BLUEFIELD — The tall man who spoke to Bluefield and Princeton middle school football players in the North end zone of Mitchell Stadium on Thursday evening wore an impressive ring on each hand: mementos of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1979 and 1980 Super Bowl Championships.
His name was Tom Beasley. And he earned those rings as a member of Pittsburgh’s legendary ‘Steel Curtain’ defense.
He admitted to the kids that he rarely wore the rings in public anymore, but Thursday’s pre-game talk seemed a fitting enough occasion to bring them out. His nephew, Andrew Capparelli plays for the Buccaneers under coach Buster Large, who invited Beasley to speak to the young players of both teams.
“Anything you believe is worth doing,” Beasley told the young players, “is worth giving your all.”
Not just football, he emphasized. Anything.
With those gleaming rings as proof of the truth he was sharing, the central theme of his speech was surely embossed on their young minds.
Persistence doesn’t always pay off immediately or in ways that you expect. But persistence always leads somewhere. The road from McDowell County to enduring fame as player for one of the NFL’s greatest dynasties had some twists, turns and detours.
“There are great people here. It was a great place to be raised,” said Beasley, who had been to McDowell County earlier in the week to visit the family of one of his old Elkhorn neighbors who’d recently passed away. “It’s drastically changed. Everything. It’s a little depressing to come back ... to see the number of houses that are empty. To see the lack of activity in the county. But this will always be home.”
As a student athlete at now-defunct Northfork High school, he was a self-described average basketball player on a great basketball team. He was also a great multiple-role football player on a football team that won a state title the year after he graduated. He was recruited by Marshall and Virginia Tech
“Coming out of high school, I had two options to have my education paid for. That was two years after [Marshall] had the plane crash, so that program was still not up and running” said the 6-foot-5 Beasley.
“I chose Virginia Tech. John Brant, my high school football coach begged me not to go there. He said, ‘Tom, you’ll go down there and be a practice dummy for four years. You’ll never step on the field ... and you’ll hate it.’”
Under head coach Charlie Coffey in Blacksburg, where Beasley had been classified as an offensive lineman, playing opportunities for gangly, 210-pounders were, indeed, quite scarce. But Beasley escaped the fate being lost in the weeds during a team scrimmage when the defensive coordinator ran out of defensive tackles that weren’t banged up with 10 plays remaining in the scrimmage. Sent to the defensive side out of administrative desperation, Beasley got to the ball nine times out of those ten snaps.
“I was walking off the field, the head coach told something to the offensive line coach and the offensive line coach said, ‘Charlie wants you with the defensive tackles starting tomorrow.’ Three games later I was starting at left defensive tackle and started there the rest of the time”, said Beasley, whose playing career in Blacksburg outlived the tenure of the coach who recruited him. Coffey was replaced by Jimmy Sharpe in 1974.
Even as a defensive tackle, Beasley remained undersized. He topped out at around 235 pounds after spending time in the Virginia Tech weight room. It was not a terrible impediment to either his performance or his legacy. He was inducted into the Virginia Tech Hall of Fame in 1988.
During his senior season with the Hokies in 1976, Beasley had 78 tackles, including 11 for loss, and was an honorable mention All-American. he was selected to both the Blue-Gray game and the American Bowl. In the 1977 NFL draft he was picked by the Steelers in the third round.
“I ended up being selected as the third pick in the third round by Pittsburgh. I was drafted to replace a guy by the name of ‘Mean Joe’ Greene. I do wear Size 15s, but I never filled that guy’s shoes,” Beasley said.
The Steelers were one of the most popular NFL teams in America, having already won two Super Bowls (1974, 1975) before Beasley showed up. It had one of the most talent-rich rosters in NFL history thanks to Pittsburgh’s scouting practices under head coach Chuck Noll.
“Probably the single best thing that Chuck Noll had going for him was that he was probably 15 years ahead of other teams with regard to his scouting department. He had probably six or eight times the scouting department that the other teams had. So as a result, he picks up a Jack Lambert from Kent State. Everybody knew about Lynn Swann at Southern Cal. But Joe Greene came from North Texas State. There weren’t a lot of other scouts [back then] banging the doors to see what was available,” said Beasley, who himself was obviously one of the obscure gems mined by Noll’s army of scouts.
“Chuck got a lot of great players from lower draft picks. He had a knack for turning players over. When players got closer to the end of their careers, he would trade them. My rookie year, there was one first-round, two second-round, three third-rounds, two fourths and I think three fifths. He just got a lot of people in there ...they just canvassed the country to find out where the talent was and went after them,” Beasley said.
In addition to its stockpile of exceptional football talent, the Steelers were also one of the most media-savvy franchises of the 1970s, making the most of the winning personalities of its stars. Several of them — like Terry Bradshaw — attained crossover celebrity that endures to this day. Greene, an NFL Hall of Famer who joined the Steelers in 1969, is remembered as a golden-hearted bruiser who endeared himself to millions of average Americans thanks to an iconic Coca-Cola television commercial. If you haven’t seen it — Google it.
Greene was just as iconic to his teammates. In spite of the years and the hard mileage that gradually slowed him down, the Steelers fan favorite remained a key team leader into the new decade. Beasley saw a lot of the playing field, but even after having beefed up to 253 solid pounds, he split time with Greene at tackle until ‘Mean Joe’ retired after the 1981 season. In 1979, Beasley had set a Steelers team record with nine tackles versus the Houston Oilers — including line-of-scrimmage stops of no less than Earl Campbell. But the starting job in Pittsburgh wasn’t his until the 1982 season. After the 1983 campaign he went on to play for Washington from 1984 to 1986. Ironically, it was an off-the-field injury suffered at his home that contributed to the end of his 105-game NFL career.
“I got to go up there and play with some phenomenal players, an incredible coach and ownership. I played seven years there, won two Super Bowls with them and then I went to Washington for my last three seasons under Joe Gibbs,” said Beasley, reiterating how blessed he was to have such opportunities.
He reminded the youngsters at Mitchell Stadium that what he valued more than his two Super Bowl Rings were the relationships he made with his coaches and teammates — and the memories they made together.
“I really cherish the memories. I had the opportunity to be with a group of guys who had the attitude that they’d do whatever it took to be the best of the best. That’s what we accomplished in 1978 and 1979,” he said.
“This past November they invited the 1979 Super Bowl team to come back and revisit. We had a reunion up there. I took my oldest grandson, who was 14 at the time. For the whole weekend, we literally hung out with 12 of 13 All-Pros and five Hall of Famers ... guys that were just really legends ... Joe Greene, Bradshaw, Swann, Rocky Bleier ... you could go on and on.”
Sports remained a part of Beasley’s life long after his playing career ended — but from a different perspective.
His daughter, Kerri, was a VHSL All-State volleyball player who went on to a Division I career at Virginia Tech.
His oldest son, Chad, arrived in Blacksburg two years later to play under legendary head coach Frank Beamer. Chad became part of Hokies gridiron history as a defensive tackle on Bud Foster’s “Lunch Pail Defense” that, along with quarterback Michael Vick, led Virginia Tech to an NCAA National Championship Game showdown with Florida State in the 2000 Sugar Bowl. After graduating, Chad played briefly in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns.
Beasley’s middle son, Jared, and youngest son, Danny, played football at Emory & Henry and Carson-Newman, respectively.
Tom Beasley has 10 grandchildren: nine grandsons and one granddaughter. He’s still giving his all. He just has to spread it around a little more.
Their grandpa got to play on two of the greatest football teams in NFL history, which was owned by one of the NFL’s great football families and played in one of the NFL’s greatest football cities in front of some of the sport’s greatest football fans.
Be that as it may, he isn’t a huge fan of the Steelers these days ... or any professional or college football team, for that matter.
“You know what? I’ve always enjoyed playing sports, but I’ve never been a big fan. I never watched a lot of football prior to going to Tech or to Pittsburgh. I will watch maybe a total of a game or game and a half during the entire season. I’m just not a big following fan,” said Beasley.