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The Beginning of the End
Peter King
October 14, 1991
A fateful encounter put tight end Eric Green on track to become the most pivotal Steeler
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October 14, 1991

The Beginning Of The End

A fateful encounter put tight end Eric Green on track to become the most pivotal Steeler

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In the course of dealing with their grief, the Rutiglianos became devout Christians. From then on Sam would pray for guidance before making any career move. By living his life this way, he eventually made it all the way to the NFL, only to be fired by the Browns in the middle of his seventh season.

So it was that, in March 1988, Rutigliano gave a speech at Liberty about fellowship. He had been invited there by Jerry Falwell, the evangelist and chancellor of the university. The Flames went 8-3 under Hout in '88, but Falwell, who dreamed of having a big-time program at Liberty, wanted a high-profile coach, which led him to hire Rutigliano, which led Rutigliano to Green.

Rutigliano redesigned the Flames' offense into a pro-style attack that featured his 6'5", 270-pound tight end. Green made 62 catches for 905 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior, and Rutigliano extolled Green's virtues to many friends in the NFL, especially scouts and coaches whose word would carry weight in the 1990 draft. It's more than fate, Rutigliano believes, that his daughter's death, in this roundabout way, led him to become Green's mentor and football savior.

"In my profession I'm going backward, down the ladder," says Rutigliano. "Now I've helped somebody up the ladder. Indirectly, I've been led into a ministry where I've been able to use all my experiences in and out of the game to help Eric. It was like starting out knowing nothing about Magic Johnson, and you figure there's no way a 6'9" guy can play point guard. Then you watch him, and he can. Same with Eric at tight end."

One day, 12 scouts sat around the conference table in Rutigliano's office, listening to his sales pitch on Green. "He could be a CEO someday," Rutigliano said. "You're not taking a risk with this guy. He's Mark Bavaro in a bigger package."

Many of the scouts told Rutigliano they would love to get Green in a weight room, bulk him up and make him the ultimate 295-pound, quick-footed offensive tackle. Rutigliano told them that, with all due respect, they were nuts. "Putting him at tackle," says Rutigliano, "would have been like trading for Mickey Mantle and making him a pitcher."

Steeler receiver coach Dwain Painter worked out Green in Lynchburg, throwing him 60 passes on a hot April day. Halfway through the session, Green finally dropped one. "You're human!" Painter yelled. He showed a videotape of the workout to Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll, who agreed that Green could be the centerpiece of a scheme being drawn up by new offensive coordinator Joe Walton. The Steelers used their first-round draft pick, the 21st overall, to select Green.

The Pittsburgh front office and Green's agents struggled to work out a contract, and Green wound up missing all of the 1990 training camp. Two days before the start of the season, he was still unsigned, and the Steelers abruptly pulled their final offer from the table. Green responded by threatening to sit out the season and reenter the draft in '91. At that point, Rutigliano, who had been kept abreast of the negotiations by Green, intervened. He made two calls to the Pittsburgh front office—one to Dick Haley, the director of player personnel, and the other to Dan Rooney, the team president—and encouraged them to keep the negotiations going. Also, the Steelers began to realize that Green was committed to sitting out the season unless they improved their offer. So after some restructuring of the final offer, the deal got done, and Green signed the day after the season opener.

When he cracked the starting lineup in Week 5, Green was penicillin for a sickly team. The Steelers had started 1-3, their defense and special teams having scored most of the points in their only win, and the offense looked grim: 46 possessions, no touchdowns. In Green, the embattled Steeler quarterback, Bubby Brister, found a savior for the Pittsburgh attack. Green's second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh career catches were for TDs, two of them coming in a 36-14 pasting of the San Diego Chargers in Week 5 and three more in a 34-17 rout of the Denver Broncos the following week. With that quick turnaround, Pittsburgh went on to finish 9-7. It wound up in a three-way tie at the top of the AFC Central with the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Oilers, but missed out on the playoffs as a result of the tiebreaker system.

"Without Eric Green, we might not have scored a touchdown last year," says Steeler defensive line coach Joe Greene, and it's hard to tell if he's kidding. In truth, Pittsburgh was beginning to figure out how Walton's offense was supposed to work, when the multidimensional Green came along to kick the mechanism into gear. On third-and-short he could deliver a devastating block like a tackle. On third-and-long he could catch a 20-yard pass. He was equally valuable to the running and passing games.

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