One of the Steelers' all-time greats, Elbie Nickel, passed away Tuesday at the age of 84. In 2005 I interviewed Nickel -- who suffered from Alzheimer's Disease -- for the 2006 book "Men of Steel." Here's the excerpt:
Elbie Nickel built his house in Chillicothe, Ohio, for $2,000 in 1949 and sold it for 60 times that amount in 2004.
The buyers, after winning a brief but furious bidding war, were quite pleased. They may have known Elbie Nickel was once a star football player at Chillicothe High School, the University of Cincinnati and the Pittsburgh Steelers, but more important to them was the fact Nickel ran one of the best-known construction companies in southern Ohio.
“Everybody in Chillicothe, when you mention my dad’s name, knows who he is,” said Joe Nickel. “The people that I talked to, the lady that bought the house, they all talked about the fact that they knew, because of the construction company, that the house was well-constructed. They never mentioned the Steeler connection.”
The fact that the greatest tight end in Steelers history is better known for his off-season job says that either A.) Nickel was one fine builder or B.) Pro sport in the 1950s wasn’t the game it is today.
Both are true. When Nickel retired from the Steelers, it was because his father had been after him to take over the construction business. So, at the age of 35, Nickel got on with his life’s work.
Nickel actually retired twice from the Steelers. At Forbes Field, for the final home game of the 1956 season, Nickel was honored beforehand and then scored two touchdowns. He was carried off the field by teammates after the Steelers beat the Los Angeles Rams, 30-13.
After the season, Nickel played in his third Pro Bowl and was named the Steelers’ Most Valuable Player by the Curbstone Coaches of Pittsburgh. They presented him with a trophy with the engraved name of N-I-C-H-E-L.
The slight didn’t have anything to do with Nickel coming back for one more season. New backfield coach Jim Finks persuaded Nickel to return in the 1957 pre-season. He caught only 10 passes, but in his second goodbye at Forbes Field he dove to catch a 6-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Earl Morrall to clinch a 21-10 win over the New York Giants.
In the regular-season finale two weeks later, Nickel caught 4 passes for 44 yards and he finished his career as the Steelers’s all-time leading receiver with 329 catches. He also retired as the league’s Iron Man, having played in a then-NFL record 124 consecutive games. An arm injury in 1957 forced Nickel to miss the fifth game that season, which ended the streak. What does he remember about playing pro football?
“Well, very little,” the 83-year-old said from his room in an upscale Cincinnati nursing home in 2005.
Nickel played baseball and basketball at the University of Cincinnati, but he excelled on the gridiron. In 1942 he led the Bearcats to an 8-2 record, and in 1946, after serving in the military, captained the team to a 9-2 mark, its best in 49 years. Nickel scored the winning touchdown in a 15-6 opening-day win over defending Big 10 champion Indiana in what was the school’s biggest victory of the pre-Sid Gillman era.
Nickel signed a baseball contract with the Cincinnati Reds the following spring but the Steelers convinced him to play football after drafting him in the 15th round in 1947. He would go on to serve as their offensive captain from 1949 through 1957.
The 6-foot-1, 196-pound Nickel was primarily a blocker in the Jock Sutherland/John Michelosen single-wing offense before becoming a receiving threat in 1949, when he averaged 24.3 yards per his 26 catches.
In the penultimate game of the 1949 season, Nickel caught 7 passes for 192 yards against the Bears. He also suggested to Michelosen that the Steelers fake a punt from their own 3-yard line. Bobby Gage took the snap from the back of the end zone and ran for a 97-yard touchdown, the longest play in franchise history.
Nickel blossomed at tight end (known simply as end in the day) when Joe Bach brought the T-formation to Pittsburgh in 1952. Nickel was third in the NFL that season with 55 catches for 884 yards and 9 touchdowns, all team records at the time.
His best pro game occurred late that season. Against the Dick “Night Train” Lane-led secondary of the Los Angeles Rams, Nickel caught 10 passes for 202 yards.
“We had a picture that hung up in the basement that we’d joke back and forth about all the time,” said Joe Nickel. “He was catching a pass over “Night Train” Lane. He had him beat by three or four steps.”
In 1953, Nickel broke his own single-season team record with 62 catches. The mark stood until Roy Jefferson caught 67 passes for the Steelers in 1969.
Nickel made the Pro Bowl after both the ’52 and ’53 seasons. He tailed off to 40 catches in 1954, but made what Dan Rooney called “the most famous play we had until the Immaculate Reception” in front of a standing-room only crowd at Forbes Field.
The play is stitched into Steelers lore as an X-and-O tapestry that still hangs in the team’s front offices. It tells the story of the play-action bomb from Finks to Nickel that sealed the win and gave the Steelers a 4-1 record. They stumbled after that game and finished 5-7 in 1954.
Nickel caught 36 passes in 1955 and moved to halfback in 1956 before calling it quits after 1957. His 329 catches are 127 more than any other Steelers tight end. Bennie Cunningham is second with 202.
The man they called “Elbows” was named the Steelers’ all-time tight end when the 50th anniversary team was chosen in 1982. The best memories?
“I remember him flipping me a game ball after they beat the Browns one time,” said Joe Nickel. “About the only other thing I remember is all that stuff they gave him at one of those farewell games. There’s a picture in his scrapbook of the ceremony. I looked down at the recliner they gave him. It was his favorite chair until we got rid of it last year.”
In 2005, Joe Nickel went through his 26th year as the athletic director at North College Hill High School in Cincinnati. It’s the school being made famous by basketball phenom O.J. Mayo, who was considered the best prep player since LeBron James.
Joe Nickel was something of a prep phenom himself. He followed in his father’s football footsteps at Chillicothe High and Cincinnati.
“When I became a teenager I always wanted to be able to outrun him,” he said of his dad. “Every year, every spring, we’d have our charge across the front yard to see if I could outrun him. I think I was 17 years old and he was about 42 before I could finally outrun him, and one of the things I could do was run. I was fourth in the state track meet my senior year in the 100 and 200. But I had to wait that long to outrun him in the 30-yard dash because he could move.”
Nickel also remembers his dad calling Art Rooney “a father-like figure.” The Chief, in fact, named one of his Maryland-bred race horses “Elbie Nickel.” Every spring Elbie drove to the Louisville airport to meet The Chief and escort him to the Kentucky Derby.
“It went on for 20, 30 years,” Joe Nickel said. “The funny thing was he’d always bring back a mint julep glass for my mom. And then I got married and he wound up having to bring back two mint julep glasses. And then my sister said ‘Where’s mine?’ And my dad said ‘I can’t drink them. I don’t like those drinks, those mint julep drinks. I can’t drink three of them.’ I don’t know what he did but he showed up a couple of times with three glasses. We’ve got a whole set of Kentucky Derby glasses, had them for 20 or 25 years. We still have them here.”
After Nickel retired from football, he joined the Butt Construction Company, so named after co-founder Jim Butt.
With his father (Joseph Richard Nickel), brother (Eugene Nickel) and Butt, Elbie Nickel’s crew built all of the Kroger, Big Bear and K-Mart stores from Cincinnati to Huntington, West Virginia.
“Construction really boomed in this country after the war and they really took off,” Joe Nickel said. His dad worked full-time until the age of 60, but Elbie didn’t really stop working. He helped friends and family in Chillicothe, and served as the handy man at the local Trinity United Methodist Church.
“In Chillicothe they actually built a shopping center, or more of a strip mall, called Central Center,” said Joe Nickel. “My grandfather and my dad had a lot of stock in that, and it’s still right there.”
So, Elbie struck it rich after football?
“Oh yeah, my grandfather and my dad, they were well off,” said Joe Nickel. “He’s well taken care of.”
Elbie still receives attention from autograph seekers. One was a vice-president with the Green Bay Packers. In 1999, he wrote to ask for an autographed picture for his grandson. Nickel obliged and received a promise from the VP that was repaid to Nickel’s grandson.
“My son Mike moved to Milwaukee and my dad gave him the guy’s number and said ‘Call him up. He’ll get you two tickets to a Packers game,’” Joe Nickel said. “So my son called the guy up and he said OK. My son went into work -- he’d only been in Milwaukee for a year -- and he told the guys he was going to the Packers’ game. They all laughed at him and said, ‘Yeah, right. You can’t get into that game. Those tickets are gone.’ So he reached into his pocket and showed them tickets in row eight. They were all stunned.”
By Jim Wexell
Posted Mar 1, 2007