The first Mel Kiper

The Steelers had a personnel guy in the ’40s and ’50s who ran his family’s funeral parlor on the side. Or maybe he worked for the Steelers on the side. It’s hard to tell. His name was Ray Byrne, but he was known in the organization as Heels because he looked like Heels Beals, a character in the Dick Tracy comic strip.

As a kid, Byrne had gone to Forbes Field in 1924 to see Carnegie Tech battle Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen and come away with a severe case of footballitis. Or as a 1950 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, the game

caught his imagination and brought concentration on football records. He began buying up old Spalding guides. The hobby became a mania. He ran ads in newspapers and magazines for missing links in his series. Today his home is packed with what he believes to be the most complete collection of football records in the world. They start back in the Civil War era with an 1866 edition titled “Beadle’s Dime Novel [Book, actually] of Cricket and Football.”

In 1946 Steelers publicist Pat Livingston, who doubled as a scout, was putting together a list of college prospects and invited Byrne to his office to pick his brain. Coach Jock Sutherland overheard the conversation and was so impressed with Ray that he brought him along to the draft. Before long, the undertaker was drawing a paycheck from the club and doing a variety of jobs besides player personnel — such as keeping statistics and serving as The Turk at training camp.

But Byrne had an arrangement with the Steelers, the Post-Gazette said, that allowed him to “drop his football duties and become a mortician whenever necessary.” So there were plenty of days when he’d go back and forth between the team’s headquarters at 521 Grant St. and the Byrne Memorial Home at 701 North Negley Ave.

(Come to think of it, that would have been a great storyline for Six Feet Under. Heck, they might have been able to squeeze out a sixth season if they’d had Nate or David moonlight as an NFL scout.)

You can follow Ray’s climb up the Steelers’ ladder in their annual media guides. In 1947 he was listed as their historian. In ’48 he became a PR assistant. In ’52 his title was “public relations-player personnel,” and in ’53 and ’54 simply “player personnel” (after which he disappears from the administration page).

Those weren’t particularly good drafts for the Steelers. Indeed, the best player they picked — Hall of Fame fullback John Henry Johnson, their second-rounder in ’53 — signed with a Canadian team and never wore a Pittsburgh uniform. But give Byrne his due: He lived the dream. How many undertakers can say the same?

Click here to read the whole story. Wish there were a few quotes from Heels, but sportswriting could be like that in those days.