'Their Life's Work': The brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers

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This is an excerpt from Gary M. Pomerantz’s “Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now,” which will be published this week by Simon & Schuster. The Post-Gazette will also publish excerpts Monday and Tuesday.

Today’s excerpt opens in the moments after the Steelers’ first Super Bowl win, on Jan. 12, 1975, in New Orleans.

Hot dog wrappers blew in the wind at Tulane Stadium as Coach Chuck Noll was lifted onto the shoulders of Franco Harris, voted the game's most valuable player, and Mean Joe Greene. It made for a fitting image, the coach sitting atop the offensive and defensive pillars on which this Super Bowl IX victory rested. Cameramen encircled them. Flashbulbs exploded.

The writer Roy Blount Jr. had sneaked onto the Steelers' sideline near game's end, tossed all objectivity aside, and celebrated with Steelers players, hugging them and happily slapping their shoulder pads. Blount noticed Noll's broad smile as he rode off on his players' shoulders. "I had never seen Noll's mouth so wide open," Blount wrote later. "It was as though the Dragon Lady had gone all soft around the eyes and said, 'Oh, baby.' "

Bill Nunn, the Steelers' scout, wasn't about to venture down to the field, or into the Steelers' locker room. That wasn't his style, though it was Lloyd Wells' way, and Nunn often kidded the Kansas City Chiefs' black scout, "All you want is for somebody to take your picture."

Nunn had just driven in from Mobile, Ala., where he had scouted the Senior Bowl. Now he took in the victory scene from the grandstands, where he sat with other Steelers officials. He felt enormous satisfaction. As a Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter, he had been around other champions -- Sugar Ray Robinson, Ezzard Charles, Roberto Clemente -- and so his reaction was professional, understated, as if he'd seen it all before: "You win, you feel good about it, and you go on." Besides, he believed that moments such as this belonged to the players.

Among the first to reach the locker room, Rocky Bleier saw Art Rooney Sr., his white hair combed neatly now. The darkness of his grave injuries in the Vietnam War seemed as distant to Bleier as the Steelers' decades of failure seemed to the old man. They hugged. Mike Webster entered, clapping in celebration, and was followed by Dwight White, who had lived for the previous week on little more than water and sleep, having been diagnosed with viral pneumonia and pleurisy after arriving in New Orleans.

Bud Carson, the defensive coach, was asked about Joe Greene. He shook his head in amazement and said, "I'll tell you, Joe Greene is ... the best I ever saw. I just didn't think he could be any better. Only he was."

One statistic shimmered more than all the rest: the Vikings ran for only 17 yards in 21 attempts. As dominant as the Steelers' front four had been in limiting the Raiders to 29 rushing yards in the AFC title game two weeks earlier, this performance was even more definitive, the Vikings managing less than a yard per carry, averaging just 2.4 feet per carry. Hearing the rushing statistics, Mad Dog White, enervated, chimed, "Wowie!" Greene bemoaned a mix-up with defensive end L.C. Greenwood on one pre-snap stunt, their confusion leaving a wide opening for running back Chuck Foreman to run for 12 yards, the Vikings' longest carry. Subtract that play and the Vikings managed only five yards on their other 20 rushes, a gleaming monument to run defense and a mathematical marvel -- an average of nine inches per carry.

Nine inches.

From the press box, Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times typed happily of the Steelers' victory, "It was like one of those hokey, old three-handkerchief Warner Bros. movies." Murray cited Bleier and his Purple Heart from Vietnam, "a little guy knocking down people twice his size"; and White for rising from his hospital bed to stop the Vikings cold; and the Chief, the man sitting to his left in the press box, "the kindly old owner with the Coke-bottle glasses ... who lost and lost and lost for 42 years and hired all his pals and flew in every nun and priest north of Maryland for this game at his expense." The game had nearly everything, Murray added, "Everything but Lassie, right?"

The Old Ranger, center Ray Mansfield, saw the game ball on the field at game's end as players and fans rushed past it. "It looked kind of sad," Mansfield said. He picked it up and gave it to linebacker Andy Russell. The postgame role for the Steelers' captains was to award symbolic game balls to offensive and defensive players.

Russell intended to honor Mean Joe, but as he walked to the center of the cramped locker room, teammates surrounding him, he noticed the Chief standing quietly in back, behind a few sportswriters. That's the guy who created all of this, Russell thought. He changed his mind. He would apologize to Greene later. He called to Art Rooney Sr., "Chief, c'mon up here!" The Chief stepped forward. He wore a yellow sports shirt, his tie loosened at the collar, an overcoat, and one of the 15 woolen caps his son Tim had brought him from Ireland (he gave away all the ones with tassels, leaving two or three for himself). The Chief also had a cigar in his mouth, naturally. Russell held aloft the game ball.

"This one's for the Chief," he said. "It's a long time coming." The Chief came to the locker room hoping not to weep, but as his players roared their approval, his glasses misted over.

A few moments later, in an adjacent room, quarterback Terry Bradshaw sat on a stool beside sportscaster Charlie Jones. Bradshaw stroked his beard as he considered Jones's question about whether his performance would forever squelch the mocking of his intelligence. Bradshaw played a mistake-free Super Bowl. He completed nine of 14 throws for 96 yards and a touchdown and ran for 33 yards more. "I'd like to say that it's all said and done and in the past," Bradshaw said. "But Super Bowl or not, it's just something that I'm going to have to live with."

Harris took Bradshaw's place on the stool. He held a cigar, symbolic of victory. Handsome, bushy-haired and speaking softly, Harris praised Bleier's blocking. "Rocky was just hurtin' guys, punishing them," he said. Mean Joe replaced Harris on the stool beside Jones. He wore a black-and-gold ski cap. He beamed. "This is beyond my wildest dreams," Greene said. "I didn't think I could get this big a charge out of it." Later, off camera, Greene told sportswriters, "A great part of me would've died if we had lost."

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle stood beside the Chief in the Steelers' locker room, holding the Super Bowl trophy named for Vince Lombardi, a friend the Chief had greatly admired. On camera, speaking to 71 million viewers, Rozelle praised the Steelers' performance and gently placed his left hand on the Chief's shoulder. He handed him the gleaming trophy. (Joey Diven, the Chief's old pal and Super Bowl week protector, loomed inches behind them, peeking over the commissioner's shoulder.) Dan Rooney, the managerial architect of this team, remained far from the camera, believing his father deserved all attention and credit. Even further from the spotlight, Art Rooney Jr. shared the postgame celebration in the grandstands with his wife and mother. Years later Rozelle would call this trophy presentation his fondest memory from nearly 30 years as NFL commissioner, so deep was his respect for Art Rooney Sr.

The Chief's players shouted, "Speech! Speeeeeeecccchhhh!" The Chief wouldn't look directly into the camera, his eyes red-rimmed from emotion, his glasses fogging over again. "Thanks, Pete," he said. He looked toward his ballplayers. "They are a great bunch of fellas," he said. "I'm not a bit surprised."

Spoils of war

From Shreveport came the Bradshaw family and friends, about 30 in all, and that night in a hotel suite they celebrated the Super Bowl with champagne. This might have been the greatest night of Terry Bradshaw's life, but for migraine headaches. He sat up in bed, his head throbbing, as his family sang and cheered all around him, his mother happiest of all, because of the triumphant way her boy had responded to the meanness of a badgering press.

On the plane flight home the next day, Harris, Lynn Swann and Greene played with, and wore, plastic Viking helmets with silly horns. These were more than souvenirs. The spoils of war, they called them. Just as he had in the postgame locker room, Greene pulled out his Nikomat camera on the plane and happily snapped photos of teammates in high spirits.

One-hundred-twenty-thousand fans in Pittsburgh braved the 25-degree chill, lining the expressways and downtown streets as the Steelers' motorcade passed. One new fan club announced itself with a placard as "Bradshaw's Brains." Dwight White headed directly to a local hospital, where he spent the next two and a half weeks recuperating, visited each day by the Chief and his wife, Kass.

The Chief had left Tulane Stadium in the darkness, the streets empty. He couldn't find the chauffeured limousine he had rented, so a New Orleans policeman hailed a taxi. He climbed inside the taxi with the Pittsburgh Press columnist Roy McHugh. "This is better anyway," the Chief said. "I never feel comfortable in those limousines." The Chief's sons gathered with him in his suite that night at the Fontainebleau Hotel. The Chief had removed his press pass and tossed it on the ground, and Art Jr., with his devotion to history, picked it up. "Hey, Dad, this is a collector's piece. Sign it," he said, and his father did.

Forever a creature of habit, the Chief sat at a desk in his hotel suite and dashed off a large batch of postcards, mostly to his horse-track friends. They knew his understated nature and must have laughed when they read in his cursive scrawl, the old man at the football mountaintop, announcing, "We're in the big time!"

Author Gary M. Pomerantz will appear at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St. in the Strip District, in conversation with Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and former players Rocky Bleier, Andy Russell and Franco Harris in the national book launch for "Their Life's Work." For event information, call 412-454-6000.

Gary M. Pomerantz, a former sportswriter at The Washington Post, is the author of four books and a visiting lecturer at Stanford University. Copyright © 2013 by Gary M. Pomerantz. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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