Steelers tell jokes, share tales at 75th year gala

As a global entrepreneur who specializes in investment banking with Laurel Mountain Partners, Andy Russell was on a business trip to Russia several months ago when he spotted something familiar.

At an outdoor mall in Moscow, next to a nesting doll that traced Russian leaders from Vladimir Putin to Vladimir Lenin, he noticed a similar object adorned in the black and gold of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This doll started with Jack Lambert, then inside was Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann in descending order, each figure smaller than the one preceding it. Imagine that, stalwarts of the Steel Curtain merchandised on the free market in what used to be the epicenter of the Iron Curtain.

"There weren't any other football teams or American figures displayed, just this one. I know there are Steeler fans in every city, but Moscow?" marveled Mr. Russell, a linebacker on the all-time Steelers team.

Then chuckling, he said, "Swann will be ticked he was the smallest one."

Ordinarily, the Steelers generate stories for Monday based on what they did Sunday. But because they're involved in a Monday night game today, and this is their 75th season, this was the perfect occasion to recall yesteryear.

As part of their diamond jubilee weekend, the Steelers "suited up" for a $250-a-plate banquet and gala last night at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. That the building is named after the civic leader who presented Arthur J. Rooney into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1964 is but one affirmation of the bond between the city and its football team.

The 75th anniversary all-time team, which includes 33 players from a franchise that's been around since 1933, will be honored again tonight when the Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens, who were born as the Cleveland Browns, in front of a national TV audience. Four active players will be wearing their work clothes, albeit in the form of throwback uniforms, for the occasion: Hines Ward, Alan Faneca, Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu.

The general chairman for the celebration is No. 75, Charles Edward "Joe" Greene, who served in the same capacity when the team marked its 50th anniversary in 1982. He was the cornerstone of the team that won four Super Bowls under Chuck Noll and was brought back to the front office when the fifth ring was won in Super Bowl XL.

"To put on something so grand, and to let the legions of their fans participate, is consistent with how the Steelers do business," said Mr. Greene, wearing a gold carnation with his tuxedo at last night's dinner.

And, of course, he recalled those Super Years when he and the Steelers ruled the gridiron. There were nine Hall of Fame players, a Hall of Fame coach and a father-son team enshrined at Canton who were associated with those teams.

"Whatever we needed, one of us had. It got to the point sometimes where I didn't know if I could pay the price individually, but I never wanted to let the team down. And when we were all at our best, look out. It has all been a wonderful journey," he said.

Like all of the players assembled, Jack Ham looked forward to swapping stories.

"We can tell lies about how good we were back then," he said, laughing.

Or swap funny stories.

Andy Russell remembers a playoff game against the Baltimore Colts in which he returned a fumble 93 yards for a touchdown, which is still a playoff record.

"It was the most elapsed time on any single play. Ray Mansfield said the network cut to a commercial and still was able to show the touchdown," he said.

Gary Anderson, the franchise's all-time leading scorer, has been catching brown trout and rainbow trout in the Canadian Rockies of late, but he was as thrilled as he was when he first came to town.

"It seems like yesterday that I was in the Steeler locker room as a rookie," he said. "You can imagine how mesmerized I felt."

Generations of players were represented at the gala. Dick Hoak, who spent 45 years with the organization as a player and a coach, remembered rustic practices at South Park and playing games at Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium.

"If it weren't for football, I don't know what I would have done," he said. "I went through life without ever having to move, without ever being fired, without ever having to transfer to another city. How many people can say that?"

Music for the evening was provided by jazz musician Allen Harris.

The master of ceremonies was Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, supplier of the special anniversary highlight films that enthralled the crowd.

"The Steelers don't need a mascot. Their fans are their mascot," Mr. Sabol said. "There were Gerela's Gorillas, Franco's Italian Army, Lambert's Lunatics, people dressed up like a bumble bee. You don't need a mascot when you have fans like that," he said. "When we'd go to Pittsburgh to do the game for NFL Films, we never brought enough cameras."

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at . First Published November 5, 2007 5:00 AM


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