WHERE ARE THEY NOW? John Rienstra
Content in Colorado
by Sean Doherty
The year was 1986. The Steelers were coming off their worst season since Chuck Noll’s second as coach. A weight-room god who played guard was the team’s top draft choice, and he was a training camp holdout. Talk about deja vu - this is looking like the real deal.
But no, John Rienstra has not come back as the Steelers’ top ’98 draft pick, Alan Faneca. Nor, if all goes according to plan, will the 6.4, 315 pounder out of LSU have the pressure to contribute right away. The idea, at least, has been to make him the understudy of Will Wolford, although even those plans are in question with the Steelers’ OL in a state of flux. Regardless, Rienstra’s job was much more difficult.
The last offensive guard that the Steelers picked in the first round was known as "Rhino" and, like his namesake, was big and strong. He built himself to be that way, eating six meals a day and spending countless hours tossing iron. Needing help on the offensive line, the Steelers made Rienstra the ninth overall pick in the ‘86 NFL Draft.
Former Steeler tackle Tunch Ilkin remembers Rienstra as the player most committed to and successful at being in shape as any with whom he had played - at any level. "He was unbelievably strong. It was a shame that he had all that pressure on him." Indeed, as Rienstra told PSR, "The ten years leading into the NFL was pure work and I always did more than I would have to. The stress was unbelievable. There is nothing in the real world like the NFL, nothing as demanding."
Coming out of Temple, Rienstra had been tagged by then-Steelers offensive line Coach Hal Hunter as the next John Hannah, the Patriots’ Hall of Fame guard. And he did whatever he could to making those predictions come true, even when his first day at rookie camp produced a broken foot. A 24-day holdout that resulted in Chuck Noll labeling him a wasted pick followed.
Looking back, Rienstra thinks that maybe he would have had better success as an unknown free-agent, with little or no expectations. "But then again, the pressure and stress would have just been a little different, and maybe more intense. Dealing with the stress takes a lower key, one that I only got by getting older and smarter." And also, ironically, from Chuck Noll, who deactivated him for most of the 1990 season - only one year after he had played his best football, and seemed to be on the verge of a career breakthrough.
"I just wish that I could have had more fun with him (Noll). I took everything so personally. The longer I’m away from him, the more I miss and appreciate Chuck. He was so good with humility and what really counts in the real world. He called it ‘your life’s work’. I think a great deal of the man. Maybe we were just too alike, a couple uptight guys with the desire to be perfect."
Steelers’ Director of Football Operations, Tom Donahoe, thinks there’s something to Rienstra’s thinking. "I was a regional scout with Blesto the year that John was drafted. He showed good aggressiveness and great toughness at Temple. But his technique needed work, and his physical size was suspect - as to how much weight that his frame could support, naturally. I saw him as a third or fourth round pick; a place where he might have gone to camp and have been given time to adjust before he was asked to produce."
But nobody ever wants not to be a first round draft choice.
Unfortunately for Rienstra, once the groundbreaking four year/two million dollar contract was signed, it was Rienstra’s own insides that failed him. Ulcers, vomiting before games, and his driving quest for perfection all haunted him while wearing the Black and Gold.
Rienstra started 27 games over his five seasons, played in 42, and had his best year in 1989. But it was quite a ride until ‘89, all the way from the broken foot, broken ribs, a sprained ankle, a knee injury, a stress fracture, and the stress disorder that forced him into walking away from the 1988 training camp to paint houses and receive counseling.
Rienstra had the body of a sculpture and the drive of a pit bull. But according to him, he, like the pit bull, had inherited a genetic flaw, one that generated a chemical imbalance in his system that caused panic attacks, the kind that Ilkin remembers had Rhino running up to two miles before a game. Says Donahoe, "It was such behavior that also had coaches like Noll, and his assistants, wondering just what might happen next, and how deeply they could depend on such an unpredictable personality."
The time off definitely did him some good. Rienstra started 14 games in ‘ 89. But the next season was a different story with back problems, his father’s death and another loss of Noll’s confidence. Free agency took him to Cleveland where he finished his career after two more seasons. Right shoulder reconstruction finally drove him to retirement. He did what thousands of us only wish we could have done, but it was not enough - either for us or him.
Donahoe thinks that any such labels are unfair, for Rienstra and the others. "First pick or free-agent, I wouldn’t call anybody who played in then NFL a failure. Draft positions are just projections, and that’s why you can end up with a free-agent star. John played a lot of games for us, and for Cleveland. It’s unfair for anybody to be fit with a label comparing him with maybe the best player at his position of all-time before he plays a down. That kind of pressure is very difficult to handle."
What teammates like Ilkin remember best is that, "He was a great guy, a true friend. I just wish that he’d kept in touch after he quit playing." Such is the sentiment with whom everybody PSR spoke. Donahoe described Rienstra as "A terrific guy, the kind you root for to do well. It’s good news to hear that he’s in good health and happy."
After Rienstra left the Steelers following 1990 season, he was saddened by the news that Steelers’ guard Terry Long tested positive for steroid use, was suspended from playing, and attempted suicide. There was also Steve Courson’s revelation that steroid use was the main cause of him needing a heart transplant. The suspicion remains about what was going on in that Steelers’ locker room.
Rienstra’s view of steroid use is clear, saying that the best thing the NFL ever did was institute random steroid testing in 1987. "From what I know, anybody that tells me they’re using ‘roids now, might as well tell me they’re using heroine. There is nobody using steroids in the NFL now, since ‘87. I was tested five times in the last five months of my career in Cleveland."
Rocky Mountain High
Now a literal 198-lb. shadow of his 296 lb. Steelers’ being, Rienstra still carries the burning desire to compete and succeed, although he has learned to control the degree to which he will battle. As the now 35-year-old put it, "With age comes knowledge and a lower key." He’s relatively healthy and seemingly as content as John Rienstra might ever be, holding a managerial position with a growing auto repair chain and living in Colorado with his wife and two children.
Since the shoulder surgeries pushed him from the weight room, Rhino has turned to road running and mountain biking for competition and fitness, even running in the Pike’s Peak Marathon.
As for Faneca, Rhino has this advice: "Have fun. Don’t worry about what other people think or say. Realize that your football life is short, and that it goes by too fast. Don’t make more of it than it is. Stay focused."
Similarities and comparisons aside, Alan Faneca is not John Rienstra. Heck, John Rienstra is barely even John Rienstra anymore.