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Joe Starkey

Starkey: Clayton, Steelers and 'Shouldergate'

| Thursday, May 14, 2015, 10:42 p.m.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Chuck Noll.
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Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Chuck Noll.

The New England Recidivists are getting what they deserve. Be sure of that. But let's not forget that outside of Foxborough, Mass., there are 31 NFL cities where home teams reside in glass houses.

Everybody cheats.

Better said, every team has cheated. More than once. That would include the one that plays at Heinz Field and used to play at Three Rivers Stadium, where, on June 1, 1978, a cub reporter named John Clayton — now of ESPN fame — broke a story in The Pittsburgh Press titled, “Steelers' Secret Slips Out.”

Did it ever. In fact, it was way “more probable than not” that the Steelers broke NFL rules, and powerful coach Chuck Noll was far more than “at least generally aware” of it.

A wonderful website called yourteamcheats.com reminded me of the incident. The site chronicles cheating episodes from all 32 NFL franchises. The Steelers, of course, have had a bunch.

Clayton's story began this way: “What secrets lurked behind Chuck Noll's closed doors at Three Rivers Stadium?”

The second paragraph answered the question: “Noll locked the doors of rookie camp to the media and was very selective about who could watch the activity. No wonder. The Steelers were holding contact workouts in pads, a violation of league rules which will probably result in a substantial fine.”

Actually, it resulted in the forfeiture of a third-round draft pick.

Then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle didn't need to launch an investigation to get to the bottom of what Clayton, in his story, termed “Shouldergate.” He only needed to look at the photograph next to the story — the one of Steelers lineman John Banaszak wearing shoulder pads!

The modern equivalent would be a shot of Tom Brady sticking a needle into a football before a game.

Clayton, then 24, remembers how quickly the storm gathered. Born in Braddock and a graduate of Duquesne, he didn't need anyone to tell him how big the Steelers had become after winning two Super Bowls. Or how such a story might infuriate the masses.

When it broke, Clayton went from Barely Regarded to Most Wanted. Fans called the newspaper and threatened to break his limbs. Or worse.

Clayton remembers iconic talk-show host and team broadcaster Myron Cope ripping him on the air. One day, Cope fielded a call from an irate fan who knew Clayton well.

“My mother called up Myron,” Clayton recalled Thursday. “She said, ‘I agree with you. He shouldn't have done that.' ”

At first, Clayton hadn't realized the Steelers were breaking NFL rules. One defensive lineman mentioned he was sore from practice and another — rookie Randy Reutershan from Pitt — said hard pads irritated his sunburned shoulders.

But it wasn't until Banaszak, a veteran, asked Clayton to help remove his shoulder pads that alarm bells went off. It remains the only time in a career spanning parts of five decades that Clayton had a player ask for such assistance. He maintains it was because Banaszak wanted the story out.

Clayton called the league offices to check on the rule.

“Within five minutes, the Steelers called and said, ‘You can't report we practiced in shoulder pads,' ” he remembered.

The irony, Clayton said, is that it was the Steelers who wanted the no-pads rule because “they felt the Raiders were having offseason practices.”

He felt bound by duty to write the piece.

Noll went ballistic. Clayton went on vacation. It was a preplanned trip. He and Noll never did discuss Shouldergate though, according to Clayton, they developed a cordial relationship when Clayton became a beat writer and later went national.

Had Twitter been around, Clayton might have suffocated under an avalanche of hate tweets. The phone messages were bad enough.

And when he returned from vacation, he discovered he'd been temporarily barred from the Steelers facility.

A few months later, Clayton recalls walking toward the stadium and running into a rather important person: legendary Steelers owner Art Rooney. The Chief.

The encounter could have gone poorly. It did not.

“The Chief looks at me and says, ‘Hey, I heard they were kind of rough on you,' ” Clayton recalled. “Then he said, ‘You done good, kid.' ”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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