We tend to see sports dynasties through the prism of stopped time. We grow old, but they never do. And so we see the 1970s Steelers in their days of empire with Bradshaw airing it out, Mean Joe enraged, Webster’s biceps erupting in the cold, Lambert in full froth and stamping his feet before the snap, and Franco, still immaculate.
Of course, intellectually, we know better. Time doesn’t stop for us, or for the Steelers.
As a storyteller, I look for great characters, and tension lines. That’s what makes narrative nonfiction hum. With their four Super Bowls in six seasons during the 1970s, a dozen Hall of Famers, and so many outsize personalities, the Steelers had a locker room full of great characters.
The team’s owner, Art Rooney Sr., might have been their most colorful character of all. A horseplayer, he had his leather-bound prayer book in one hand, a Daily Racing Form in the other. No team owner has ever been more beloved by his players than the Chief. The players thought the old guy cool.
Also, the city of Pittsburgh during the ‘70’s was, in its own right, a great character, as a derelict steel town rallying around its football team.
The tension lines were unmistakable: the Steelers’ own sad history as a loser for forty years, the blood wars during the ‘70’s with the Oakland Raiders, the two Super Bowls against Dallas, and the most obvious tension line of all, the game of football itself.
Football is a game of pain. You dole out pain, you absorb pain, and you play on. You enter the arena, and, as they say, you man up.
As I thought about the 1970’s Steelers, I wondered: More than thirty years later, how did football’s gifts and costs measure up for the greatest football team ever? To find my answers, I conducted more than 200 interviews.
A: Essentially they showed how differently men look at their lives in their fifties and sixties than they do in their twenties. When you are in your twenties, you are bullet-proof. Invincible! You look at the age of fifty through a telescope; it’s a faraway planet, your father’s world.
But by your fifties and sixties, you have so much more experience, and context. You understand that life is not forever, and that we all pay costs for the lives we choose. The 1970s Steelers have arrived at that latter stage. They are more contemplative now, and introspective.
Over time, through these interviews, the continuing story of this team revealed itself. It was complex, and alternately triumphant and tragic, intense and poignant, even beautiful. I came to understand that the story of the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers is the story of football.
In my narrative, I aspired to recreate the dynasty years from the inside-out, to escort readers into the 1970s Steelers’ huddle and locker room, and to dinner at the Chief’s house, and to Ernie Holmes’s raucous bachelor party, and then to follow this storied team across the decades as the players moved into middle age and beyond.
I was drawn to write about this team for another reason.
Once, as an impressionable 20-year-old sportswriter, I met these Steelers, and they were unforgettable.
Nearly all of the team’s big stars were still there. Over two days, I interviewed Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, and their coach, Chuck Noll. I sat on a bench interviewing Joe Greene and realized that his bicep was wider than my thigh.
They all moved with swagger, and they seemed lit from within. They were special, and historic, and they knew it. This team had such a compelling array of talent and personalities. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my work on this book began 32 years ago on that assignment in Latrobe.
As I thought about my narrative, I decided, “Who better to study, in an assessment of what football gives to players, and takes from them, than the 1970s Steelers?”
They are grandfathers now, in their sixties. They’ve got creaky bones, and titanium knees, hips and shoulders. Some of them walk like crabs. They have lived the full measure of the football experience, a quarter century and more beyond their playing days.
Certainly there is triumph in this team’s story, not only those four Super Bowl rings, but the players’ enduring brotherhood. They played in the NFL’s pre-free agency era and spent about a decade together. It seems hard to believe but Stallworth, Bradshaw, Swann, Donnie Shell, Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and L.C. Greenwood played a combined one hundred NFL seasons – and every one of those seasons for the Steelers.
They knew each other intimately and intuitively, as athletes and as men. They knew the cigarettes they smoked, the beer they drank, the women they loved. They saw each other bloodied, and exultant. And when they got together in the sauna at Three Rivers Stadium, post-game, no coaches or press allowed, Lambert running the show, they shared beers, elevated B.S. to high art, and reveled in their great fortune to be together. Some of their happiest times together were spent in that sauna.
But there is tragedy in this team’s story, too. A dozen Steelers from those Super Bowl teams of the 1970’s died before the age of sixty, from a variety of causes. That list includes Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center, who became the first NFL player ever diagnosed with CTE – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – brain damage from getting hit in the head too many times. Webster played 17 seasons at football’s most physically vulnerable position.
The cause of Mike Webster’s death was football.
When Webster died in 2002 at fifty, the legacy of the 1970s Steelers expanded, and darkened. In the archives of that legacy, filed beside those glorious highlight films, and four Lombardi Trophies, and twelve Hall of Fame busts in Canton, are the stained laboratory slides that revealed brown splotches in neurofibrillary tangles in Mike Webster’s brain.
John Banaszak, the Steelers’ defensive lineman, offered a penetrating perspective. He told me that football gave him his teammates. Then he said, “You want to talk about what the game takes away from you? It takes away your teammates.”
But when long-retired NFL players explain why they continued to play through pain, they apply their reasoning in retrospect. To say that playing in the NFL was a mistake would be to invalidate an essential part of their lives.
But I wondered: If they really understood at 22 that they would suffer daily pain in their knees, backs or shoulders during mid-life, or even lose a few years off their life as a direct result of playing football, would they play the game anyway? At 22, no such internal conversation takes place. It’s an ex post facto conversation that old football players have.
And what about us, the people who watched those Steelers play? What would we have given to be a part of the storied magnificence of the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers?
Would we pay in lasting pain for the fame and the wealth and the feeling of teammates having our backs on a long, hard journey against sworn enemies?
I suspect we would.
I interviewed family members of a few former Steelers, as well. The proud old coach, Joe Gilliam Sr. of Tennessee State, took me to the Nashville gravesite of his namesake son, the quarterback known as Jefferson Street Joe. For the Steelers, Joey Gilliam threw the football sweetly. Once, he told a Steelers teammate going out on a pass route, “Look for the strings at twelve o’clock,” and when the pass arrived, sure enough, the strings on the football struck midnight. Gilliam received a box full of racist hate mail during 1974 when he became the first black quarterback ever to start for the Steelers. He fell into a life of drug abuse. The epitaph on his tombstone, chosen by his mother, said a lot: “He Was Loved In Spite of Himself.” His story was tragic.
Joe Greene was a terrific interview subject, as engaged in conversation as he was at the line of scrimmage. I asked him about NFL Films naming him the 13th greatest player in NFL history. He wasn’t too happy about that. Joe Greene doesn’t like being thirteenth best at anything. Jim Brown ranked second on the list, and Joe Greene said, “I don’t think anybody was better than Jim Brown.” To NFL Films, though, Jerry Rice rated No. 1. Joe Greene doesn’t believe any wide receiver should be atop a list. “They are out there – way out there,” he explained. Then he moved his hands close together, his palms nearly touching, and said, “And the ball is in here.”
He’s still a defensive tackle at heart.
To Noll, football wasn’t a player’s life’s work. That work came later. Some Steeler players took that phrase as a coldhearted threat, or worse, their football career death knell. It was like acid poured over their dreams. But other Steelers accepted Noll’s phrase as a challenge or a call to deeper thinking and action. Andy Russell got into the investment business while playing for the Steelers. Dwight White worked during the off-seasons for H.J. Heinz in marketing and sales. John Stallworth earned his MBA while he was still playing for the Steelers, and later built an information technology company in the aerospace industry, which he sold for a reported $69 million. Bradshaw got into movies, made a country record, and began to build himself into an entertainer.
Football is a savage game, a giant threshing machine that cuts down men in the physical prime of their lives. NFL players didn’t make a lot of money during the 1970’s. At the start of the decade the average NFL salary was $23,000 and by 1980 it had grown to $78,000, though by then some of the Steelers biggest stars made considerably more than that.
Noll wasn’t much on making speeches – not pre-game, halftime, or otherwise. Nothing he ever said to his team reverberated down through the years like your life’s work. Noll was saying that there would come a time, even for future Hall of Famers, when the game would end and the rest of their lives would begin.What will you do then?
Franco Harris takes blueberries and fish oil each morning to slow brain damage he believes that he, and every other NFL player, has suffered.
Bradshaw told me that he suffered seven concussions in the NFL, maybe more. In 2010, he suffered short-term memory lapses on the Fox Sports studio set. He couldn’t remember players’ names or statistics that he’d studied the night before. Even his hand-eye coordination suffered, though he wasn’t sure why. He underwent brain scans and diagnostic testing. Now he takes power boost and mood boost pills. He downloads brain puzzles from the Internet, and for his hand-eye, he bought two Ping Pong tables.
The former Steelers running back Reggie Harrison, who is now known as Kamal Ali Salaam-El, told me that he takes Oxycontin and other medications for head, back and leg pain. He suffers memory deficits, too, and said he enrolled in 2006 in the University of North Carolina’s memory recovery program. Walking can be difficult for him: I watched Salaam-El whisk through his northern Virginia home on a motorized scooter.
Frenchy Fuqua told me he needs latches on the doors at his house in Detroit because his surgically-repaired wrists won’t allow him to turn knobs. When Andy Russell gets occasional massages, deep pains in his legs trigger deep memories. Ouch! That one’s from the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968. Ouch! That one’s from getting leg-whipped in Super Bowl IX.
L.C. Greenwood told me he can’t recall exactly how many back surgeries he’s had. Fourteen? Fifteen? “I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put away wet,” he told me. Donnie Shell, one of the Steelers’ hardest hitters, says his memory isn’t what it once was. The reason? “I’m quite sure it’s football,” he says. Gary Dunn, the defensive lineman, has undergone ten knee surgeries. He also suffers pain from bulging lumbar discs, which doctors treated with cortisone shots and by burning nerves in his lower back, with mixed success. Some days Dunn can’t walk, some nights he can’t sleep.
Randy Grossman, the tight end, explained a compelling reason they played. They all had unique physical gifts. “It’s what separates you from the faceless crowd,” Grossman said. “It’s the one thing that [we] are amazingly special at.
“The recognition and self-worth that comes with being special is special.”
In Super Bowl IX, the Steelers held the Vikings’ running game to 2.4 feet per carry. Seventeen total yards rushing.
After the Steelers started the 1976 season with a 1-4 mark, they won the next nine games, allowing just 27 total points in those nine games. And that was a season in which the Steelers did not win a Super Bowl.
Ten of the 11 Steelers’ starters on defense in 1976 made at least one Pro Bowl.
During my research, I asked Ronnie Lott about the Steelers’ defense from that era and he said, “Can you imagine if you could create a virtual huddle and you were standing in a virtual huddle with those guys?” Lott is a Hall of Famer, one of the best safeties in football history, and he spoke those words with a hushed reverence. He told me that in 1981, as a 49ers rookie, he first saw the Steelers on the field, pre-game, at Three Rivers Stadium. He viewed them as royalty, much as a British servant would view the king.
Lott said he nearly felt the urge to bow.