The days aren't stocked with a large enough inventory of hours. Mel Blount has been up since dawn this dreary Tuesday in late spring, but his to-do list just keeps getting longer. There's grass that needs mowing, hay that needs baling, a cabin wall that needs repairing, a vet bill that needs paying ... and then Blount's day really gets messed up. Driving a visitor around his 300-acre property in Claysville, Pa., Blount tries to maneuver his truck down a winding hillside path he'd recently bulldozed. The ground is wetter than anticipated, and while the truck lurches forward, the wheels stick. It's the automotive equivalent of turf toe.
This is an article from the July 13, 2009 issue
Wearing his trademark Stetson, a flannel shirt, boots adorned with spurs, jeans held up by a snakeskin belt and a buckle the size of a dinner plate, Blount emerges from the cab. "That's not good," he says forlornly. "I'll have someone come get us. Then tonight I'll get a tractor and back us out. It might mean I won't get to ride my horses."
Let other former jocks obsess over their golf games or investment portfolios, living a life in repose as muscle turns to flab. Blount, the fearsome cornerback for the dynastic Steelers teams of the '70s, is as busy as ever. Though he turned 61 in April, he could pass for two decades younger, a hulk of a man who stands 6'3" and is close to his playing weight of 220 pounds. In 1983, the year he retired from the NFL, he founded the Mel Blount Youth Home in his hometown of Vidalia, Ga., a nonprofit aimed at helping troubled and disadvantaged young males "get back to a place where they could contribute to society," as he puts it. In '89 he opened a second facility in Claysville, an hour southwest of Pittsburgh. While Mr. Mel, as he's known there, is officially the CEO of the homes, he's also, by turns, groundskeeper, chauffeur, father figure, social worker, preacher and emotional backstop. "You wake up thinking your day is going to go one way, and it always turns out different," he says. "But working just gives me purpose."
All of which is to say, Blount still possesses the rugged intensity and industriousness that endeared him to Steelers fans. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection, a vital member of four Super Bowl championship teams and a Hall of Fame inductee in 1989, his first year of eligibility. In Super Bowl XIII in January 1979 his interception of a Roger Staubach pass late in the first half set up the touchdown that gave the Steelers a lead they would never relinquish in a pulse-pounding 35--31 victory, one of the best games in Super Bowl history. "You know how people say, 'I wonder if so-and-so could play in the NFL today,'" says Dwayne Woodruff, a Steelers cornerback from 1979 to '90. "Mel could play in the NFL today. And he could play in the NFL tomorrow."
Blount is known just as much for his steady work ethic as for his highlight moments. In his 14 seasons he missed one game, total, a figure that is especially remarkable given his aggressive, physical style. It was on account of Blount's mauling defense that the NFL instituted the "five-yard rule," limiting contact between a defensive back and a receiver. "They always legislate in favor of the offense," Blount says, smiling. "Defense may win championships, but the rules always favor the offense."
During his NFL off-seasons Blount would retreat from city life and to the hinterlands of southern Georgia, where he was raised. "I was the only person to come out of the town, black or white," he says in his hickory-smoked drawl. To help change that, he founded the youth homes, which serve abused and neglected boys, ages seven to 17. Some of the kids use the facility as an emergency shelter; others are there for years, tended to by a staff that includes counselors, teachers, program directors and a cook. "It's a 24/7 operation, three shifts coming in and out," says Blount. "With kids, there's no time off. If you don't get to them now, it'll cost society a bundle when they become adults."
As many as 24 boys live at the homes at any one time, most of them products of poor urban environments. If there's some culture shock when they arrive, well, so be it. "Rural life helps slow them down," says Blount. "You spend time around horses and grass and trees and God's creation, and you understand life a little more."
And upon arrival the kids get a supersized portion of discipline. The rules prohibit cellphones, earrings, cursing and "pants hanging off your behind," Blount says. "I don't know too many places where you could go for an interview showing your underwear and still get the job. Have some pride in yourself!"
Blount's decidedly old-school manner has sometimes been a source of controversy. Over the years both the Georgia and Pennsylvania homes have drawn complaints from state agencies over issues such as corporal punishment. But the success stories are abundant. One former resident recently graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta. Another "alum," Aaron Nestor, became a sergeant in the U.S. Army and served in Iraq. As he put it in a letter to Blount and his wife, TiAnda, "You gave me the discipline that I seriously lacked as a kid, and the boys in your home now need the same thing."
Blount's voice catches as he reflects on "my boys," as he calls them. "We've been able to help some kids," he says. "And we've been on the other end too. We've lost a few who have gone back in the city and gotten involved in gangs and drugs, even gotten killed. I don't want people to think we're batting one thousand. But overall, we've been able to make a difference."
Both homes are family businesses. The Georgia facility is run by Blount's brother, Clinton; his mother, Alice, who is 102 years old, patrols the grounds on her golf cart, "fixes biscuits" and even accompanies the boys on fishing trips. In Pennsylvania, TiAnda is executive vice president, and the Blounts' three sons, Akil, 14, Jibri, 12, and Khalid, 11, help with chores, groom the horses, and play pickup hoops and football with the residents, who live in cabins behind the family house.
Running the homes doesn't come cheap—annual expenses for the Pennsylvania facility are nearly $1.8 million. When the economy improves, Blount plans to begin a $10 million capital campaign to build a gym and multipurpose facility. An avid horseman, he holds a benefit rodeo on the Pennsylvania property each summer. Most of the homes' funds, though, are raised through an annual roast held at a downtown Pittsburgh hotel and emceed by Steelers Hall of Famer Lynn Swann.
The affair attracts more than 1,000 donors, and it doubles as a reunion for the members of those great Steelers teams. Dozens of players, coaches and staff grudgingly throw on a tux, rip on a teammate—defensives tackles Joe Greene and John Banaszak and safety Donnie Shell are the three most recent roastees—and catch up. "I say only half-jokingly that players today start foundations; players from the '70s and '80s give time to things they believe in," says Swann, now a Pittsburgh businessman and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor in 2006. "For [Blount] to do this after a successful football career, to still have this passion and commitment, I think we're all happy to support that."
Mel isn't quite so sure he sees it that way. "People say, 'You were an NFL player, Super Bowls and all that, and now you run a home for boys—that's amazing,'" he says. "But there's a lot of similarities. You're on a team, you do your job, you're part of something bigger than yourself. And when you have success, it's a great feeling, man."
Now on SI.com
Blount on Blount: Read Roy Blount Jr.'s 1983 profile of Mel Blount at SI.com/bonus