Seventeen years old and exhilarated to finally attend his first pro football game, Gordon Orr and his father, Jim, hopped in the family's old Pontiac Bonneville to make the 29-mile drive from their home in Monaca to Pitt Stadium for the 1965 Steelers season opener. The opponent: the mighty Green Bay Packers, led by legendary coach Vince Lombardi, quarterback Bart Starr and "Golden Boy" halfback Paul Hornung.
The plucky Steelers led, 9-7, at the half.
"We were like, yeah, we got 'em!" Gordon Orr recalled.
The Steelers ultimately lost, 41-9, to the eventual champions. It was the kind of disappointment Orr had known his entire life as a Steelers fan.
"We got mulched in the second half. And that's what it was like being a Steelers fan. They might rise up for a half and make you feel like something good would happen.
"But it never did."
This learned helplessness pervaded the psyche of the Western Pennsylvania football fan before 1972, having absorbed decades of mediocre to terrible football: 26 losing seasons, two postseason appearances -- neither victorious.
In his seminal pro football book, "Three Bricks Shy of a Load," author Roy Blount Jr. described the relationship between Pittsburgh and its Steelers thusly:
"The prototypical Steeler fan was the mineworker, the millworker, who drank hard and fought hard and was violently resigned to losing out in life. The mythical hero of Pittsburgh was Joe Magarac whose last act was to fling himself into a molten vat of steel ... That was the kind of dubiously glorious body sacrifice the Steelers had been performing for thirty-nine years and it made Steelers fans rugged but irritable."
A native told Blount, "We figured if you lived in Pittsburgh, that was the kind of team you got."
But on the eve of the 1972 AFC divisional playoff against the Oakland Raiders, Orr said things felt different. There was an evening pep rally in Market Square -- "billed as the first of its kind in NFL history" according to press accounts. Orr, by then a 24-year-old paper sales rep living in Brookline, headed Downtown for the rally with his friend, Jim Meredith.
"The town was absolutely amazing. A lot of people forget the buildup -- the intensity for that game. They had this pep rally and a bonfire and the crowd was crazy, chanting DEE-FENSE! DEE-FENSE! ... they may have had some beers," Orr said with a laugh, but he also said things started to get out of hand. Some Steelers fans had stoked the fires of four decades of frustration.
Part of the crowd moved to the Hilton Hotel -- where the Raiders were staying -- and tried to storm the building. According to a Post-Gazette account published Dec. 23, 1972, two Raiders players, tight end Bob Moore and linebacker Greg Slough, got caught in the melee and were clubbed by police.
And that was only pregame.
Orr, now 64, recalls game day from his golf-course home in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., with the dramatic gusto of someone retelling the greatest bar story of all time.
"I remember going into the stadium and feeling a sense of excitement that no one had ever had with the football team," Orr said. "We'd had it the year before with the Pirates winning the Series in '71, but this was a different intensity. There was more of a raucous nature to it. Maybe it was that "DEE-FENSE" chant that let it out, but it was more of a sheer frenzy."
The Steelers led a war of defensive attrition until a 30-yard touchdown scramble by Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler, not known to be nimble, silenced the hometown fans. Oakland went ahead, 7-6, late in the game.
"The stadium is just silent. Total dejection. The feeling was, we're never gonna score -- all those years of losing, we have all this build up and now ... "
That old Steelers fan reflex kicked in.
"It can't happen."
Although a sellout, the game was blacked out on television in the Pittsburgh area because of long-standing rules. There were 50,327 eyewitnesses to the Steelers' final possession. Gordon Orr was one of them.
"Everyone is standing and cheering -- Bradshaw goes back to pass. I knew he got rushed, and you see him fire the ball -- he's throwing away from us down the field -- and I saw the collision," Orr claps his hands for emphasis, "and I saw the ball bounce away, and, at that point, I just dropped my head. The game was over."
"Down along what would've been the first-base line of old Three Rivers Stadium, we see people starting to jump up and down and roar! Up where we were [on the 600 level], that's what drew our attention because the game was over -- we were like "What happened? What happened? Somebody with a radio yells 'That deflection went off to Harris for a touchdown!'
"And it wasn't simultaneous. The news traveled around the stadium, and, as people understood what happened -- people were screaming and hollering. It was like today when they do the wave."
When the play was eventually ruled a touchdown, the celebration continued.
"After that -- the tailgates, people were getting blasted -- no one was a stranger in that parking lot that day. Everybody was your friend and handed you a beer. It was a euphoria that no Pittsburgher had ever felt with football. Maz in 1960 was the only thing like it."
A sleeping giant awoke in this long-suffering fan base.
"Underneath you always had that latent fanaticism," Orr said. "It was just below the surface, but never had a reason for it to come to the fore. It was always contained or curtailed because nothing good ever happened."
Until it finally did.
First Published December 2, 2012 5:00 AM