Words like "era" and "enshrinement" were heard everywhere in Canton, Ohio last weekend, but they weren't uttered by Chuck Noll, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Noll is fond of saying, "Every year is a transition year," and he does not believe in history except as revealed in films of his next opponent.
Asking Noll how he felt about the prospect of his entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame—as Paul Warfield, Sid Gillman, Sonny Jurgensen, Bobby Bell and Bobby Mitchell did on Saturday—was like asking Mother Theresa who should portray her in a TV series. Relieved of back pain by off-season surgery, Noll has been relatively mellow in training camp. But when reporters mentioned the shrine to NFL immortality, Noll winced like W.C. Fields at a reference to water. "I don't even know who's in the Hall of Fame," he said.
When the Steelers whipped the New Orleans Saints 27-14 in Saturday's Hall of Fame exhibition game at Canton, however, they did so with reminiscent heartiness, if not players to reminisce about. Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Lynn Swann, Andy Russell, Mike Wagner, Dwight White, Rocky Bleier, Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood were in retirement. Donnie Shell and John Stallworth were holding out. Jim Smith and Ray Pinney were in the USFL. Terry Bradshaw was back in the Latrobe, Pa. training camp nursing an injured right arm. Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Mike Webster and Larry Brown made token appearances. New blood carried the day.
Instead of Bradshaw—who looks like Chuck Connors—hurling bombs to Stall-worth and Swann and Smith, here were Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone—who look like Christopher Reeve and Mark Malone—zipping quick pops to wide receivers Calvin Sweeney and Greg Hawthorne, Tight End Bennie Cunningham and to unheard-of newcomers. Instead of Harris cutting inventively through the line, here—in a jazzy new variety of sets—were Walter Abercrombie and Frank Pollard alternating with one quicksilver rookie after another. Passes were intercepted and broken up by defenders with names like Hinkle, Kohrs, Washington and Washington. The Steel Curtain has been replaced by new defensive terrorists named Gabriel Rivera, a fleet 282-pound Chicano; Keith Gary, a refugee from the Canadian League; and Lonnie Kennell, a man with alligator scars all over his body.
Whether these new Steelers will be as effective against teams other than the Saints remains, of course, to be seen. But, since the great Pittsburgh Super Bowl teams were founded on the defensive line, which was founded on Joe Greene, it is worth noting that Rivera, like Greene, is from Texas and has a strange, soft-looking body and enormous natural strength. Here are some other noteworthy facts about "Señor Sack":
•He was a pinch runner on his high school baseball team and a 10.3 100-yard-dash man.
•His body has been compared to Babe Ruth's—an enormous round trunk on piano legs. Steeler coaches feel that as long as he stays around 290 pounds he is not overweight.
•While on a tunafish-and-sardine diet he ate 23 cans of tuna in one day, but not the cans themselves.
•At Texas Tech, the fans had a special cheer for him:
Two bits, four bits,
Six bits, a peso.
All for Rivera,
Stand up and say so.