept asking to practice, but the trainer said no.

Well, it was ninety-four degrees , and for some reason most of the receivers were hurt that day. I told {receivers coach} Lionel Taylor that those guys were going to kill themselves in that heat. There were just two guys, one being Hubie Bryant, to run plays and they were both young guys trying to make the team.

I asked Taylor to let me run some patterns – that the young guys will kill themselves to make the team. He finally said to let him check with Chuck. But he never did.

I was pissed. Incensed. So I went and listened in the huddle, tapped the other receiver and told him I was going to run for him that play. Hanratty threw me the ball, then on the next play he threw it to me again, and Coach Noll saw it that time. Noll was hot – he yelled at me to get off the field – that I was not supposed to be out there practicing. So I yelled at him back and got off the field.

Well, later in the locker room they bring Hubie Bryant in packed in ice – sweat was literally popping off of him – I never saw anything like it. It actually hit me in the face. I never saw that before – I started crying. They took him away in an ambulance.

Someone came in then and told me Chuck wanted to see me. He said “Roy, I’m tired of you usurping my authority.” I explained what I was doing – that I thought those guys would kill themselves. I said those kids could have died out there and that someone should get on you for allowing that to happen. I said I didn’t want to play for him – that I didn’t care if he traded me.

The next thing you know, I was traded.

Where you happy about being traded, or was that a difficult move for you to leave the team? And did going to a team where you got to win a Super Bowl (Baltimore) help alleviate the difficulty of being traded?

I loved Pittsburgh. I knew people three-to-four blocks all-around me. That just didn’t happen in Washington, where I played later. It’s not a knock on Washington, it’s just that the people are easier to get acquainted with in Pittsburgh. Being a fan there is personal.

I didn’t hate Dan Rooney either. I was upset at him – I felt I should have been paid more and we fought about that a lot. That was a thorn in my side. I was young and hot-headed and said things I shouldn’t have said. If it were me now, I wouldn’t have said many of those things.

All was good in Baltimore though, where I was traded to. I was there with my friend and former Steeler Ray May. Being traded made me think like a rookie. I made sure I made the team and wanted them to know they could count on me. I know Johnny Unitas respected me for that.

Who were some of the biggest characters on those Steelers teams?

John Henry Johnson was the man! He was a partier – I loved to play blackjack with him. I’m sure my wife would have loved for me to have not gone out with him.

Bill Saul was a character too. Both guys loved to party. I played with Bill’s brother Ron in Pittsburgh too.

What were your best memories of playing for the Steelers – and what made them so?

My second year, Coach Austin tried Paul Martha and another guy at wide receiver and tried to move me to defensive back. Remember, a lot of guys were still two-way players then. I knocked out a few wide receivers in practice. Austin just said to “Go home after practice, we’re keeping you at wide receiver.” (laughing)

I really wanted to stay with the Steelers. I thought if you were traded you were a failure. I loved my time there and worked with a lot of charities to help hospitals and youth programs.

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