NFL great continues to give it his all

Hall of Fame offensive lineman DeLamielleure now tries to help retired players make up ground

February 10, 2011|By Tribune Newspapers

In the 1970s, as linchpin of the Buffalo Bills' "Electric Company" offensive line that opened holes for O.J. Simpson, Joe DeLamielleure helped "turn loose the Juice."

These days, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee runs interference as an outspoken advocate for retired players' benefits, which he has long argued are substandard.

His zeal is no less fierce.

"I said that if I got in the Hall of Fame," notes the former guard, enshrined in 2003, "I would use it as a platform to do some good things, try to help people who can't help themselves.

"The first thing I did was speak up for retired players."

But he didn't stop there.

Two years ago, in what he said was his first time on a bicycle, the former Michigan State All-American pedaled more than 2,000 miles from his alma mater in East Lansing, Mich., to Matamoros, Mexico, to raise funds for an orphanage.

This summer, DeLamielleure plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise funds and awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that aids injured servicemen and -women.

"And I've never climbed a mountain either," DeLamielleure, laughing, says from his home in Charlotte, N.C., all but daring anyone to predict he won't reach the summit.

The former lineman, 59, is nothing if not pugnacious.

A father of six, including two adopted sons born to Korean parents, DeLamielleure in the early 1990s was bilked out of his life savings of nearly $250,000. A victim of a con man, he says he later helped convict the man by wearing a wire for the FBI.

"But we never claimed bankruptcy," he says, referring to himself and wife Gerri, a nurse. "We sold the house and moved. I started coaching, blah, blah. But we made our way out."

DeLamielleure has held so many jobs that his kids called him "Joe Gump," after Forrest Gump, which was easier to pronounce than DeLamielleure (De-laam-e-LEER).

He coached football in high school and college, including a stint at Duke. He coached his daughter's high school basketball team. He sold socks. He started a moving company, worked as a groundskeeper, dabbled in broadcasting.

In 1992, he made a brief comeback, playing in a handful of games for the Charlotte Rage of the Arena Football League.

DeLamielleure, a fitness buff, even tried boxing, participating in a 10-round bout at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Says the 6-foot-3, 254-pound DeLamielleure, whose latest venture is a signature line of exercise stretch bands: "We did everything we could to keep our family afloat."

A similar focus forged DeLamielleure's stellar football career.

The ninth of 10 children born to a Detroit bar owner, he was a first-round NFL draft pick in 1973. As a rookie, he helped pave the way for Simpson to become the only NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a 14-game season.

"You couldn't have asked for a better teammate," DeLamielleure says of the former running back, now imprisoned in Nevada. "When I got to Buffalo, the one thing that impressed me about him was, he played like he was not going to make the team. He did not have a superstar attitude."

Of Simpson's later troubles, DeLamielleure says, "I feel bad for the whole situation — his children, the Goldmans, the Browns. I mean, what an ugly situation."

DeLamielleure, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, played 13 seasons with the Bills and Cleveland Browns, earning numerous accolades before playing his final game with the Bills in 1985.

It wasn't until nearly 20 years later, however, that he was enshrined at Canton, Ohio. His election to the Hall of Fame came only after researcher John Turney released a list ranking DeLamielleure as the NFL's third-most decorated offensive lineman behind John Hannah and Anthony Munoz.

Former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano, noting that "a wrong has been righted," said on the eve of DeLamielleure's induction, "He was a 1950s guy playing in the '80s, with that kind of dirt-tough attitude. [Vince] Lombardi would've loved him."

DeLamielleure says he was a football junkie.

"I used to go to camp early," he says. "They'd say, 'You're addicted to football,' and I'd say, 'I am.'"

DeLamielleure's dissatisfaction with the players' union and its pension plan, however, has left him disillusioned and angry.

"My pension after 13 years in this league is $1,247 a month, before taxes," he says. "We've got [other] Hall of Famers getting $172 a month. It drives me crazy. The general public thinks we're multimillionaires, especially if we're in the Hall of Fame

"We've got to work every day of our lives. When you say I'm retired, I chuckle. I'll work until the day I die."

Still, he knows he's got little to complain about compared to wounded soldiers, which is why he plans to join former NFL lineman Ken Huff and three injured vets on Mt. Kilimanjaro in August.

"Two of my brothers served," DeLamielleure says, "and I've always had kind of an empty feeling because I never did."

If he had, you can bet, it would have been with passion.

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