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Stories of Steel:The Spark that Ignited a Lackluster Decade of Steelers Football

Imagine sitting in your hotel room in downtown Pittsburgh. You’re a rookie player just drafted by the Steelers still hoping to sign on the dotted line. It’s the mid-80s, and you’re a kid about as far from home as you’ve ever been. The phone rings and on the other end of the line is a man known simply as the Chief. He is a man who has garnered more respect in one city, one sport, one nation than any other in his time. And he’s speaking to you. “You’ll fit in here“, he says. “You play hard and practice hard”. And with that, and perhaps a sigh of relief, the career of Louis Lipps, one of the great Steeler wide receivers, began.

It wasn’t a dominating Steelers team that Lipps had joined. In fact since their last Super Bowl win in 1980, the team had been mediocre at best. The closest he would ever come to the big dance was that Rookie year in 1984. And what a year it was. The season opener against the Chiefs netted him 183 yards on 6 catches. And two trips to the end zone. Not bad. He finished out the year with 860 yards, 9 touchdowns and the nod for NFL Rookie of the year. Keep in mind he was playing in a split quarterback situation. With Bradshaw retired, the Steelers were rotating Malone and Woodley, both of those names should make you cringe just a little. (just think if we had picked up Marino in ‘83…)

Lipps spent his first few seasons under the mentorship of John Stallworth, who took Louis under his wing and schooled him in Pittsburgh football. That curriculum included a little bit on politicking and being a squeaky wheel on a run first team. Says Lipps, “Stallworth would come right off the field and go to Coach Noll. And he would tell the quarterback to throw him the ball”.  The quarterback would then throw him the ball. It probably helped that he was a Hall of Famer in the making, with four rings on his fingers, and his name wasn’t Terrell.

Number eighty-three never even thought he’d make it to college. He was a two sport star in high school dreaming of playing for the Cincinnati Reds. “I grew up in an itty-bitty country town,” says Lipps, who’s from Reserve, Louisiana, located a short hop from New Orleans. “It’s not much more than a grocery store, an auto-parts shop and nothing but woods all around. You can pass through without knowing it’s there. I figured nobody would ever find me.” His scholarship to Southern Miss did get him out and kept him from working the check-out register.

Injuries plagued him for most of the ’86 and ’87 seasons, but the following year he put up good numbers, 50 catches and just shy of a 1000 yard season. One of his memorable TD grabs that year was dubbed the Steel City Wonder, where Lipps’ face mask was credited with the catch. He also helped to upset the playoff bound Oilers that year, helping the 3-10 Steelers to victory. In what could only be best described with a Shakespearean sonnet, Brister lofted the ball right into his waiting hands and Lipps just glided down the sidelines. Twice. Poetry folks.

In 1989, things started out bad. Very bad. At home, in Three Rivers Stadium, Cleveland hung 51 points on our young team.  Bubby Brister was about as effective as a sham-wow on the titanic, throwing three picks and leading an offense that fumbled five times. It got worse. Week two we lost big to the Bengals. However, the team would rebound and at 9-7 make the playoffs, only to lose to a last minute Elway miracle drive. Lipps was one of the bright spots that year, with a team MVP performance just short of 1000 yards receiving.

At 30 years old, Lipps found himself cut by the Steelers following a contract dispute. It was 1992 and just two weeks into the season. The nine year veteran, twice All Pro, found himself without a team. The Saints picked him up, but in late October, Lipps, injured once again, was placed on IR. He would retire as a Steeler the following year.

Lipps arrived to practice one day all spruced up in a nice looking suit and a portable phone as they were called back in those days. It was 1989. It was a big deal. As you might expect his teammates couldn’t resist the opportunity to pour on the sarcasm, asking him for business loans and investment tips. (Hey they’re football players, not writing for 30 rock.) Lipps had come from a talk he was giving to Pittsburgh youth on drug awareness. He’s since stayed very visible in the Pennsylvania charity scene, giving his time to the Flight 93 Memorial among other things. You might catch him on ESPN radio still discussing sports and his old team, or run across him in his Steel City Mortgage office. When you do, ask him about baseball, that was his first love after all.