Sunday, November 02, 2014

The story of No. 75

Ken Kortas

PITTSBURGH — Sunday night, amid all the pageantry, pomp and circumstance that arguably the most storied franchise in professional football history can muster, the Steelers will retire jersey No. 75.
Or as the voice on the other end of the phone cackles, “Hey, my old number.”
Joe Greene may have worn it best, but Ken Kortas wore it last before him. From 1965-69, Kortas donned the now iconic No. 75 for the Steelers.
Kortas won’t be at Heinz Field Sunday; he may not even turn on the TV to catch the festivities from his suburban Louisville, Ky., home. He hasn’t been in contact with anyone from the Steelers since he was unceremoniously dumped for a younger man 45 years ago.
Before “Mean Joe,” before the Steel Curtain and the four Super Bowls, before the Coca-Cola and Hungry Man commercials, Greene was a prized prospect from North Texas. The fourth pick in the ‘69 draft had his sights set on stardom, a certain number he wore in high school and college and Kortas’ job at defensive tackle.
“He was very confident in himself and his ability,” Kortas said of his successor.
Kortas never stood a chance, and he knew it.
Forty-five years ago, the NFL wasn’t what it is today and the Steelers certainly weren’t what they were to become in the following decades. Different economics, different environment, different venues, different everything.
Playing in decrepit Pitt Stadium in Oakland, tickets, even the best seats in the house, were easy to come by.
“The fans of Pittsburgh, I’ve got to give them a lot of credit for going to football games at Pitt Stadium,” Kortas said. “There was no parking and you had to walk up hill to get there. It was brutal.
“I thought if any one goes there they ought to get in for half price. Those days, 50-yard line tickets were six bucks. My mom and dad came to every game, drove in from Chicago every game, every weekend that we were home and some of the away games too. I’d get tickets. ‘Want to be on the 50-yard line?’ Here ya go, I got ya.’”
The teams Kortas played on were as bad as the home stadium. In his four seasons, the Steelers went 13-40-3, including a 2-11-1 mark in ‘68, his final season.
Despite the poor showing on the field, Kortas thoroughly enjoyed his time in Pittsburgh and the passion of the fans, saying it reminded him of his native Chicago.
“People were pretty loyal to us even though we were losing,” he said. “It was just fun in that regard. I enjoyed the guys I played with. We tried like heck but we just couldn’t do things … We couldn’t score. We just had some problems. It was just too bad we couldn’t produce anything.”

Part of Kortas’ enjoyment in playing in Pittsburgh stemmed from his respect for the Rooney family. But it wasn’t the owner Art or his son Dan, who was taking on a bigger role in the team, that he was closest to.
When Kortas arrived, Art Rooney II was a 13-year-old equipment boy, cleaning laundry and doing whatever was asked.
“I used to talk to him because he thought I was the nicest guy on the team, me and my roommate Fran O’Brien,” Kortas said. “One time, Artie told me ‘If I was running the team, you’d be my head coach.’ I wish I would have taken him up on that.”
Obviously, players salaries weren’t quite what they are today. The average annual player salary in ‘69 was $25,000, compared to today’s $1.9 million. During his off-seasons, the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Kortas served as a substitute teacher in some of the toughest schools in Pittsburgh.
It was there, in a classroom, talking to a group of students about his day job that he received what he calls his tell-tale sign. He asked his pupils who he thought the Steelers would take in the draft.
“One kid had the answer,” Kortas said. “His dad said they’d take Joe Greene and I said, ‘I think you’re right.’
“I didn’t have any inside information. That’s just what I thought they were going to do.”
After first-year coach Chuck Noll indeed selected Greene, Kortas reported to training camp at St. Vincent College essentially a lame duck. Kortas may have been jettisoned sooner but only Greene’s contract holdout kept him around.
After Greene reported “a week to 10 days late,” Kortas didn’t have much of a conversation with either his replacement — who was temporarily given No. 72 — or his new coach. Although he says after his tumultuous dealings with Bill Austin, Noll’s predecessor, it couldn’t have been any worse.
“I could still play, but they had other ideas,” he said.
On Sept. 4, 1969, two weeks before the start of the regular season, Kortas, a first-round pick of then St. Louis Cardinals in ‘64, was traded. Kortas, along with halfback Don Shy, was dealt to New Orleans in exchange for Don McCall.
“I hated to go when I did because I thought someday we were going to make it and it’s going to happen,” Kortas said. “So I was three of fours years off on that prediction.”
He never played a down for the Saints, though. He was released but quickly latched on with his hometown Chicago Bears, where he spent the ‘69 season, which turned out to be his last in the NFL. He nearly signed with Washington and Vince Lombardi for the 1970 season but the legendary coach died and was replaced by, of all people, Bill Austin.
After three seasons with Austin in Pittsburgh, Kortas had had enough and was out of the league by age 27. He has no regrets about how it turned out.
Greene, who was handed No. 75 before the start of the ‘69 season, went on to win rookie of the year and took his first steps toward a legendary career. Kortas soon got on with his life with his family in Kentucky, a footnote in franchise history.
“I felt like I could play another four years,” he said. “I would have liked to, it just doesn’t work out. There’s a lot of guys that think they can play and maybe they can or maybe they can’t. Maybe I couldn’t. Nobody agreed with me.
“I think about plays today. I wish I would have done this or whatever. You replay a lot of games in your mind. I’m 72 now, still thinking about rushing the passer.”

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