A quiet warrior: The story of former NFL player, Frisco local John Rienstra
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name spelling of John Rienstra and New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick.
John Michael Rienstra has always charged head-first and full-hearted into whatever he’s tried to accomplish in life. The seven-year NFL veteran was marketed as “The Raging Rhino” when he was drafted as a left guard with the ninth overall pick in the 1986 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, just eight spots behind dual-sport phenom Bo Jackson.
Rienstra says he got the “Rhino” moniker for his habit of charging into the throats of defensive linemen with his helmet while smashing their shoulder pads back with his bowling ball fists and tree trunk arms.
A marketing poster made by the eccentric Costacos Bros. had him posing in a zoo enclosure in Seattle with giraffes (the rhino was in a bad mood at the time of the shoot) behind a mocked-up helmet with a couple of fake rhino horns glued on top. Rienstra still has the poster and rhino helmet proudly on display in the third floor attic bedroom of his Frisco townhome nestled on the north bank of Tenmile Creek.
In 2020, nearly 40 years after the apex of his athletic career, Rienstra’s cherished memorabilia is the only visage left of his playing days. That and the scars from over 20 major surgeries all over his body. He carries seven seasons of pain on his shoulders, both of which have been replaced, while he works as a contractor, handyman and landscaper around town. He does it quietly, without complaint, and almost never brings up his days as a NFL pro with clients and new acquaintances.
Even though he’s still 6’4”, Rienstra is now lean and gaunt, no longer the hulking, muscle bound He-Man from his playing days. At the age of 56, he now has trouble remembering little things more and more, while reading and comprehending things like family finances gets more frustrating. Year after year, the problems seem to get worse.
The way his mind is deteriorating has him worried about sharing the same brutal fate of three of five core offensive linemen he played with while with the Steelers: Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk.
All three of those men are now dead. One was the first football player ever diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, one died by suicide and another died inexplicably in a massive fireball after a police chase. After their autopsies it was revealed that all three shared the same affliction: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE, a degenerative neurological disease linked to repeated concussions that has rocked football to its core after being undiagnosed and concealed for decades.
The Energizer Bunny
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1963, to parents Bill, a tool and die maker, and Nancy, who made custom draperies, John Rienstra never seemed to have enough to do with all his energy: playing baseball, football and hockey while growing up near a lake in the frigid midwest.
His family moved to Colorado in the 70s when he was 13, and a year later he was shipped off to Philadelphia to attend the Academy of the New Church, a boarding school. There he played baseball, football and wrestled, becoming a county all-star athlete.
“I was a better wrestler than a football player,” Rienstra said. “I worked really hard in high school, all I did was workout and study.”
It was his intimidating work ethic and endless energy that caught the eye of college scouts when he won MVP at the Montgomery County High School All-Star football game in 1981 as a defensive end.
Adding to his sack and interception on defense, Rienstra caught a few passes as tight end. He won the All Penn Jersey Conference Football Coaches Award, and remains the only player from Academy of the New Church to have his jersey number retired. Rienstra has since been inducted into the Montgomery chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
Rienstra was recruited to play football at Temple University in north Philadelphia with a scholarship by Wayne Hardin, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Hardin was the first in a line of famous coaches Rienstra played for including current Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians during his final few years at Temple; Pittsburgh Steelers legend Chuck Noll for his first five years in the pros and current New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick who he played under during his last two years in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns.
After a season at Temple, Rienstra was introduced to a grad student and powerlifting coach named Lincoln Gotshalk. Now known as Dr. L.A. Gotshalk at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Gotshalk specialized in kinesiology, the science of human movement. He was brought in to figure out how to mould Rienstra, with his tall lean frame and boundless energy, into something Temple could use on the football field, as he didn’t seem to fit the profile of any position.
Right away, it became apparent to Gotshalk that Rienstra was a dream athlete to coach. He did anything you told him to do, and wouldn’t stop unless you told him to. In competition, he maxed out bench pressing 545 pounds.
“One thing I noticed about John immediately was that he was the hardest worker I’d ever seen,” Gotshalk recalled. “We got him on the powerlifting team, and he went from 215 pounds to 250, 260. He was getting bigger, faster, stronger right in front of everyone’s eyes.”
Gotshalk was also immensely impressed by Rienstra’s personality and grit.
“He was just an extraordinary soul,” Gotshalk said. “He worked so hard and was so humble. You don’t usually put football and humble together.”
Gotshalk and Rienstra’s working relationship was an extremely productive one, and eventually led to a life-long friendship. Gotshalk was the best man when Rienstra married his wife, Tammy, and Rienstra was a groomsman at Gotshalk’s wedding.
Hitting the big stage
By 1985, the work Gotshalk, Rienstra and new Temple head coach Bruce Arians put in produced major results. Entering the 1986 draft, Rienstra was a collegiate champion powerlifter and a consensus Associated Press All-American college football player in 1985, coming second in voting for the John Outland Trophy, the award given to the best offensive linemen in college football.
Gotshalk recalls extraordinary feats of athleticism by Rienstra, including a time he casually picked up a football during practice and threw a perfect spiral 85 yards down the field just for the hell of it. At 6’4″ and 275 pounds, he also able to do standing front flips and backflips, which none of his teammates could emulate. While visiting an agent’s office for possible representation, he got bored and did a standing front flip in the middle of the office, managing somehow not to hit the ceiling.
“We were all sitting there, the secretary included, with jaws dropped. We couldn’t believe what he just did,” Gotshalk said.
At the NFL combine, he ran an unofficial 4.68 second 40 yard dash, did 40 reps on the bench press and performed a vertical jump of 38.5”. Numbers which are still considered eye-popping for an offensive lineman.
Rienstra’s physique, all-American good looks and affable personality got him noticed by the media. He was invited to be featured on the Bob Hope Show before the draft. A signed photograph of him standing beside Hope on the show remains one of his most prized possessions.
It was not much of a surprise when Rienstra was drafted in the first round of the draft. But it was less expected that the Steelers, who had been having a rough 1980s after four championships in the 70s, would take on a left guard out of the lesser known football program at Temple with their first top-10 pick in over a decade. Combined with the infamously no-nonsense approach of Chuck Noll, Rienstra was expected to do great things for a storied franchise.
What the Steelers didn’t know is what those expectations would do to Rienstra as he spent the next seven years in agony, sacrificing his present and future health, to meet them.
From the moment his name was submitted to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, immense pressure was put on Rienstra to be one of the greatest offensive guards to play the game. For the 23-year-old Rienstra, it was all too much, too soon.
Despite his athletic abilities, Rienstra had serious issues with crippling anxiety, which he had managed to hide before going into the pros. He started having panic attacks in his first years Temple. They were so severe that he could only relieve them by vomiting.
“I threw up or had a panic attack before every game,” Rienstra said. “If I threw up, it’d cure things.”
Rienstra said that he tried everything he could think of to deal with the panic attacks, including hypnosis. Back then, he said, not much was known about anxiety and panic attacks, and so he had to figure out increasingly drastic ways to deal with them.
“When I went to the Bob Hope Show, or had to speak at a banquet, I was so anxious that the pain in my head was too much,” Rienstra said. “I started carrying little tacks or nails in my suit pockets. Sometimes, when the pain was too much in my head, I’d stick a tack into my leg. I’d focus on the pain in my leg, and then focus on what I’d have to do in one minute. My friends caught on to it, and they’d imitate me by pretending to stick a tack into their thigh.”
Rienstra still struggles to explain just how bad his anxiety was and the trauma it caused during his playing days. It was made worse when he had big time matchups against the best defensive ends and linebackers in the league, including Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Derrick Thomas, Leonard Marshall and Jerome Brown.
“Sometimes it felt like I’d rather die than go through it,” Rienstra said. “It’s like taking all the worst claustrophobic feelings, the worst kind of feelings from sadness to depression, and put them all together at once, and you can’t get away from it.”
The anxiety manifested into physical form with stomach ulcers. Rienstra said he had to go to the hospital several times and had surgeries to treat the ulcers, missing a game in his first season, which had already been marred by a long holdout and resulting shunning to the doghouse by the no-nonsense Chuck Noll.
After playing for Noll for a season, the coach started to understand Rienstra and his issues.
“Sometimes when you get a first round draft choice, and even coaches fall into this trap, you think all you have to do is stick him in there and he’s going to be it,” Noll said during a presser in 1987. “But the pressure of getting it done, especially ahead of someone who’s done it for a while, it’s a bit much… He’s a very intense guy who, when he makes a mistake, it really bothers him.”
The Surviving Steeler
Rienstra’s NFL career lasted seven seasons, five in Pittsburgh and two in Cleveland. He retired in 1992 after tearing several of his rotator cuff muscles, which he still tried playing through.
During his days with the Browns, he played under head coach Bill Belichick. This was before Belichick became head coach of the New England Patriots, and before he firmly established himself as one of the greatest pro football coaches of all time with six Super Bowls under his belt.
Rienstra remembered Belichick as a great coach to play for. Belichick encouraged him, valuing players who worked hard and never complained. He described Belichick and Noll as the kind of old-school coaches who demanded toughness and held nothing back during practice.
“I really believed in my coaches; Noll and Belichick won 10 Super Bowls between them,” Rienstra said. “They were from the Bill Parcells era, the Paul Brown era. Back then, every practice was full hit, full speed. We did 16 days a month at full impact for 6 months. Now, it’s 16 days a year.”
Looking back, Rienstra sees the damage the endless pursuit of pleasing his coaches did to him and others. But back then, it was an expected part of the game.
“You’re money, you’re race horses,” he said. “You have to do everything they hired you for. You have to perform. You never say if it hurts, you never refuse to go. If you do, you lose your job.”
Rienstra felt his body grind down with all the demands made of him. But he didn’t know how bad the game was for his brain.
As an offensive lineman, Rienstra was particularly susceptible to concussions. After CTE was discovered and research into the impact of concussions ramped up, studies found that offensive linemen experienced the most concussions during games, but reported them the least.
“Offensive linemen reported having returned to play while experiencing symptoms more frequently and participating in more full-contact practices than other groups,” stated one such study in the Journal of Neurotrauma. “These findings suggest that offensive linemen, a position group that experiences frequent, but low-magnitude, head impacts, develop more postimpact symptoms than other playing positions, but do not report these symptoms as a concussion.”
As the players at the line of scrimmage, linemen crash into each other over and over and over during every game. While the most high-profile concussions witnessed on the field are the ones that result in players getting knocked out after getting hit at high speeds, the milder, more frequent impacts felt by linemen are actually more detrimental in the long-term, resulting in constant shocks to the brain, creating tiny rips in brain tissue that never heal.
Proteins form around the damage, replacing brain matter, resulting in deterioration of various mental and physical functions. The most troubling and difficult aspect of diagnosing CTE is that it can’t be detected until the person is dead and the brain can be dissected and studied.
Rienstra said that one of the six neurologists he has consulted with after retiring from the league estimated he’s had as many as 300 concussions while playing football between age 8 and 30. Regardless of the actual number, he reckons he suffered at least as much damage as three deceased teammates he played with on the Steelers who were all eventually diagnosed with CTE.
One of those teammates, Mike Webster, died of a heart attack in 2002. Webster, a pro football Hall of Famer, passed after years of showing signs of severe mental illness.
After performing an autopsy on Webster, in 2002 Nigerian neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered CTE and the impact football and concussions had on the brain. Webster was the first former NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE, and the story was dramatized in the 2015 film “Concussion,” starring Will Smith.
Webster’s CTE diagnosis changed the way the game is played and eventually resulted in a $1 billion settlement between the NFL and former players. Rienstra is part of that lawsuit, which he declined to comment on as litigation is still ongoing.
Aside from Webster, Rienstra also played with right guard Terry Long, who he called “the strongest man” he ever knew. Rienstra recalled how it was already apparent there was something off about Long when they were playing together.
“Our lockers were next to each other. One day I went to my locker and asked him, ‘Hey, whats’ up?’ and he said ‘F– you,’ and walked away,” Rienstra said. “The next day, I go to my locker and say nothing to him because of what happened the day before, and then he asked ‘What, no hello?’ like nothing had happened, like he didn’t remember it.”
Terry Long committed suicide by drinking antifreeze in 2005. It took a year of suffering before Long finally succumbed to kidney failure. He had attempted suicide at least one time before by eating rat poison. Before dying at the age of 45, Long had been indicted by a grand jury for arson and fraud charges stemming from the burning down of a chicken-processing plant he owned. His autopsy revealed that he had CTE.
Another of Rienstra’s fellow Steelers, offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk, died at the age of 36 in New York after crashing his pickup truck into a tanker truck after a 40 mile police chase. While suicide was not ruled as the official cause of death, Rienstra said he strongly suspected the crash and resulting giant fireball was intentional. The resulting autopsy found that Strzelczyk had CTE.
Rienstra has a photo of him and other fellow linemen in action on his wall. He pointed out how he was one of the only men in that photo still alive.
A quiet life in Frisco
While being a big part of his life, football has long been in the rearview for Rienstra. After leaving the NFL he worked a solid career as an operations executive of a tire store chain, which eventually closed during the recession.
Eight years ago, Rienstra and his wife Tammy moved to Frisco where he works as a general handyman and contractor, painting houses, redoing bathrooms and doing anything else a man of his physical ability can do. He also works for the HOA at his townhouse complex, shoveling snow and clearing off ice dams in the winter while tending to lawns and trimming trees in the summer.
All the while he has been nursing to the scars of football battles long past.
His injury list reads like a butcher’s bill: broken foot with a screw in it, a torn MCL, two replaced hips, two replaced shoulders with five total shoulder surgeries, three broken ribs that never healed well, elbow surgeries, a pectoral muscle transfer, broken right ankle, a fibia that had broken in three places and multiple surgeries for a staph infection in his right knee.
And that’s not counting the many diagnosed, and undiagnosed, brain injuries.
While Rienstra believes he may have CTE himself, he won’t comment on a potential diagnosis while he goes through the settlement process with the NFL. He said doctors have told him he might have pre-dementia, and in his daily life he sees signs of it. He will find himself forgetting why he travelled somewhere, or leave items behind. Conversations with him can go into tangents, with the original point being lost in a fog of fading thoughts.
Tammy, his wife of over 30 years, has noticed issues with his memory, too.
“I’ve definitely noticed that he’s more disorganized these days, losing things, leaving things behind, forgetting things,” Tammy Rienstra said. “I’ve started to take over certain financial things that he would normally handle, but now he doesn’t have the patience and can’t follow through with it. He never ever forgot things before, never lost things.”
When asked if she fears for the future, Tammy’s said her optimism refuses to.
“We try to take it one day at a time, and I try not go down that path,” she said. “It doesn’t lead to a good place. I try to stay positive. Hell, I might go before him. I do worry, but I can’t obsess about it.”
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