Shoulder-gate? How Shoulder Pads, ‘Suiting Up’ Cost Noll’s Steelers!

Sean McCormick
5 min readMay 27, 2021

NFL’s First ‘Gate’ Experience Occurred Decades Ago!

Photo by HENCE THE BOOM on Unsplash

It’s been nearly a half-century since a bungled burglary at the Watergate complex resulted in the resignation of a President of the United States, but from that point on any type of governmental or organizational wrong-doing would have the gate suffix added to the description. In the NFL, it was Spygate, then it was Deflategate. However, the first NFL rules violation to have gate attached to it occurred in June, 1978 and with the league’s team conducting OTA’s at this time of the year, it’s only appropriate to reflect on what long-time NFL reporter John Clayton (working at the time for the Pittsburgh Press) dubbed Shouldergate!

Two years removed from back-to-back Super Bowl wins, the Steelers were greeting the draft class of ’78 at rookie camp and apparently Chuck Noll decided it was time for players to don full pads. There was just one problem, though. Doing such was a clear violation of the labor agreement between the players association and the NFL. Rookies and any veterans at off-season camps were permitted to wear only one piece of equipment — helmets!

“I’m not sore all over for nothing!”

From the start of camp session, Noll may as well have raised a red flag atop Three Rivers Stadium as he declared the camp off limits to the media. Post practice pictures divulged the not-so-closely-guarded secret that rookies as well as the veterans in attendance had particpated in full-go, pad-popping contact drills. A picture of Steelers defensive lineman John Banaszak accompanied Clayton’s article in the Press. Clayton’s clever tongue-in-cheek line about the possibility of the team just running laps in pads, and then tossing them off before specific drills, was clearly refuted by the second-round pick of the Steelers. “Well. I’m not sore all over for nothing,” defensive lineman Willie Fry told Clayton. The reporter added more proof of full contact football, describing Robin Cole’s metal plate and bandages being worn to cover calcium deposits on the linebacker’s right arm — remnants of the bone break from the 1977 season.

Red-faced Rooneys

Prior to the arrival of Noll the team created and owned by Art Rooney was a perennial loser in the NFL. There were a few glimpes of glory; such as 1947 when Jock Sutherland, still relying on the single wing offense, coached the Steelers to it’s first-ever playoff appearance or the hideous Playoff Bowl (where the second-place teams of the Eastern and Western Conferences played) appearance in 1962. The lack of winning, and the misguided coaching decisions through the years (both Johnny Unitas and Len Dawson wore Steelers black and gold prior to developing into Hall of Fame players), led to creation of the acronym S.O.S. — Same Old Steelers!

Knowing his team was perpetually the runt of the annual NFL litter, Rooney always favored rules which kept the league from becoming a year-round practicing venture. He and the other owners lacking the fiscal ability to compete with the successfu larger market teams had always pushed for practice restrictions. Even after the Steelers started winning championships, Art’s son Dan became instrumental in the labor agreements with the NFLPA and this included the restrictions on the use of any equipment than helmets during off-season workouts.

When asked by the Pittsburgh media how the Steelers would respond when approached by then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle regarding the rules violations the younger Rooney said, “What defense do I have. They got pictures of our players in pads.”

The pictures were damaging, but even if there had been no glamour shots it’s likely Noll’s attempt to ignore the rules would have eventually been leaked. Nearly 50 rookies and veterans attended the cloak-and-dagger camp and not all of those in attendance would have made the final roster for the 1978 Steelers. Of the players getting picked up by other teams after being cut by Pittsburgh at least a few of them would have had locker room stories about Shouldergate.

Steelers, Raiders & Schenanigans

The rivalry created between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders was a public relations prize which contributed immensely to the growth of the NFL in the 1970s. Two powerful and physical teams bludgeoning each other on and off the field made for the national television audience. It was Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception igniting the rivalry. It was Raiders coach John Madden claiming his team winning the 1974 AFC Divisional playoff against defending NFL champion Miami as the team’s ticket to the Super Bowl, only to motivate Noll and the Steelers to beat Oakland in the AFC Championship game the following week. It was the the vicious hit on Lynn Swann by George Atkinson in the following year’s AFC Championship game. It was Noll’s response to such hits and labeling the safety part of the ‘criminal element’ and subsequently getting fined $1,000 by Rozelle.

The schenanigans weren’t limited to when those two teams played each other. During the playoff game with Denver a few months before Shouldergate Steelers defensive tackle Joe Greene had his wallet become $5,000 lighter, a league fine for his punch to the gut of Bronco guard Paul Howard. Pittsburgh linebacker Dennis ‘Dirt’ Winston was also fined two grand for a tackle the commissioner deemed was too rough. Not to be outdone Oakland owner Al Davis, a week after Denver’s win over the Steelers, said the officials lied about a questionable call which Davis believed kept the Raiders from the Super Bowl. Rozelle lifted $5,000 from ‘Just Win Baby’ Al’s bank account.

1979 3rd Round Pick Forfeited

Around the same time as Shouldergate the Green Bay Packers were discovered to have broken NFL regulations by conducting illegal workouts. Rozelle punished the Packers by taking away the team’s fourth-round pick in the next draft. The NFL decided what the Steelers had done deserved a bit more punishment and rescinded Pittsburgh’s third-round pick in the 1979 draft. There was a general feeling at the time the commissioner was tiring of having to deal with punishing noteworthy teams such as the Steelers or Raiders.

Prior to having the story appear in print, Clayton had contacted the NFL in order to fully understand the league rule. Instead of being upset with Noll and the Steelers organization for commiting the violation many fans, and some of the Pittsburgh media, were more upset Clayton had reported the violation.



Sean McCormick

Turning the ‘complex’ into the ‘understandable!’ In Coaching & Leadership there is one constant — WRITING!