'Their Life's Work': Where the 1970s Steelers let off steam



This is the second of three excerpts 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 third portion will appear Tuesday.

Today’s excerpt visits the inner sanctum of the Steelers: the postgame sauna at Three Rivers Stadium.

 

It was their most cherished space, no matter how spare or small, no matter that the steam usually was turned off, no matter that only a pale ambient light filtered through the small window in the door.

The sauna in the back of the Steelers' locker room at Three Rivers Stadium, near the showers, was the players' postgame sanctuary and decompression chamber. It contained plain wooden benches, enough to seat seven or eight big men, plus the real drawing card, an oversized plastic trash can that equipment manager Tony Parisi filled with ice and beer.

The sauna was the place where Steelers players could be together, and be themselves, and say what needed to be said. No coaches, no press. The pressure was off, the next game a full week away. They crammed into the sauna together for their postgame beer and stood side by side, or squeezed onto the wooden benches, 10 or 12 players in all, like a crowded subway at rush hour. Some wore towels around their waists, some T-shirts and uniform pants, others a jockstrap and nothing more. They opened their beers, sat down, and removed tape from their ankles, the smell of sweat oppressive.

In the days of empire, winning bred a generosity of spirit -- they were, after all, on top of their game, their league and the world -- and in the sauna players' petty differences and frictions disappeared or at least were forgotten for the moment. They had been sculpted into a great team, and they knew that and proved it on Sundays, and when the game and the day were won, they reveled in their great fortune to be together.

In the sauna, their comments crackled:

"Oh, man, I fanned on that blitz. And I knew it was comin'!"

"You see me tag whatshisname? He was up in the air!"

L.C. Greenwood stepped inside the sauna, shirtless, lean, wiry-strong, the muscles of his upper torso taut. The defensive end known as Hollywood Bags liked hearing teammates talk about what had or had not happened in that day's game, and engage in an honest discussion about what should have happened. Bare-chested, Mike Webster became like a gridiron professor as he dissected blitzes and zone coverages used by the opposing defenses.

In the sauna Rocky Bleier sensed a pure moment: "It wasn't fabricated. It was honest, unvarnished. It just was." Together they stood, they sat. They needled, they laughed. They talked of blocks and tackles made, and blocks and tackles missed. Stripped of bravado, stripped bare, they achieved a level of honesty with each other that wouldn't be equaled at any other time or place.

Decades later, as the Steelers remembered their times together in the postgame sauna, they smiled and laughed, and in their recollections linebacker Jack Lambert, always Lambert, loomed largest and loudest. If the sauna represented the 1970s Steelers' version of King Arthur's court, then Lambert was Arthur.

"It was Jack Lambert's haven," offensive lineman Gerry "Moon" Mullins said. "He'd be the first one in and the last one to leave."

Gary Dunn remembered that after one loss, pin-drop quiet in the sauna, Lambert stared at the floor, and no Steeler said a word. And then, after their second and third beers, their tongues loosened, and Lambert turned to quarterback Terry Bradshaw and asked why he threw into double coverage on 3rd and 12, and then Bradshaw turned to Lambert and asked how he missed that tackle on Earl Campbell. "And then," Dunn said, "it would be on" -- a candid free-for-all, everyone venting.

On occasion Lambert or Webster invited an opponent to join them in the sauna before the team bus left for the airport. Once it was Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson, who stepped inside the sauna, sat down, and said words Lambert would remember, "God, you guys are awesome." To get such an invitation, a high honor, an opposing player had to be respected, and tough, and, in the best case, a roguish character. Jack Rudnay of Kansas City, an all-pro center and noted clubhouse prankster, fit that bill.

"It's counter-intuitive that you can try to kill each other on the field and be best friends after it," Rudnay said. "I really was honored to share that time with them." Once, one beer led to another and another, and Rudnay discovered that the Chiefs' team bus had left for the airport without him, coach Marv Levy apparently in a dither about his absence. Sweeping into action, Parisi threw car keys to another clubhouse man and instructed him to drive Rudnay to the airport posthaste.

The driver did great work because Rudnay was sitting in his seat on the airplane before his Kansas City teammates arrived, and in his bag he discovered several gifts, including Steelers T-shirts for his daughters and several beers for himself.

After another game, long after most Steelers had left the stadium, Dunn stepped from the sauna, put on a shirt, and walked outside the locker room to find his mother. She'd had a long wait, and Dunn, a chatty defensive lineman, told her that he planned to sit with his teammates in the sauna a while longer.

"Well, then can I come in there and have a beer with you?" his mother asked.

Dunn thought it a bad idea ("The sauna is not a place for your mother," he would say) but he reconsidered, and told her that he would find out.

"Jack, Brad, do you guys care if my mom comes in and has a beer with us?" he asked. Lambert and Bradshaw thought the idea of Gary Dunn's mother joining them in the sauna hysterical and preposterous, and so naturally they consented.

The topic of conversation in the sauna shifted, naturally, Lambert and Bradshaw needling Dunn without mercy, asking his mother, "How in the world did you give birth to that?" And: "He must've had some real problems in his childhood, didn't he?"

She never forgot the experience, and celebrated afterward with a tour of the field given by her son. As the beers took effect, she pretended in the darkness to be a drum majorette marching alone down the field at Three Rivers Stadium and tossing an imaginary baton high in the air. Grounds crew members turned from their work to watch.

Dunn asked grounds crew chief Dirt DiNardo, "Can you turn on some lights? Mom can't see her baton," and so DiNardo flipped on the field lights.

As his mother marched from the 40-yard line to midfield, her legs kicking high, Gary Dunn decided, This is awesome!

"It was our escape, and nobody could get to us," Bradshaw said. He loved those days and nights in that sauna. "That was the most fun we ever had."

 

Author Gary M. Pomerantz will appear on Wednesday at 6 p.m. 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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