Another series, a collaborative one, to take you through the remaining weeks of the offseason. Jon Ledyard and I will pick a side in choosing the greatest Pittsburgh Steelers at each position. Tell us who is right and who won the debate – those don’t have to be the same answer – in the comments.
We march on from the tackles to the guards. Jon goes way back with John Nisby while I choose Alan Faneca.
When selecting the greatest offensive lineman in Steelers history, there is really only one choice, and that is Alan Faneca. But since Alex has first choice at offensive guard (Ed. Note: haha), I’m saddled with trying to find an adequate second place finisher and make a case for him. Hopefully David DeCastro will one day make this discussion more compelling, but for now I’ll take a man who overcame adversity and discrimination in his career to achieve as much for the sport off the field, as he did on it.
John Nisby is a name many Steelers fans probably haven’t heard of, and I’ll be honest, I knew very little about the eight-year pro heading into this piece. Through a bit of research however, I’ve found Nisby was a staple of Pittsburgh’s offensive line from 1957-1961, earning three Pro Bowl berths over the course of his career.
A bruising force from his right guard spot, Nisby was even more impactful off the field, were he worked tirelessly to help the civil rights movement in Pittsburgh. Even while playing for the Steelers, Nisby worked for the Pittsburgh Courier to help obtain equal employment policies in companies that did business with the team.
After his time in Pittsburgh, Nisby became one of the first black players to suit up for the Washington Redskins, one of the last teams in the NFL to integrate races amongst their squad. When his time in the NFL came to a close, Nisby went back to his hometown of Stockton, California and continued to work feverishly to educate young people on the dangers of segregation and to serve as a city councilman.
Nisby’s football career obviously came far before my time, but the way that he achieved success in the league is truly admirable. A 6th round pick by the Green Bay Packers, Nisby not only had to overcome segregation and racism, but also was cut before signing with Pittsburgh. Perhaps Nisby’s own words describe best what drove him to excel despite adversity both on and off the field:
“If you are going to do something, you have to do it 100 percent. What is 100 percent? It is giving every ounce of energy that you have in your body and using that to achieve the ultimate in every aspect that you compete in. It may be in the classroom, in sports, in family related activities. But, whatever it is, you have to give 100 percent. In the arena of work you have to give 100 percent also. As a result, there is a high probability that you will be successful.”
Wise words from Nisby, whose mark on the sport we love was much more enduring than any crushing block could ever be. All this from a man who never asked for the spotlight, never asked for any attention, and was the consummate teammate regardless of race according to statements from many who knew him. So greatest offensive lineman in Steelers history? Maybe not, due mostly to his lack of longevity with the team, but few can argue there could be an on-field feat greater than what Nisby accomplished in life during his time in Pittsburgh.
Picking the best guard is a whole lot easier than the best tackle. Especially when you get to choose first, Jon now forced to sell you on somebody else.
Greatest guard? Alan Faneca. No one should try and tell you otherwise. Seven Pro Bowls with the black and gold. Six First-Team All-Pro selections. From 2000 to 2007, his final year in the Steel City, he missed one game. And oh yeah, even after he left and spent three seasons elsewhere, didn’t miss a start. Accolades that place him right up there with the unequivocally best lineman in Steelers’ history, Mike Webster and Dirt Dawson.
I’ve chosen a lot of players on the list I never personally watched played. Not Faneca. I got to live it, enjoy it, marvel at it. A powerful run blocker coupled with tremendous athleticism. The singular play I’ll always remember him by, and you probably will too, is clearing a path for Willie Parker’s 75 yard touchdown in Super Bowl XL.
So you know, it’s perfectly ok to tear up.
Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value places Faneca 11th in franchise history, above the likes of Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, and Casey Hampton.
The fact Faneca suffered from epilepsy doesn’t make his career much more remarkable – they were mild episodes that medication controlled by the time he was a teenager – but his willingness to bring light to the disease makes him that much more respected. No one can say a bad thing about the Steelers’ guard, serving as a role model on and off the field. The perfect embodiment of a player in the NFL.
There aren’t many recent guards who have been able to get into the Hall of Fame. Bruce Matthews was the last one in 2007. But if there’s a next man up who is worthy of such enshrinement, it’s Faneca.