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Beyond the Stats: Ron Solt

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I think Batman once said, “You either retire a Tecmo Legend, or play long enough to become Steve Grogan.” Something like that. I may be misquoting slightly. The point is, not every NFLer became Bo Jackson. But even the unspectacular, the Jessie Clarks and Steve Grogans, have stories worth telling. Consider the following statements, both made about the same TSB player:

“[He is] as good on the field as anybody around and an outstanding citizen.”[1]

And:

“He has been a disappointment… He had to give up steroids…and hasn’t been the same player since.”[2]

Batman was right. You either retire as Lawrence Taylor or play until you’re TSB’s worst offensive lineman, Ron Solt.

Eagle's G Ron Solt Tecmo Super Bowl Stat Screen

Our conversations on QB Eagles and Jim McMahon have mentioned Solt, but his story is too rich, too emblematic of 1980’s NFL football, to relegate the big man to a footnote. TSB’s Ron Solt is an All-Star in twilight, struggling for one more day in the sun. His Max Speed is glacial. Solths zip past. A 38 Hitting Power means most plays see Solt end up as popcorn. This wasn’t always the story, though.

As a prep player at Coughlin High in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Ron Solt possessed elite ability and a fire to match. A 1980 expose by the Baltimore Sun practically swoons over the teenage Solt. Early news articles dwell on Solt’s chiseled face, his barrel-chested physique and dark hair[3]. They also describe a big, tenacious offensive lineman, prized by colleges such as Michigan, Southern California, Maryland and Penn State.

Born in Baltimore but raised in Pennsylvania, Solt ultimately chose to attend college at his native Maryland, eschewing his hometown Nittany Lions as a middle-finger to JoPa’s crew.

“It seemed like [Penn State recruiter Jimmy Williams] felt like he would doing be me a big favor by giving me a scholarship.” Solt said. “I won’t even make an official visit. I might drive down for an unofficial visit just to satisfy myself.[4]

Fueled by the perceived slight, Solt became a gym-rat at Maryland. He bulked up. He gained coaches’ praise for his work ethic[5]. By 1983 Solt anchored Maryland’s o-line, buying QB Boomer Esiason all the time in the world. The Terrapins bowled through their ACC schedule, undefeated in conference play heading into a Nov. 11 game against Clemson. Clemson won the National Title in 1981. However, in 1982, the NCAA levied a 2-year TV and Bowl ban against Clemson for “major recruiting violations.[6]

Facing a team with literally nothing to lose, given the task of blocking Clemson’s William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Ron Solt remained all smiles and bombast: “Heck, I can bench press 410 pounds, so I ought to be alright.”

The Terps got blasted, 52-27. The Refrigerator kept Boomer Esiason off-kilter all day. Maryland lost 3 of their final 4 games, including a 23-30 Loss to Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. Still, Solt earned praise. He was a finalist for the Outland Trophy, awarded to College Football’s best interior lineman. He earned invites to the NCAA’s All-Star showcases. Draft gurus projected him in the first round, some saying Solt would land in the top 5.

In a draft infamous for its preponderance of busts–now-anonymous names like Dean Steinkuhler and Mossy Cade litter the top selections–Ron Solt was drafted 19th overall by the Indianapolis Colts. The Eagles, Solt’s TSB squad, strongly considered nabbing him at #4, but instead took Penn State WR Kenny Jackson. Again, a lot of swings and misses in 1984. The draft’s best players, Solt’s Maryland teammate Boomer Esiason and East Carolina RB Earnest Byner, were selected in the second and tenth rounds, respectively[7].

indianapolis-colts-ron-solt-125-topps-nfl-1988-american-football-card-24036-p.jpgLike Solt’s jump from high school to college, his climb from college to the pros proved turbulent. Colts owner Jim Irsay had a miserly reputation and Solt wasn’t one to quietly accept pittances. Irsay, having just moved the team from Baltimore to Indianapolis, hemmed and hawed over his rookies’ contracts. Remember, this is in the relative dark ages of NFL/Labor relations. There were no strict rules governing draft pick compensation. Leonard Coleman, Indy’s #8 overall pick, opted to play in the fledgling USFL rather than sign Irsay’s lowball contract.

It was the Penn State snub all over again. Solt held out for a contract commensurate to his worth. Irsay refused to budge. The battle drug well into the preseason. In the end, the Colts’ laughable preseason performance scared Irsay into abruptly upping his offer. Solt signed a three-year $1.8M contract, just in time for the 1984 season.

Some said missing his first NFL camp would hinder Solt’s rookie campaign. Ron Solt, though, loved proving his critics wrong. In contrast to those drafted around him, Solt lived up to the hype in Indy. By season’s end he was named a top rookie.

The next two years saw continual improvement. Solt only missed a single game of his initial contract. By 1987, with Solt clearing paths for Eric Dickerson, the Colts were a force in the AFC. They finished 9-6 and won the AFC East. For his performance, Solt was named to the 1987 AFC Pro-Bowl squad.

Those who prefer their Tecmo 8-on-8 may remember Indianapolis’ potent rushing attack in the original Tecmo Bowl. This is in no small part owed to Ron Solt. Solt is Tecmo Bowl’s 2nd-best O lineman. Similar to TSB, Tecmo Bowl uses Max Speed, Rushing Speed, Rushing Power and Hitting Power to rate its linemen. Solt scores 7/1/3/90, a close second to MIA Center Dwight Stephenson’s 8/1/3/92[8].

Colts G Ron Solt Cutting a Running Lane for Eric Dickerson in Tecmo Bowl

The question then, is what the hell turned a Tecmo Bowl beast into a TSB joke?

Solt’s rookie contract ended after his Pro-Bowl year. Naturally, he asked Colts’ owner Jim Irsay for Pro-Bowl money. Irsay, of course, said no. A 10-week back-and-forth ensued between Solt’s camp and Irsay. In late August of 1988, Solt relented and signed a 5-year, $2.6M contract. Not only was this $400k under Solt’s ask, but the Colts also refused to insure Solt should he be injured during play.

”Essentially, they told me if I go out and break my neck, they’re going to turn their back on me, which is what I’d expect from this team,” Solt said[9].

Solt only signed Irsay’s lowball offer after Irsay promised not to trade Solt. He owned acreage near Indianapolis and dreamed of building a ranch. He’d integrated into the local community, investing in a number of local businesses. He wanted his career to begin and end with the Indianapolis Colts. Promised that the Colts would not ship him away, Solt re-signed with Indy.

Irsay traded Ron Solt to the Eagles less than a week later.

Eagles Coach Buddy Ryan expressed excitement at the prospect of Solt blocking for Eagles QB Randall Cunningham: “[Ron Solt] is a young guy who has only been in the league a short while, and I think he’ll come in and really put us over the top.[10]

Ron Solt Philadelphia EaglesSolt, however, had other ideas. Lied to and traded away from his home, he arrived in Philadelphia demanding fair-market value for an All-Pro Guard.

“The only reason I did [Irsay’s] deal was to stay in Indianapolis and I’m not going to go to Philadelphia with the contract I have right now,” Solt said. “Either they’re going to have to make it right and make it an offer that I can’t resist or I’m not going.[11]

Solt held out until the middle of October. The Eagles, desperate to improve their run game, caved in and upped Solt’s 5-year contract to $3.6M. Some would say Solt stuck to his guns and got his fair value. Others said he fleeced a desperate Eagles team.

True, Ron Solt missed only one game in 4 years. However, he battled knee injury almost from the very start. The one game he missed came at the end of the 1986 season, when the Colts–”the bastards,” in Solt’s words–placed him on Injured Reserve to prevent him from playing and further injuring his knees. He often took numbing injections to keep him upright. He racked up offseason surgeries.

Tempers flared during Solt’s month-long holdout in Philadelphia, causing some to question his health and physical ability. As if predicting the future, Solt played only a few quarters for Philly in 1988 before being placed on the Injured Reserve list.

It only got worse from there. As part of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between owners and the Players’ Union, the NFL instituted a one-time steroid test prior to the 1989 season. Ron Solt tested positive. He appealed the test, claiming he’d only used doctor-prescribed steroids to recover from a knee surgery. He provided NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle a complete itinerary of his doctor visits and a log of his prescriptions. Rozelle wouldn’t be swayed. Solt was the biggest name on the list of positive tests, and the Commissioner needed to prove his point.

Ron Solt was suspended for one preseason and three regular season games in 1989. When he finally returned to action, he seemed a shadow of his former self. Word leaked that he’d also tested positive for steroids with the Colts (an accusation vociferously denied by Solt and never corroborated). Many wondered if his outstanding play had been owed to steroids all along.

In Indianapolis, Solt had been surrounded by talent. He spoke of playing alongside fellow Pro-Bowl lineman Ray Donaldson, how they would often switch their blocking schemes on the fly with little more than a shared look. In Indianapolis, Solt had RB Eric Dickerson carving up defenses and breaking ankles downfield. In Philadelphia, Ron Solt was the talent. Philly’s o-line was a collection of replacement-level players.

Ron Solt tries to block Bills great Bruce Smith in Tecmo Super Bowl

The mutual disappointment culminated during the Eagles’ 1990 Wild Card matchup against Washington. Eagles’ coach Buddy Ryan benched Solt following a 1st-quarter sack of QB Randall Cunningham (despite video evidence Solt had been pushed off his block by the Eagles’ fullback). The Eagles led 6-0 when Solt was removed. Washington went on to score 20 unanswered and won 20-6.

Tecmo programmers’ last image of Solt wasn’t a block, but of a dejected man sitting on the bench while his team floundered. Offensive line performance is difficult to distill into bytes of hexadecimal. Often, a team’s running game is used to judge its o-line. In the 1989 Wild Card game, Randall Cunningham led all Philly rushers, scrambling for 80 yards. The rest of the Eagles only managed 68 yards on 21 carries.

Regardless of fault, Ron Solt ended up being odd man out on one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines. You can see the logic behind TSB’s rating: if Solt was bad enough to be benched on a famously bad offensive line, it would go to follow that he has to be the worst o-lineman in the league, right?

It’s certainly not fair, but, then again, very little is.

Solt would return to his Colts, signing as a Plan-B free agent[12] in March of 1992. In Solt’s absence, Irsay had run a promising Indianapolis team into the ground. He infamously mismanaged and then traded Eric Dickerson to the LA Rams for little more than magic beans. Solt joined a team which had finished the previous season 1-15. The offensive line was a revolving door of injury and spot-starters.

Solt was glad to be back in Indy[13], but the magic was gone. Ron Solt struggled through 12 games in 1992 before his body again gave out. The Colts placed Solt on Injured Reserve in mid-December, ending his NFL career. Years of accumulated injuries forced him to retire after the 1992 season. Ron Solt never played another professional snap.

Ron Solt was was a player of grit and intensity. Unquenchable fire fueled him through college. As a top-flight pro, it kept him burning even when his body told him to stop. He had no qualms about calling BS on owners and teammates. When NFL/Labor negotiations went south in the late 80’s, Solt tried to organize a second player’s union. His intensity was a blessing and a curse.

Ron Solt, now watching his own sons navigate a life through football, still lives with the scars of his past. Ron brought a class action suit against the NFL in 2012 regarding concussion care[14].By his own admission, he deals with forgetfulness. Some days the clouds over his mind refuse to part. The aches and pains of years in the trenches linger.

Ron Solt’s NFL career is a story of two digital snapshots. On one cartridge, he’s a beast among men, able to throw aside the best in the world. In the next cartridge, Ron Solt’s avatar is thrown like a doll. Solt’s is a case of the sequel not surpassing its original and a bitter end overshadowing the dizzying heights of a career.


Notes:

[1] “Recruiting: Maryland Takes Football on Off-Season Road Tour.” Free, Bill. The Sun [Baltimore, MD] 06 Jan 1980: C1
[2] “Lining up to Tackle Unfinished Business: Ron Solt is Still Bitter Over his Benching in the Eagles’ Playoff Loss to the Washington Redskins.” Bowden, Mark. Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia, Pa] 16 June 1991: G.1.
[3] An amusing picture, unfortunately not included here due to copyright concerns, shows young Ron Solt lounging in a bitchin’ white leisure suit which must have driven the ladies WILD
[4] Free. ibid.
[5] “Terps’ Solt just keeps improving.” Free, Bill. The Sun [Baltimore, MD]; Nov 11, 1983: E2
[6] http://www.nytimes.com/1982/11/23/sports/severe-sanctions-levied-on-clemson.html
[7] The 1984 NFL Draft is also notable for producing zero hall of fame players
[8] Its also important to note Solt’s teammate Ray Donaldson gets an identical score, making Tecmo Bowl Indy’s offensive lines among the game’s best.
[9] http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/29/sports/sports-people-colts-sign-solt.html
[10] http://www.upi.com/Archives/1988/10/04/The-Philadelphia-Eagles-Tuesday-acquired-offensive-guard-Ron-Solt/3449591940800/
[11] http://articles.mcall.com/1988-10-05/sports/2670005_1_ron-solt-future-draft-jim-irsay
[12] The NFL’s free agency system as collectively bargained in 1989 used a 2-tier system, allowing teams to protect their biggest stars but requiring them to make available lesser players–Plan B players–for free agency.
[13] http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/06/sports/sports-people-pro-football-solt-signs-with-colts.html
[14] http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/7479705/more-retired-players-bring-concussion-lawsuit-vs-nfl-pennsylvania

The post Beyond the Stats: Ron Solt appeared first on TECMO BOWLERS.

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Great job with these write-ups on players from the original NES rosters. The late 80's and early 90's was the era my NFL fandom was galvanized and reading up on some of the back story to why players ended up with the ratings they did (or didn't like your site correction articles break down) makes for a easy read and a fun trip down memory lane. 

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