'Their Life's Work': The 1970s Steelers, glory and all

In 'one of the great sports books ever written,' Gary Pomerantz details the Steelers of the 1970s, but 'never flinching from the brutal realities'

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Not typically do you find yourself sharing a similar view of history as Terry Bradshaw, of history or of anything else, so it's a little jarring when it actually happens.

"This stuff is buried," the old Steelers quarterback tells Gary M. Pomerantz on page 252 of what unfolds as one of the great sports books ever written. "It's like I told you on the phone; I move on. I have to. I've got children. I've got jobs. I've got responsibilities. I keep being drug back into the past after I've already healed certain wounds."

By Gary M. Pomerantz.
Simon & Schuster ($28).

It was something of a publishing coup just for Mr. Pomerantz to get Mr. Bradshaw to sit still, and an even greater accomplishment for the author to distill another load of Terry's skittish and reluctant introspection into something meaningful, but I thought Terry was certainly right about this: This stuff was buried.

But we were both wrong. And this stuff is not merely exhumed by Mr. Pomerantz, it's sculpted into a monument. If you think the familiar narrative of the 1970s Steelers and their sometimes star-crossed post-glory lives had been done to death, particularly locally, prepare to be stunned by how fresh and compelling it looks with Mr. Pomerantz's near-maniacal research, searing interviews, and more of the highly polished writing for which he's become famous and esteemed. The former football writer has been a visiting lecturer at Stanford for the past seven years.

If Mr. Pomerantz didn't talk to everyone who knew anything about anybody associated with Pittsburgh's '70s Dynasty, he talked to somebody who had unique relationships to every last one of his characters, marginal or otherwise.

In a conversation I had with him in Pittsburgh recently, the author told me he'd even spoken with Tom Atkins, the actor who portrayed Art Rooney Sr. in the stage play "The Chief." The Steelers founder and the actor had met only once, when Mr. Atkins was a small boy, but Mr. Pomerantz figured Atkins still had insight because he'd played "The Chief" so magnificently for many years at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Mr. Atkins did have a singular kind of insight, but it didn't make it into "Their Life's Work," which is only a testament to the richness of what throbs through these 383 pages.

By parts history, comedy, tragedy and sweeping 40-year epic, Pomerantz's is a loving work that somehow refrains from being romantic, never flinching from the brutal realities of both the game and too real brutalities of some of its greatest players.

Mr. Pomerantz seems to enjoy writing most about the Steel Curtain's defensive line, and why not? No one comes so completely to the literary stature of men-in-full here like L.C. Greenwood, Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White.

Here were four men, one a freak of athletic nature with range and explosiveness rarely before experienced at his position, one the nastiest player in the game, one likely the most dangerous person in the game and another guy named Mad Dog.

That such forces of nature and their iconic teammates could not ultimately withstand the doctrine of entropy never feels the least bit obvious in these pages; it merely gains eloquence.

"It was like watching the back-row pieces captured in a game of chess," Mr. Pomerantz writes about the physical and sometimes mental unraveling of the dynasty, "still regal in their bearing but banished to the side of the board, irrelevant to the game at hand."

Though "Their Life's Work" finds a celebration in the coming together of those lives, it is chilling in ways that few people outside the characters themselves will ever comprehend the way Mr. Pomerantz has. How many times for this project did the author sit across from Pam Webster, Mike Webster's widow, and watch tears and heartache overtake her?

Lest anyone be mistaken, Mike Webster's brain was to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) what Elvis was to rock 'n' roll. They were not the original vehicles, but they both touched off a revolution.

Among the most important passages in Mr. Pomerantz's work here, unprecedented in detail, are those that illuminate the often terrible cost of football, then and now. Webster's story is graphic and heartbreaking, as is Joe Gilliam's, as well as others previously not brought to full clarity.

As with David Maraniss' "When Pride Still Mattered," a monumental work about Vince Lombardi, Mr. Pomerantz has taken a story way overtold and done it the way everyone wished they had.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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