More Camp Stories, Starring Bubby, Cope and Some Big Ears

By Ed Bouchette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 8 years ago

Good morning,

As the Steelers report for their 50th training camp at Saint Vincent College today, some more stories from my time covering them there:

The boss, Bruce Keidan, asked me in 1985 if I’d like to cover the Steelers. I had just finished covering the Pittsburgh Maulers in their one and only year in the USFL and our Steelers beat man at the Post-Gazette had left to become a columnist. Keidan had put me on the Pitt beat and I covered the Panthers basketball team in 1984-85 and enjoyed it. Next up was Pitt football. It was a good beat back then.

So I turned him down, making sure he was OK with that. Yeah, he said, because we’ll be able to attract some good candidates for the Steelers beat.

Except, he did not. One guy took it and then backed out. Keidan didn’t hire someone until a few weeks before the Steelers headed to camp. In the meantime, I covered Pitt camp in Edinboro in what would be Foge Fazio’s last season as coach there.

Keidan was disappointed with the performance of the guy he hired in camp and with about four or five days left at Saint Vincent, he called me and told me I was going to cover the Steelers. So, after returning from Pitt camp, I went virtually straight to Latrobe.

In my first day there, the Steelers did something I have never seen since (or before, that I could recall). They cut their third-round draft pick in camp, rookie defensive back Liffort Hobley of LSU. I wanted to talk to him but he was still in the dorm collecting his final summer pay. I had no idea what he looked like.

Ron Cook, then covering the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Press after serving as my competition yet friend on the Maulers beat, told me to look for a guy with big ears. So every time a player exited the dorm, I looked at his ears. “No, not big enough,’’ I would tell myself. “No, that’s not him.’’

At last, a player with oversized ears came out of the Bonaventure dorm and I started toward him calling out, “Liffort, Liffort!” I did not get far because someone grabbed my shirt from behind and tugged me back. It was Cook.

“That’s not him, that’s Elton Veals,” Cook said, a save every bit as clutch as Mark Melancon ever delivered.

Veals was a fullback who played in 1984 and was cut that summer, with a body nothing like that of a defensive back. But he did have some big ears. They also were not nearly as big as Hobley’s, who had dishpan ears. I eventually caught up with him, saw him actually in the dorm upstairs as he was leaving and had a brief and nearly breathless interview with him as we raced downstairs.

That was my welcome to the Steelers beat moment at Saint Vincent. Now onto some others:

--- Roster cuts can produce all kinds of emotions, especially when they are done enmasse as they were in training camps past. They no longer make the cuts during camp, but years ago they would have a series of cutdown dates, more than two near the start of the regular season as they have today.

The Steelers often would do them very early in the morning to allow the players to leave without the benefit of talking to the media about it. I learned quickly to get up early and look for them. Since the players and the media stayed in the same dorm, you could merely watch who left at 7 a.m. or so.

That’s what I was doing in 1986 when some cuts were made. I positioned myself by a window overlooking the campus and the players’ parking lot with my binoculars. One player cut was linebacker Cam Jacobs, a fifth-round draft pick from Kentucky in 1985. He walked down the lane to get his car, drove it to the front of the door and packed his belongings.

When he was finished packing, he drove off down the lane. About 200 yards away, he stopped, turned around and drove back. He drove right up to the front of Bonaventure Hall, opened the driver’s door, looked up at the dorm and then spit a big one on the ground. He slammed the door shut and drove off.

That was the lead to my cut story that day and remains one of my favorites.

--- That same year, 1986, the Steelers drafted a quarterback in the third round, Bubby Brister. Thank you, because he would be a gift that kept on giving to the media right up to his end with the Steelers in 1992.

I had written a long story on Brister in the spring, meeting with him in his room at what was then the Hilton Hotel, so I knew him a little bit by that summer’s training camp.

He held out for a week or so before signing and reporting to camp in the evening and the coaches would not let him speak to the media until they were done with their meetings that night. Gene Collier and I waited patiently in the Bonaventure Hall room of PR man Dan Edwards and we each cracked open a beer. Finally, it seemed about 10 p.m. that Brister was free and arrived as requested to Edwards’ room.

The young quarterback from Louisiana took one look at our beers and asked if he could have one. “But don’t tell my daddy,’’ he said believably. He grabbed one out of the cooler. It was a Sam Adams bottle and as anyone who ever had one knows, they do not come with a twist-off cap, and we did not have a bottle opener.

“That’s OK,” Brister said, and put the edge of the bottle on Edwards’ desk with his left hand and slammed his right hand down on it as the cap neatly sprung off the bottle.

Great, I told him, I could see the headlines now: “Rookie quarterback breaks right hand opening beer bottle with reporters in PR man’s room on first day of camp.’’

It did not happen, but Brister would go on to become one of my favorite players ever to cover with the Steelers for the colorful way he played, acted and spoke.

--- Another Brister story. Bonaventure Hall was famously not air conditioned and by the time Brister arrived in 1986, that was getting old because most other NFL teams had air conditioning for their sleeping quarters at training camp.

Brister later roomed with running back Merril Hoge, who arrived in 1987. It did not take long for the colorful quarterback to decide he wanted air conditioning. He brought a window air conditioner with him. The windows at old Bonaventure were not normal ones you have in your house or maybe anywhere else. Brister gerry-rigged that thing in with Duct tape and a whole lot of other things, including plenty of elbow grease.

He had his air conditioning. In the process, though, he broke the window. Saint Vincent officials kindly told Brister and the rest of the players that if they wanted to bring portable air conditioners with them the following summer camp, the college would assign someone to put them in for them so they would not break any more windows.

It was the beginning of the end of players having fans in their windows to keep “cool” and the beginning of the air conditioning era. Brister was a trailblazer in many ways! Today, the players stay in newer Rooney Hall, which has central air.

--- Here’s a Myron Cope story because everyone loves Myron Cope stories and there are so many good ones.

One camp, the Steelers moved Cope’s room further down the hall and away from many of us and I have no idea why. Cope wasn’t happy either. Anyway, all the ballboys were in rooms around Cope, so it could have been someone’s idea to torture the bombastic broadcaster. Ballboys generally are in their teens, early to high school seniors.

There were several community bathrooms on each floor and Cope shared one with the ballboys. One morning, he went to the bathroom and had apparently had enough of what he saw as a discourteous non-flushing of the toilets. He shouted down the hallway: “All ballboys front and center, NOW!”

Like military cadets, they quickly responded and stood straight up in front of their dorm rooms in the hall. Cope proceeded to dress them down, walking up and down like a tiny drill instructor. He told them that real men flush toilets after themselves and if they wanted to become real men, they would too.

Cope reported there was no problem in the bathrooms after that, that the boys-who-would-be-men cleaned up after themselves.

--- I have more stories from past training camps I want to write about here, but this is getting long so I will sprinkle them into some blogs as we go along in this 50th training camp at Saint Vincent.