A look at how the original USFL altered the trajectory of the 1980s Steelers

  • Steelers lost a productive wide receiver to the original USFL
  • The makeup of the '80s Steelers was forever changed
  • The original USFL had a huge impact on the '80s Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers / George Gojkovich/GettyImages
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The Steelers lost two offensive linemen and a running back to the USFL

The first offensive lineman we will talk about is Tyrone McGriff. The Steelers selected McGriff in the twelfth round of the 1980 draft. He played in thirty-six games, starting ten of them during his three-year Steelers career, yet, McGriff started all thirty-one games in which he played for the original Michigan Panthers of the USFL.

You may be wondering why I am including McGriff in this discussion as it would appear that McGriff was not an important 'cog in the machine', as it were since he only started ten games for us. Part of the reason that I am including McGriff is the fact that he started ten games for us as they were ten consecutive starts.

The other reason I am including McGriff in the discussion is that McGriff represented the long line of late-round draft picks who provided much-needed depth. Keep in mind that by 1980, the Steelers team was getting a little 'long in the tooth'. Retirements of key players had already begun and plenty more were on the horizon.

Another offensive lineman whose loss was felt more so than the loss of McGriff was Ray Pinney. We selected Pinney in the second round of the 1976 draft. Prior to his departure to the USFL, Pinney had played in eighty-two games, starting forty-nine of those games at right tackle, left tackle, and left guard.

Believe me, when Pinney 'jumped ship', we lost a significant piece of our offensive line. Pinney enjoyed a stellar USFL career, starting twenty-eight games for the Michigan Panthers and playing in eighteen games for the Oakland Invaders. As fortune would have it, Pinney returned to the fold, so to speak, in 1985 and would play for us until 1987. Trust me, we were lucky to have Pinney back.

Another player we lost to the USFL was Sidney Thornton. We drafted Thornton in the second round of the 1977 draft. Thorton was a role player but a very significant part of the team during his six-year Steelers career, as evidenced by the fact that in 1979, Thornton played in thirteen games, starting ten of them.

During the 1979 season, Thornton rushed for five hundred and eight-five yards, scored six rushing TDs, and caught sixteen passes, four of which went for TDs. In total, Thornton played in seventy-one games with twenty-one starts. He rushed for over fifteen hundred yards and scored twenty-four total TDs.

Let's wrap up this particular discussion.