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Pittsburgh Steelers
L.C. Greenwood and other Steelers found backup in chiropractor

Jeffrey Cohen came off the bench for the '70s Steelers

Monday, May 25, 1998

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

L.C. Greenwood is hurting.

His neck aches. His knees pop. His arm throbs. He's used to living with pain, but it's really bad again.

Just like he has since the '70s, chiropractor Jeffrey Cohen works out on former Steeler L.C. Greenwood. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

So the 51-year-old giant does what he has done since those punishing Steeler games in the super '70s. When the pain in his neck was so excruciating he couldn't turn his head. When his hulking arms would go numb. When his playing days were supposedly numbered.

Greenwood walks into a nondescript medical office in Oakland, lies on a table and lets a chiropractor named Jeffrey Cohen push his thumb into his neck, then down his back. Greenwood exhales deeply as Cohen works the thick muscles of his 6-foot-61/2 frame.

It's an enduring bond - the great defensive end and the chiropractor, a relationship rooted in pain that has lasted 21 years and counting. It has lasted longer than both men's marriages from the '70s. It will probably last another 20 or so years, Greenwood says with a hearty laugh.

Greenwood, whose beard is gray but still looks jock-fit, says, "I keep coming back for a tuneup."

Only now there is no urgency or secrecy about Greenwood's visit. It's not like in the old days when L.C. would race Franco, Donnie and the other guys to the office the day before the game and Cohen would work them until he dripped with sweat. It's not like L.C. has to sneak into the office anymore, keeping it quiet from Chuck Noll. It's not like he and other players have to bring Cohen to a Super Bowl game anymore for a last-minute alignment.

On the football field, Greenwood holds the Steelers' career record of 73.5 sacks. In the chiropractor's office, Greenwood holds another record - a 98-page file. The bulging folder tells of pinched nerves, gnarled fingers, broken ribs, popping knees and other mangled body parts.

The first appointment was Oct. 18, 1977. A Steeler dynasty was in the making. But Greenwood, who had two Super Bowl rings, seemed on his way out. The nerves running down both arms were pinched.

"Every time I would hit or take a lick, my shoulders, arms and everything would get completely numb," he says. "The team doctors told me I wasn't going to play after that season."

Greenwood was desperate for relief. In those days, chiropractors were taboo in the NFL. Teams discouraged players from seeing them. It was an unspoken rule.

Greenwood's wife at the time recommended Cohen. It was one of those friend-of-a-friend kind of things. Her hairdresser or someone had gone to him.

Cohen, then a 31-year-old chiropractor who had grown up in Squirrel Hill, wasn't a big name. In fact, his practice was so fledgling that he couldn't afford to pay a receptionist, so he gave free treatments to people who would answer the phone.

If chiropractors were looked down on as quacks back then, Cohen was an oddity within that subset. He didn't crack backs. He has always practiced trigger point therapy, a method of applying pressure to the tender spots in the muscles.

"The technique I was doing other chiropractors thought was weird," he says. "I was out there."

That was fine with Greenwood. He was leery about getting his back cracked anyway.

When the 30-year-old linebacker walked through the office door that first day, Cohen was intimidated by his size. "I didn't learn anything about this in school," he thought to himself. Plus the responsibility seemed daunting in Steeler-giddy Pittsburgh. "I didn't want to be the one to screw up the football team."

He examined Greenwood and told him he could help him if he would come two or three times a week. Greenwood came religiously. Cohen, who was about a foot shorter and a good 70 pounds lighter, earned every cent of the $18 appointments.

A treatment that would take 15 minutes on a mere mortal took 45 minutes with the 240-pound Greenwood. Cohen even sprained his thumb on Greenwood's muscles one day. He began using his elbows too. But it paid off - the arm numbness went away.

Over the next few seasons, as Greenwood spread the word that there was someone who could help relieve the horrible pain that comes from huge men crashing into each other, the whole gang started coming. Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Robin Cole, Donnie Shell, Larry Brown, etc.

Unbeknownst to anyone, Cohen became Pittsburgh's chiropractor to the gods of football.

Seven or eight or so would come most weeks. They were so banged up on Mondays, it was hard to tell exactly which body part hurt. So they came on Tuesdays, and then right before the game - Fridays before away games and on Saturdays before home games.

They would bolt out of practice and race each other to Cohen's Fifth Avenue office, but Greenwood says he usually got there first because he knew the back routes. Cohen would put Iron City beer and other snacks in the lobby.

But for Cohen, it was anything but a party. Manipulating some of the brawniest muscles in the NFL was the chiropractor's equivalent of a bruising, physical football game. By late afternoon, he would be so drenched in sweat that it would look like someone had doused him with water. Cohen joked that he should be like a butcher and charge by the pound.

The chiropractor with sympathetic brown eyes was 5-foot-8, but he was strong and got stronger with this impressive patient roster.

"You gotta have a moose working on a moose. You don't want a mouse," said ex-linebacker Robin Cole, who was so impressed with Cohen's techniques that he toyed with the idea of going to chiropractor school himself.

Occasionally, the chiropractor would even make an emergency house call. Hours after one game, when the pain had set it, Greenwood called Cohen and told him it was bad. Cohen offered to come to his house. Once there, he found Greenwood with broken ribs and worked the muscles.

Cohen was also a big-game chiropractor. He traveled to the Super Bowls XIII in Miami and XIV in Pasadena and gave players treatments in the hotel room.

Just like everyone else in town, Cohen became a rabid fan. It was exciting, but it wasn't always easy to watch the hitting on the field from his great seats in the stands.

"I saw all the hard work I did being undone," he says. "I would worry about which ones of my patients would get hurt."

The players said he kept them on the field.

"I got great results with pulls, strains and so on," says Larry Brown, the ex-offensive tackle who now co-owns Applebee's restaurant franchises. "Injuries that would take you three or four or five weeks, would turn around in a week or two with treatments."

Donnie Shell, the safety who now works as director of player development for the Carolina Panthers, remembers getting a terrible hamstring injury during a Monday night game. He figured he would be out for awhile. Cohen kept him playing.

But the most appreciative is the original Steeler client. Greenwood, who retired in 1981, says Cohen kept him in games.

"Not coming to Jeffrey would be like forgetting the plays before the game. A lot of people owe him a lot. Nobody knew what he did to get us back on the field."

"It has always been pretty much like a secret," Greenwood said. "The right people have never known why or how a lot of things happened. They figured it was some kind of phenomenon or we weren't as seriously hurt as we said."

Other players downplay the secrecy. Brown said the trips to the chiropractor were not clandestine. But Joe Gordon, the longtime spokesman for the team who recently retired, didn't know about the chiropractor and says Noll likely didn't either. Gordon said any player who would have seen a chiropractor back then "would have kept it on the QT. They were not considered legitimate medical people." Today, many NFL teams are open to chiropractor care.

Over 10 years, until the mid-1980s, Cohen treated 40 different Steelers. Once they retired from football, most of the Steelers stopped going to Cohen.

But Cohen's practice grew anyway. He now charges $45 a treatment, and has such a strong practice that he rarely takes new patients, referring them to his associate. Though Cohen was never known for his star Steeler patients, word got out that he treated dancers from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, musicians from the Pittsburgh Symphony, hurdler Roger Kingdom, Fred Rogers and scores of less famous people.

The one constant from the old Super Bowl days was Greenwood. His image is in the chiropractor's lobby. A limited edition framed poster called the "Front Four, the Greatest Ever" - Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Joe Greene and Greenwood - is prominently displayed. L.C. gave his friend the chiropractor one of his five copies.

Greenwood, who runs a business supplying coal and natural gas to utilities, also comes in to see Cohen a few times a month to get relief from arthritis. Greenwood works our regularly, but there are so many aches he sleeps with a pillow under each arm. "This is the way it has to be the rest of my life," says Greenwood, who has no regrets.

The mountain of a man fills up the patient room as Cohen works on him for 45 minutes. "Ahhh," Greenwood says, grimacing at the end of a treatment. "A lot of that is out of my neck now."

Working the massive muscles, Cohen quips, "He's still my hardest customer."

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