Tony Parisi traded his goalie skates for soccer cleats after retiring from professional hockey and joining the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1965 as equipment manager.
But Acton shoes weren’t just any cleats. Made in Canada, they had a reputation for giving players sure-footedness in inclement weather, and that’s exactly what the Steelers experienced on January 12, 1975, when they faced the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. The maximum game temperature hovered around 4°C and the playing surface was still slippery from the rain of the night before.
Exactly the kind of conditions that the shoes were designed to thrive in. Luckily for the Steelers, Parisi had ordered a pair for each player and brought them from Pittsburgh along with the team’s gear.
“We had all the players switch into them after the game started. Only (Terry) Bradshaw and Franco (Harris) wore them early in the game,” recalled Parisi, who is from Niagara Falls, on the eve of his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“These were action shoes. I wish I had a pair.”
But the 89-year-old got something better than shoes from Pittsburgh’s 16-6 win that day in New Orleans. It was the first of four Super Bowl rings he would collect in his 33-year career as the Steelers’ equipment manager.
“I have rings. I got four rings from winning championships,” he replied with a chuckle when asked what he appreciates most about his time in the National Football League.
Parisi, who still lives in the Pittsburgh suburb he and his wife Joan bought in 1968, said working for the Rooney family never felt like a job.
“They were great people to work for. They never bothered you,” he said. “There wasn’t a day that I didn’t want to go to work.”
Parisi also forged lifelong friendships in the Steel City.
“Franco calls here from time to time. Jack Lambert, some of the others,” said Joan Parisi. “They’re from what I call ‘old school,’ way back in the ’70s.”
His greatest memory in his more than three decades with the Steelers was going to the Super Bowl for the first time after the team had posted a combined 25-60-5 in his first seven seasons with the team. He recalled that Pittsburgh’s fortunes began to take a turn for the better after hiring Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969 and drafting Bradshaw out of Louisiana State University the following year as the overall champion.
“It was good after Terry Bradshaw came on. We started winning.”
Joan Parisi recalls the day her husband, a former equipment manager for what was then the Pittsburgh Hornets of the American Hockey League, switched to soccer to earn a living. In 1965 their first daughter Paula was born.
“He came into the hospital room and said, ‘I just got a job with the Steelers,'” she recalled.
After the 1964-65 hockey season was over, the Hornets had no scheduled practice times, so they didn’t need a equipment manager.
“He has worked in other places. He had a few different jobs at the time. Then he would go back to hockey when it was time for training camp.”
In Parisi’s first few years with the Steelers, he would have off-season time off. After that it became a full-time job.
“It got to a point where they trained all year and you were there.”
Joan Parisi does not know if her husband ever had to sew uniforms.
“He would outsource that,” she said. “I know that my mother sewed for him. Various things he came up with that would help the team.”
These “other things” included tailoring uniforms to make them fit more snugly and using two-way tape under the flaps of shoulder pads, also in hopes of ensuring a tighter fit.
“We thought players from other teams couldn’t pull on them like that,” he said.
Parisi made custom shoes for halfback Rocky Bleier, whose right foot was damaged by a shell blast while serving with the US Army in Vietnam.
“I put an extra cleat on the end of his shoes to give him a better grip.”
The hardest part about being a gear manager was making sure everything was top notch for players after being “ripped and hit” the week before.
“You had to keep going and get the team ready to play.”
After all his years on the team, does the Niagara Falls Sports Wall of Fame inductee, Class of 2006 have a favorite Steeler?
“No, they were all good boys.”