Our Ron Lippock spoke with Belle Vernon high school and Pittsburgh native Bill Contz who was drafted in the 5th round by the Cleveland Browns in 1983.
First, tell me about your book, When the Lions Roared – and what made you decide to write it?
Well, it was just published in September of 2017, I decided to write it after my 35th Penn State championship team reunion when we all got back together.
I spoke to 35 former Penn State teammates and coaches to get their stories from those championship teams and added those to the book. The idea started when I moved back here to Pittsburgh and was at the Carnegie Library. I started looking through an NCAA Encyclopedia and saw a section referring to teams that played the toughest schedules in college history. Many of the Penn State teams were on the list, I researched it further and saw that few if any teams on that list won as many games as those Penn State teams. Few did what we did -especially that 1982 team. So I did more homework and gathered more data so that readers could read this book and decide for themselves whether that Penn State team was one of the best ever. There’s even sortable data on my website that readers can play with to see for themselves if we were one of the best teams of the modern college football era.
As for why – I guess most offensive lineman are hopelessly neglected storytellers! We just want to be heard I guess – though most reporters tend to walk past us to get to the skill position guys.
As a Pittsburgh guy, you have a unique perspective having played for Cleveland and participated in that Steelers rivalry. What stood out to you most?
We used to watch the Steelers play every Sunday growing up – it was like religion. We’d watch on the couch from 1:00 on – it seemed like they won Super Bowls every year growing up.
When I finished at Penn State and got the call from Cleveland that I was drafted in the fifth round, I was thrilled. I was great to be drafted by a team that played so close to home so my family and then girlfriend – now my wife – could come watch me play.
But I had no idea how heated the rivalry was until my rookie season when my parents came to watch me play in Pittsburgh. My dad was 70 years old and came wearing my Contz Browns jersey, and fans threatened to beat him up. That was in ’87 when we had that 15 or 16 game losing streak in Three Rivers. It was just as heated when they came to Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. There was always a lot at stake – the Steelers greats like Ham and Bradshaw all were at the end of their careers so they weren’t quite as dominant. We knew a win against a division rival meant a lot.
Any good-natured grief from family having played for Cleveland as a Pittsburgh guy?
I think they were just happy I got to play at the NFL level. It’s not like anyone disowned me or anything! I did get some good-natured ribbing. But I was just fortunate to be able to play at that level in front of my hometown.
Any good memories of those Steelers games?
I remember when Lambert tackled Brian Sipe near the Browns sideline in Cleveland my rookie season. A crowd formed around him and I peaked in and saw him in the fetal position on the ground, with a crowd of Browns players kicking him while he was on the ground there The refs finally came in and broke that up. He wasn’t well-liked in Cleveland, and he was from Ohio!
It was such a competitive environment then. I see what it’s like now and hope that it gets back to that – how heated it was.
Any of those matchups stand out to you now?
Gary Dunn, Keith Willis, John Goodman, Keith Gsry – they were all tough guys. They weren’t very mobile guys, but tough, When I later went to New Orleans I faced guys like Lawrence Taylor who were more mobile guys.
My second season Robin Cole and I got tangled up in a pile near the end of the season, and I tore three ligaments in my knee. I had to ride back to Cleveland in the back of the Greyhound bus with a full cast on. That was a tough ride home.
I just remember the sheer size of those guys in Pittsburgh. Bradshaw and Blount were huge guys for skill position players of that time, Franco Harris was every bit the 6’3″-6’4″ player. Bradshaw had an arm like a cannon. Whenever they came to Cleveland they would play that video of Turkey Jones knocking him out with that hit.
Did you prepare any differently for those Steelers games?
We had a lot of veteran offensive linemen then, like Joe DeLamielleure, Doug Dieken and Tom DeLeone. You just had a special feeling the week we were playing the Steelers. We just didn’t like each other and those games meant more to the players, We didn’t do much differently but you could feel it meant more.
It’s funny, years later now I got a chance to meet some of those guys off the field – guys like Wolfley, Lipps, Cole, and Willis. They aren’t the bad guys you thought they were. They were just guys with families. They all just wanted to win.
Any thoughts on the rivalry today?
I hope the rivalry continues and it’s more than just one-sided. I know there’s a lot of talk in Cleveland now about winning the division and everything. But they have a coach who’s never been a head coach before and a quarterback with a bunch of new receivers who has to develop a chemistry with them first. We’ll see. You have to give the Steelers a lot of credit for having owners who understand the need for coaching stability. Tomlin does a good job of getting his team ready every week. Just ask Cleveland!