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Remembering Steve Furness: Tennis helped pudgy teen form bond with Furness

Friday, February 11, 2000

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

For a tennis player, Steve Furness was a darn fine defensive tackle. He displayed excellent reflexes, quicksilver rushes to the net, superb court coverage, but he still couldn't beat a pudgy, 14-year-old Jewish kid nearly half his age. Nah, I kicked his butt.

 
    Related article:

Obituary: Steve Furness

 
 

After each drubbing, I consoled him, he patted me on the back, and I felt like I could tell no one else about such triumphs. Pudgy, slow-footed teens weren't supposed to kick the butt of world-champion athletes, members of the Super Bowl Steelers -- even if half my lifetime and thousands of dollars were invested in tennis lessons and he had just picked up the sport.

The Steve Furness who died of a heart attack Wednesday night, at age 49, will be remembered by most as one of only 22 Steelers who could claim the distinction of winning four Super Bowl rings. He will be cast as the "fifth wheel" of the Steel Curtain front four, the guy who backed up Joe Greene and Ernie Holmes in the middle. He also was a husband, a father of two boys, a Steelers assistant coach later.

To me, he was a friend to whom a young man could look up to.

He was an intelligent fellow who figured on a career in dentistry until the Steelers came along in January 1972. The club made the University of Rhode Island defensive end its fifth-round draft choice. Furness figured he'd give the Steelers a try before dental school, and a funny thing happened: He stuck.

In the mid-1970s, he moved to my hometown, Washington, Pa., converted to Judaism for his wife, Debby, and became the largest member of our synagogue. It's a memory that still raises a smile -- the large NFL player folded into a tiny temple seat, his knees nearly under his chin. Here's another: The Steelers' defensive tackle and starting guard Jim Clack, another Washington resident, cowering at the ritual circumcision of baby Zachary Furness. They used my bar-mitzvah wine cup in the ceremony.

Steve and Debby came to our house for holidays, fed me dinners at their home, and the defensive tackle challenged me to tennis time and again. They let a quivering teen gawk at baubles from the Steelers' first two Super Bowl triumphs and hold their first-born son. They brought me along to Steelers charity basketball games, where fans were amazed when the only players' autograph they could read was the one by Steve Furness.

"That's because," he would joke, "I'm the only one who can write."

He went on to win two more Super Bowl rings, and I went away to Missouri to college. He gave me one of his battered Steelers helmets, which I hung over my bed, the last thing I saw before closing my eyes most nights.

He got me a bunch of tickets to see the Steelers play in Kansas City, and he took the hand of each one of my college friends in his large mitt and made them feel welcome. When he and Debby sought names for their second-born, something that also started with the letter Z, I suggested the name of a defensive coach at my college, like Steve an Armenian: Zaven. They altered that slightly, to Zaban.

His Steelers career complete in 1980, he retired after a brief stint with the Detroit Lions and was promptly hired by George Perles to teach the Steelers' stunt 4-3 defense to the Philadelphia Stars of the United States Football League. A summer intern for the hometown newspaper, I sat at his kitchen table in McMurray and interviewed him for the story. But before anyone got to Philadelphia, Perles took the Michigan State University head-coaching job and Furness went with him.

Time passed. Distance and work and family separated our relationship.

The next time I saw him, I went to Detroit on a hockey assignment for the Post-Gazette. I drove to East Lansing, Mich., where he escorted me around campus. Long hours as a college assistant and family concerns caused him to think about life away from football, maybe as a college athletics administrator or possibly going to dental school, at long last. I worried for him, because I could see the strain, because I had witnessed college assistants driven to the brink.

The next time we met, he came to Pittsburgh as a newly hired Steelers assistant. Coach Bill Cowher made him one of his first hires in 1992. He left behind his wife and boys in Indianapolis, where he had coached the NFL Colts' defensive line, and roomed near Three Rivers Stadium with new offensive line coach Kent Stephenson. The time came to return a favor: He finally got to sit at a table in my house. My wife and I cooked for the pro-football bachelor.

After Cowher's second Steelers season ended with another first-round playoff loss, three assistants were fired. One was Steve Furness. The word around the Steelers' offices was, he didn't perform his job. A former Steelers assistant later told me it was because the defensive line coach was too close to the players to suit the tastes of those above him. He was replaced by John Mitchell and never landed another coaching job.

People probably will wonder about a man dying so young, a former football player, and whisper: steroids. All I know is, he might have dabbled in it, as teammates did in those days, but he used to talk with great disdain about players he knew to be on the stuff.

In a town where Andy Russell and Lynn Swann went on to success and fame after football, a town where Franco Harris and Jack Ham and Jack Lambert and L.C. Greenwood are embraced still, Steve Furness kind of blended in. He was so inconspicuous that I nearly breezed past him once at a movie theater. A quarter-century later, we both had gray hairs.

The helmet and the tennis are gone now.

The first of the four-time Super Steelers to die is my old friend Steve Furness.

Time passes too quickly.



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