On field, in bar, Michaels was indeed Hall of Famer

John Steadman

December 08, 1992|By John Steadman

NEW YORK -- When Lou Michaels was in the seventh grade, he made the high school's freshman football team, the first and only time it happened in an area where playing the game is second only in importance to going to church on Sundays.

As the youngest of eight children, there was pride in being able to go home and excitedly inform the family of such a notable accomplishment.

Besides, in his first game, he had kicked six out of seven extra points. What happened to the one that was missed? That's what the other six Michaels boys wanted to know.

"My brothers almost took me apart," he remembers. "Know what they told me? They said it was my fault. The other kick was blocked because I should have moved back another yard or kicked faster."

The memory, of course, is only an illustration of the emphasis attached to football in the Michaels homestead, located in Swoyersville, Pa., where the father and two older brothers worked in the coal mines.

Lou became an all-state high school player in two different states, a rarity in that he was first picked in his native Pennsylvania and then when he attended Staunton Military Academy in Virginia. Then it was on to the University of Kentucky, where he became a two-time All-America in 1956 and 1957.

Tonight, the College Football Hall of Fame enshrines him in its elite lineup, a fitting highlight to an immensely strong and talented lineman who also punted, kicked off and cared for field goals and extra points.

In 1958, he was a first-round draft choice and spent three years each with the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers and six more seasons as a Baltimore Colt. At Kentucky, it was almost illegal to let him play against mere college boys because his ability so overwhelmed the competition.

In a game with Georgia Tech, coach Bobby Dodd said Lou's 61-yard punt on the fly from the end zone was the "greatest pressure kick I've ever seen."

The only reason, as a professional, he was traded by the Rams to the Steelers and then to the Colts was because of disputes off the field. He was young, single and didn't know how to pace himself drinking beer.

In Los Angeles, he had a discussion with a policeman that brought the intervention of five other officers. Once he was subdued, they took him to his apartment rather than booking him into jail.

While a Rams rookie, he sacked John Unitas six times in a game and the tackle trying to block him is considered one of the premier offensive linemen in the history of the game -- NFL and College Football Hall of Famer Jim Parker.

Still, the Rams, after having Michaels for three years, traded him to the Steelers. Three more seasons and he was sent to Baltimore in a deal for Bill Saul and Marv Woodson.

Now Lou is older (52), wiser and has more than mended his ways. In fact, he's a proud member of law enforcement, serving as athletic director at the Luzerne (Pa.) County Correctional Facility in Wilkes-Barre.

"When some of those things happened in the past, I was still growing up," he explained. "They were minor scraps. I'm not proud of them. Now I try to help young people stay out of trouble."

In Swoyersville, heart of the hard-coal region, Michaels' father to this day is talked of as one of the strongest men who ever worked the mines. He was known to lift a loading car from one set of tracks to another without bothering to come to the surface.

"I am mighty proud of my father and mother and all my brothers and now my own wife, Judy, and our two boys and daughter," said Michaels. "Getting to know Art Rooney, who owned the Steelers, was the best thing that could have happened to an athlete."

The feeling was mutual. Rooney admired Lou, too. A Steelers office secretary became Mrs. Michaels and it wasn't unusual to see player Michaels and team owner Rooney at the racetrack together, trying to cheer Lou Michaels the thoroughbred across the finish line.

"Mr. Rooney was a saint," insisted Lou. "Take my word for it. A lot of grown men cried when he died. Mr. Rooney was a man of the people. He didn't know how to act like a phony big shot. I've had only two idols, Mr. Rooney and Stan Musial. In all my life, I never heard one bad word about either of them. It's not the same in Pittsburgh since 'The Chief' died."

Michaels has a brother, Walt, who played for the Cleveland Browns and then coached the New York Jets. Brother Joe was a standout at Drexel and the Bainbridge Naval Station during World War II.

"But the old-timers in the Wyoming Valley [Pa.] and in Swoyersville say my brother Ed was better than all of us," said Michaels. "Unfortunately, he got killed on Guadalcanal, age 21, as a Marine."

Now Lou is able to enjoy a laugh at his own expense. Is it true that back in your restless youth you were barred from all the barrooms around Swoyersville because you became a bit cantankerous after having a beer or two or three or more?

"I was never barred," Michaels insisted. "Now, I was asked to leave a few places. When I came in, the owners knew it was going to be a $30 payday for them because I bought a lot of beer for the boys. That's all behind me now. It took me a little longer to grow up, but I made it."

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