Bringing you another Pittsburgh Steelers’ interview courtesy of our good friend Ron Lippock of the Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin. Today, Ron talks to Steelers’ great Frank Varrichione, who played offensive tackle for the team from 1955 to 1960. He was a five time Pro Bowler, four of those coming during his time in Pittsburgh.
Be sure to check out Ron’s book, Steelers’ Takeaways: Player Memories Through The Decades, featuring over 400 interviews with players and coaches, past and present. You can buy it on Amazon through the link provided here.
(Ed Note: About three weeks after Ron conducted the interview, Frank passed away. We send our best wishes to his family and are grateful for the interview.)
First, can you let us know a little about your path post-NFL?
I worked for my former coach at Notre Dame, Bob McBride after the NFL. He had a trucking company and I was the salesperson for the Midwest section of the country. They hauled steel out of Chicago. A couple of years later I got homesick and my family called me to tell me my mother was ill, so I moved back home to Natick.
I entered my family’s painting business and was involved in that for a few years then opened up my own restaurant. A drive-in.
So you were busy! Was the post-NFL adjustment difficult?
It wasn’t that hard at all. We didn’t make the money then that the players make today. They make four or five million a year then have to find a job somewhere to keep up their lifestyle. That is much more difficult than it was in my day. I made $17,00 a year. My first contract was $10,000 a year.
You were drafted by the Steelers in 1955. Were you surprised to be drafted? How did you find out?
I was the sixth guy drafted and the first offensive lineman drafted. The general manager called me and told me they had selected me in the first round. They asked me what my attitude was about playing for the Steelers, and I told them I was pleased.
I had a few inquiries from teams along the line then, so I knew teams were interested and wasn’t surprised.
Who helped mentor you when you got to Pittsburgh?
Ernie Stautner and I hit it off real good. We became buddies and hung around together. We were all adults so we didn’t mentor each other much. We knew we had to play and practice. The game wasn’t that much different than it was in college then.
How was that adjustment and playing for Buddy Parker and Walt Kiesling?
Bobby Layne came to the Steelers a couple years after I got there and things changed then. Parker came in from Detroit after Walt Kiesling. Kiesling was old old school. Hard work meant everything. We would scrimmage every day in camp during the season. Other teams didn’t do that. It was a long season compared to college and most teams didn’t work their players as hard as Walt did. We’d always start off good, 5-1, 6-2… we were in better shape than other teams. Then when the cold weather set in the other guys were heavier than us and pushed us around all over the field. And we’d end up with losing seasons.
Parker – he changed everything. He slowed practices down. We’d do more walk-throughs and less hitting. It was a big welcome for players. He was tough and demanded perfection. But he took it much easier on us.
When Parker got there in ’56, on his first day he looked at this huge blocking sled we had to use, made out of real heavy lumber. It took seven guys to move it with their shoulders. The first thing Parker said was, he wanted seven of us to push the sled way off the field. He never wanted to see it again.
Any good stories about your time there?
I remember getting a phone call from this guy in Texas. He said he was driving and heard an interview with Bobby Layne who mentioned me as the best pass blocker in the league. He mentioned me, he said. The guy said he had to look me up and call me to tell me that!
Layne would jump all over offensive linemen if they missed a block, but he never got on me. I never missed a block.
The toughest guy I faced was Gino Marchetti. He was the defensive end for the Baltimore Colts. In fact I had my best game of my career against him and got a nice write-up in the Post-Gazette. I still have that in my scrap-book. In practice before the game they rotated other linemen at my tackle position just in case I needed to be spelled. But he never got to the quarterback once.
And you were a Pro Bowl player?
I went to the Pro Bowl four times. Three as a Steeler and one with the Rams. My first time I went and played again against Marchetti. Jim Brown was the running back behind me and they kept him in to help me block Marchetti. But all he did was keep me off my block. He prevented me from keeping Marchetti outside the quarterback by getting in my way. I told him finally he had to stop and told him what to do.
Brown was the greatest NFL player every to live. He was an unbelievable runner. Powerful. No one person could bring him down, unless maybe they tripped him. He had great speed too. In Cleveland they had a guy who had Olympic speed at the one-hundred yard dash and he kept up with him!
How else did Bobby Layne and the other veterans affect things?
The older guys like Elbie Nickel, Stautner, Ray Matthews – they were the leaders and if you were a good player, they accepted you.
When Layne got there, he changed things and established more comraderie. Every Tuesday we’d watch film, then he’d have us all go to a local bar and have beers together. He insisted on it. It got guys to be friendly with each other. We laughed and joked together and didn’t do that before.
You were traded after five years to Los Angeles for Lou Michaels. Was that a surprise – how did you take that?
I got a call from Parker around the middle of March. He told me, “Frank, it’s Buddy. We made a trade. We needed a placekicker and a defensive lineman, and we got that in one guy (Lou Michaels}. The Rams wanted an offensive lineman in return though. I told him they could have anyone except Frank Varrichione, but he told me the only guy they wanted was me.” So I was ok. There was nothing you could do. You go where they tell you to go!
You still watch the NFL today? Any thoughts on the way the game is played today?
I watch still yes, and the big difference is the size of the players and the speed of the game. There are maybe a few players in my time that could play today, but they’d have a rough time of it. My offensive line then, we were all around 240 pounds. The Patriots, who I root for now as a Massachusetts native – they have two tackles who are 6’8″ and over 330 pounds. I don’t think I could have even been a linebacker now!