Art Rooney, the wily, long-time owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, liked Southerners.
“He appreciated the way we acted—yes sir, no sir and all that—and maybe he thought we fit better into his organization,” Tom Calvin recalled. “He was a good man. I liked him.”
Rooney took a shine to Calvin, too, but the young man from Athens knew how to drive a hard bargain.
After calling Rooney’s bluff and spending a year as a high school coach back in Alabama, Calvin was surprised when the cigar-chomping football mogul, desperate for a hard-charging fullback, made an exception to his long-standing policy and agreed to a guaranteed contract—for $8,000.
“Eight thousand dollars was a lot of money in those days,” Calvin said with a chuckle six decades later.
At a time when NFL salaries remained modest, most players held off-season jobs to make ends meet, and many were forced to live part of the year elsewhere, Calvin learned how to stretch his money. Renting the upstairs of a house temporarily vacated by a couple vacationing in Florida for “a very reasonable price“ gave Tom and Lenette the sort of space many of his teammates envied. He and teammate Claude Hipps, who occupied the first floor with his wife, stocked the basement with canned goods. “A lot of [our teammates] got mad at us,“ he said. “But I told ’em, ’It was in the paper! You could have rented it!”
In those days, the Steelers were stuck in the middle of the NFL pack, posting four consecutive non-winning seasons from 1952-55.
“We had some good athletes but we just didn’t have enough,“ Calvin said.
HOMETOWN HEROES is a three-part story, updating monthly, about the life and career of former Alabama player Tom Calvin.
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