Steelers vs. Cowboys: Great football, but no sociology

"The Ones Who Hit the Hardest," by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne. Gotham Books, $26.

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For serious students of the Steelers' glory years, there is a delicious abundance of red meat in the pages of Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne's fresh volume for a fresh football season that successfully examines a not-terribly fresh narrative.

The title is a direct quote from linebacker/icon Jack Lambert:

"I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can't take it, you shouldn't play."

A richly illuminated story, intelligently presented and written well over all when it isn't well over-written, this 300-pager suffers only in comparison to its grandiose subtitle, "The Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s, and the Fight For America's Soul."

If America's very soul was at risk throughout the decade, and who is to say it was not, particularly with the advent of disco, I don't think the determinate force was ultimately a couple of football games between the Steelers and Cowboys.

Your memories may vary.

Those Steelers of Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney and Mean Joe Greene might have been an amateur sociologist's perfect reverse metaphor for a collapsing steel industry, and those Cowboys of Tom Landry and Tex Schramm and Roger Staubach might have been in some way emblematic of the vulgar displays of wealth seeping from the oil boom, but two Super Bowls do not a social cataclysm make despite the media's best efforts.

Nonetheless, the authors deliver a feverish blue-collar effort at describing the economic forces of the day, the historical roots of those forces, and the personalities who put into motion all of the relevant political realities.

The convulsive struggles of organized labor, both internal and external, get serious treatment in these pages and provide a compelling backdrop for the Steelers dynasty and the Cowboys churlish soap opera, but here one of the book's best strengths turns into a defining weakness.

All of the elements of a worthy literary painting are here, but the whole is somehow less than the sum of the parts.

In one description of Mr. Noll, for example, we learn that the players "laughed about his flailing attempts at motivation because while he could be so eloquent when explaining the details of the trap and parried so well with the press, he was utterly lost when trying to lift the team with his words."

"He would start out telling a story about two squirrels," said Rocky Bleier. "And he'd say, 'OK, there were two squirrels, one lived high in the tree in the branches, and one lived near the ground. And so you guys have to know to work together and play hard and do what we planned. Good practice.' We'd look around and be like, what happened to the squirrels?"

I had sort of the same reaction to this otherwise worthy work. What happened to that whole fight for America's soul thing?

It's all there in shards, I suppose, but not as a fully formed narrative. Yet, I wouldn't let that discourage anyone who can enjoy great stand-alone chapters on Tony Dorsett, Duane Thomas, Fats Holmes and numerous other larger-than-life NFL icons. The chapter on Mr. Holmes' acute paranoid psychosis is little less than chilling. All of the authors' chapters, taken as straight history-as-feature-writing performance, are highly successful.

Full-framed profiles of Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, John Stallworth and smaller snapshots of a host of behind-the-scenes characters lend this work special authenticity.

Commendable as well is the overarching portrait of doomed steelworkers, clinging to false hopes somehow represented by the defiance of people such as Mr. Lambert, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Dwight White and others.

But these are parallel narratives, and attempts by all kinds of writers to force them to some tangible intersection, much less one that includes the Dallas Cowboys, remain fraught with literary peril.

"To the guys in the basement," one passage begins regarding a gathering of steelworkers in the home of a union boss, "the Broncos were a soft team built on 'Orange Crush' marketing hype. They weren't as supercilious as the Miami Dolphins or as purely evil as the Dallas Cowboys; they were simply vacuous."

Really, that's what the guys in the basement were thinking?

As a thick slice of football history, "The Ones Who Hit The Hardest" is a winning touchdown, and that's all it really needs to be. As a slice of actual history, it's more like an impossibly long field goal that is well struck but inevitably falls short.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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