Nobody ever hung in there any stronger than the old Ranger—Ray Mansfield, center, who still holds the Pittsburgh Steelers' record for consecutive games played (182). Even after retiring from football after the 1976 season, Mansfield remained a warrior. When a man reneged on an agreement to buy a big insurance policy from him, he went back to the man's office six times and finally kicked a hole in his desk. Then he couldn't get his foot out. He was also hard to shake as a blocker; not long ago he ran into Dick Butkus, got right up in the old Chicago Bear's face and said, "Dick, I owned you," and Butkus didn't argue.
Mansfield also set the unofficial Steelers record for hours enjoyed. Until he was sure there was no more conviviality to squeeze out of it, the Ranger would never call it a night. Yet he peacefully became, last week, at 55, the first of the 1970s dynasty Steelers to call it a life.
The Ranger came from the West—when he was born, his family was living in a tent in a labor camp in Bakersfield, Calif. After the Mansfields moved to Kennewick, Wash., Ray beat up all the town bullies, usually because they had picked on one of his eight brothers and sisters. To recount all of Ray's stories about his life just to that point would take most of this magazine. When he began playing football (first at Washington, then for a season with the Philadelphia Eagles and 13 years with the Steelers), his raconteurial repertoire expanded.
He also appeared prominently in other people's stories, and there was always a new one. The night before his funeral, Andy Russell, a linebacker, told one I'd never heard. "One night in training camp," Russell said, "Ray told me, 'It's embarrassing. You've been my friend all these years, and you've never once sneaked out after curfew. Tonight's the night.'
"I said, 'Aw, Ray, I can't be doing that; we've got to play Baltimore tomorrow.'
"The next thing I know, Ray, Jack Lambert and I are stealing through the darkness. Ray is dodging from tree to tree—big, wide Ray, tiptoeing from one skinny little tree to another....
"So we get to this bar, and I can't just keep on drinking, I'll get sick, so I'm sitting there with coffee, and Jack is dancing on the bar with his shirt off, and Ray is arm-wrestling the bartender....
"So I'm the designated driver, and Ray and Jack are in the backseat hitting each other on the arm or something, and here comes a big white horse toward us, right down the middle of the road. I swerve to miss it, and Ray and Jack are outraged: 'You're supposed to be the sober one!' I say, There was a big white horse!' and they're even more outraged: 'We don't see any white horse. And we're the ones drinking!'
"The next day Baltimore was on our one-yard line, about to beat us—it was just an exhibition game—and Lambert came over to me and said, Andy, I think I see the white horse.' "
When the Ranger died, he was looking at one of the world's natural wonders.
His father died laughing, as I thought Ray might one night in my apartment in Pittsburgh in 1973. I spent that season hanging out with the Steelers to write a book. Pete Gent was in town, publicizing North Dallas Forty. Mansfield didn't love Cowboys, but he did love authors and books, and he was having a fine time discussing differences between art and life with Gent, Russell and me, even though he was in great pain. A few days before, he had cut-blocked John Matuszak, causing that enormous Oakland Raider to fall on Ray's neck. Suddenly one of Gent's reflections—something about getting from points A to point B by way of point D—hit the Ranger's funny bone so hard that his top rib separated from his spine completely. He rolled on the couch, alternately laughing and crying. That injury plagued him until he died, but he always spoke of that evening fondly.
Even more than merriment, he enjoyed the Grand Canyon, which he said looked like a cathedral, and where he backpacked often. The last time was with his son, Jimmy, 24, and a pal of Jimmy's. Ray loved camping. In eulogizing him, Russell told the story about Butkus, the one about Ray kicking the desk and one about a night Andy and Ray spent outdoors on the ground. Andy was freezing, "and Ray, who was never cold, said, Andy, you can cuddle.' Let me tell you, that was one warm body."
His blood pressure was way too high. He was still pretty close to his playing weight of 260-something, and he still relished big cigars (he was buried holding one), lots of beer, lots of salt on his food and lots of physical exertion. His older brother and sister had died of congestive heart failure. So did Ray.
He had told Jimmy, "I'm going to die in the Canyon." Along toward evening on their first day of hiking, he told the young men to go on ahead and set up camp. His ankle was bothering him, and he said he'd be along. But he didn't show up. They couldn't look for him in the dark.
Next morning they found him sitting with his back against a big rock, a water bottle in one hand and a disposable camera in the other. He hadn't taken a farewell snapshot; the foil wrapper was still on. But he wore a serene expression, and he was facing a vista that must have been even more breathtaking at sunset. I can't think of anything to add to that. Nobody could tell an old Ranger story as well as the Ranger himself.