Posted on June 1, 2012 - by ChuckFinder
Safety, it’s an interestingly named position when you think about it. Safety. In football? How much safety is there, truly?
Mike Wagner played that position. In fact, he played both safety positions — in a move that surprised him most of all. Yet he played safety with consistency and panache and glee. And from his position at the rear of one of the NFL’s greatest defense’s of all time, if not the greatest, Wagner got quite a perspective.
You should hear him talk about the right side of the defensive huddle always fighting and yelling (he, cerebral Jack Ham, and L.C. Greenwood plus Joe Greene were on the left, quiet side).
You should hear him tell Ernie Holmes stories, and the joy he had both for the man, his eating habits and his Steelers days.
You should hear him discuss various topics.
But here’s one that was intriguing: Joe Gilliam, a onetime Mt. Lebanon resident like Wagner and a teammate whom he befriended. They were both very young back in the early 1970s. Both endured a great deal. And Wagner noticed things far more serious, more mature, than a twentysomething football player normally sees:
“Joe had a slingshot for an arm, which was both a gift and a detriment. He had so much belief that he could deliver the ball, no matter the skill set of the people around him. I saw a lot of the struggles he went through, trying to become a quarterback in the NFL, trying to deal with racial discrimination issues, trying to deal with his own issues.
“We played in Miami late in the year, and Joe Gilliam is starting. [Dec. 3, 1973] And he throws three interceptions to Dick Anderson, two of them for touchdowns. [Wagner, then 24 and in his third year, was just ahead of Anderson for the NFL lead in interceptions] He came out and sat on the bench. I said, “Joe, having a tough night?’ ‘If I can just get it in there. . . .’ ‘Joe, how about throwing it to someone other than Dick Anderson. You’re killing me.’ Dick Anderson and I wound up tied for the interception lead. That’s kind of a selfish story, but I was trying to distract Joe.”
“I was with Joe the weekend before he died. He was in Pittsburgh [for a reunion]. Got a chance to spend some time with him. Really sad what happened.”
Wagner spun more upbeat tales, too. But we’ll save those for later.
Next “The Steelers Encyclopedia” blog: Friday, June 8