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Pittsburgh Steelers 80th Anniversary: 80 Years, 80 Memories (Vol. 1)

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIJanuary 12, 2017

Pittsburgh Steelers 80th Anniversary: 80 Years, 80 Memories (Vol. 1)

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers tradition began on July 8, 1933.  When Art Rooney, Sr. purchased his dream NFL franchise for the grand sum of $2,500, he surely could have never predicted the exponential heights that his team—and, for that matter, the NFL—would come to know!

    The team and city have grown together over the course of 80 seasons...

    29,220 days...

    701,280 hours...

    42,076,800 minutes...

    2,524,608,000 seconds...

    ...and nearly 12,000 episodes of Days of Our Lives!

    Originally nicknamed the "Pirates," the Steelers of eight decades ago were a team with an unmistakable infancy about them, perennially struggling and earning Rooney the unfortunate nickname of lovable loser.  Sadly, the doldrums of defeat hung over the franchise like a never-ending gray sky for four decades.  Peaks were at a premium and valleys were the norm. 

    Finally, in 1969, the Steelers acquired Chuck Noll, and the Black and Gold finally won a playoff game in 1972.  After 40 seasons of lows, a dynasty changed the image of playing pigskin in Pittsburgh, and the positive effect served as the catalyst for four decades of dominance.

    In effect, the history of the Steelers is now perfectly symmetrical, a beautifully contrasting dichotomy of winning and losing. 

    However, no matter which side of the Chuck Noll transition fence you reflect on, loyal Pittsburgh fans have shown the most ardent support for their beloved football team, though it should be noted that Terrible Towels didn't start wildly waving in the stands until 1975. 

    Through a rich eight decades, wars were fought, man finally walked on the moon, a president was assassinated, televisions became a household commodity, and football for fans went from newspapers to radios to black-and-white television to vibrant state-of-the-art color to, most recently, crisp high definition.

    During the passing times, the steel mills boomed and, sadly, busted, another peak and valley to add to the lot.  Many fans left the "City of Champions" in pursuit of work, but their hearts were never nomadic, always staying home.

    As such, the greatness of Steelers Country stretches further than the three rivers, reaching around the world and taking over NFL stadiums nationwide every autumn weekend!

    When "The Chief" passed away on August 25, 1988, the bond between the Steel City and its football team was ionic in strength, and the loyalty on both sides has only grown since!

    Starting now and throughout the 2012 season, this series will take a look back at every season of Steelers football—from 1933 to 2012 (in no particular order), each of 16 volumes showcasing five seasons from the rich tradition.  Honoring the team's 80th anniversary, we will be looking back at the key memories that defined every year, whether a single play, a remarkable player, a legendary game or a timeless theme. 

    After honoring all 79 past seasons of Steelers football, the series will culminate with an inside look at the one chapter that has yet to reveal itself: the upcoming 2012 campaign!

1933: Beginning at the Beginning

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    The only fitting way to begin our look back at 80 seasons of Steelers history is by starting at the start.  The origin date for the NFL's seventh-oldest franchise is July 8, 1933.

    Art Rooney was a supremely gifted athlete, who attended what is called IUP today (Indiana University of Pennsylvania), participating in three major sports: football, baseball and basketball.  His interest in sports dictated many of his interests and ways of thinking.  Many fans don't realize that he had direct influence on the acquisition of the Steel City's NHL squad, the Pittsburgh Penguins, as well.

    One could easily say that Pittsburgh is blessed for Rooney's sports passion, no?  Rooney had expressed his interest in purchasing an NFL franchise, but there were prerequisite conditions involved, and not all of them were money-related.

    In fact, the team may not have existed at all if not for the overturning of a Pennsylvania law.  Blue laws, many of which are still in existence in many states today, are designed to restrict certain activities on Sundays. 

    One such blue law enforced in the early '30s prohibited football from being played on Sundays.  When word got out that the law was going to be repealed, Rooney decided to purchase the team for $2,500, and many fans speculate that the majority of the money stemmed back to his love for betting on horse races. 

    Worth well over $1 billion today, the turnaround on the initial investment for every dollar spent is over $400,000!

    Despite the promise of weekend play, a slow repeal process caused the overturning of the law to be delayed until late in the season.  As such, the Pittsburgh team began its play on Wednesdays!

    Kicking off on September 20, 1933, Rooney's Pittsburgh Pirates, named after the baseball team as per common practice of the day, lost to the New York Giants, 23-2. 

    One week later, playing the second game of a four-game NFL christening home set, the Pirates got their first win.  Hosting the Chicago Cardinals at Forbes Field, a record would be set that would last in team annals for 75 seasons.

    Trailing 13-0, the "Steelers" seemed destined for an 0-2 start to their team history, particularly with the scarcity of points during the era and with the Cardinals driving once more.  However, Martin Kottler changed the team's fortunes with a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown.

    Stunningly, Rooney's resilient rookie team would win, 14-13.  They would finish a respectable 3-6-1 in that first campaign.  Interestingly, quarterbacks would combine for three touchdowns and 40 interceptions for the '33 Pirates.

    Kottler's 99-yard franchise record would stand until February 2009, when James Harrison's 100-yard return in Super Bowl XLIII paved the way for Pittsburgh's sixth championship.

1955: Unitas We Fall!

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    I passed for three or four touchdowns in scrimmage and I got away on a couple of 30-yard runs, but they never let me play in exhibitions.  I played semi-pro ball the rest of 1955.

    Inquisitively reflecting on the enigma of his release, the man nicknamed "The Golden Arm" indicated his lack of understanding about his release from the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 1957 interview with Sports Illustrated.

    His name was Johnny Unitas, and he would become not only the father of the modern passing game but also arguably the biggest driving force in making pro football the true national passion.

    The Steelers released Unitas in favor of their third-string quarterback, citing economics as well as the other passers' ability to punt the football.  Certainly, team scouts and coach Walt Kiesling were doing Rooney no favors as their eyes missed the obvious talent standing on their very own practice field.

    Sadly, they not only missed on a legendary passer; they also overlooked a blue-collar athlete in the image of his own hometown.  Beaten and battered in one game with the Colts, Unitas was bruised and bloodied about the face, causing the concern of coaches and teammates.  The incident is recalled in a fascinating article about Unitas that can be read here (h/t Stephen J. Dubner, The New York Times Magazine):

    If you take me out, I'll kill you," Unitas said, and probably meant it. Instead, he packed mud up his nose to staunch the bleeding. Years later, he couldn't see what the fuss was about: "I mean, I didn't throw with my face.

    Unitas broke passing records galore, including career passing yards (40,239), 3,000-yard seasons (3), 300-yard games (27) and touchdown passes (290).

    A mere three years after getting ousted by the Steelers, he participated in "The Greatest Game Ever Played," leading the Colts to the NFL Championship in a thrilling sudden-death win over the Giants.  Unitas threw for over 349 yards.

    All Unitas did beyond "merely" winning championships and setting passing records, was to be named the NFL MVP (winning the Jim Thorpe and Bert Bell Awards) time and again, NFL Championship Game MVP and being named Greatest Quarterback in History at the NFL 50th Anniversary.

    Conversely, the Steelers finished 4-8, another season losing seasons amidst two decades of peaking at mediocrity.  Quarterback Jim Finks threw 10 touchdowns against 28 interceptions.  Unfortunately, in spite of the well wishes of many loyal fans, the team was still nearly two more decades away from winning.

    However, as we all know, once they broke through the dam, the entire wall fell over as the Steelers flooded football with their greatness!

    As the old saying goes, the hottest fires make the hardest steel.  While the early days of Steelers lore may not be as captivating for fans so exposed to winning, one has to appreciate the hard work and pitfalls that made the dynasty of the '70s such a catharsis in team history!

1969: Hope Arrives

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    With their 1-13 record in 1969, if would have been difficult to discern in the moment that the Pittsburgh Steelers fortunes had dramatically shifted.

    Yet, the building blocks to greatness were emphatically moving, despite the lack of evidence to the naked eye.

    The silence was awkward from Steelers fans when the team selected a little-known defender from North Texas State University.  The headline of the Pittsburgh Press on January 28, 1969 said it all: Fans’ Reaction: “Who’s Joe Greene?”

    If Steelers fans had questions in the winter of '69, Joe Greene gave them plenty of answers over 13 Hall of Fame seasons in Black and Gold.  The defensive stalwart became the face of the defense and the most touted member of the acclaimed Steel Curtain, anchoring the Steelers to levels of ferocity and greatness that mutually led to Super Bowl rings. 

    Exclusively, one or the other were not enough.  The Black and Gold of earlier years could certainly make teams "black and blue," playing a physical brand of football.  However, they lacked greatness.  Likewise, while the team had a few winning campaigns in the first half of its existence, it could never get over the top in its pursuit of excellence.

    With attitudes like those of Greene and Lambert ('74) arriving in the Steel City, the combination of ferocity and greatness made the Steelers the utmost of intimidators. 

    One day before selecting "Mean Joe," the Pittsburgh brass made another vital pickup: Chuck Noll.

    The man that would become known as Emperor Chaz (Miss you, Myron!) was exactly the kick in the (insert expletive) that the team needed.  And for those who do not prefer inserting expletives, placing the word "teeth" between the parentheses is just as effective!  I simply didn't want to offend Jack Lambert by using that figure of speech.

    Certainly, the greatness of Chuck Noll deserves the utmost of appreciation.

    One of Noll's famous quotes was, "Pressure is something you feel when you don't know what you're doing."

    If this is the case, Noll felt no pressure, because he certainly knew what he was doing...and it started with pulling no punches.  In fact, the coach came across as subtle as a punch in the face immediately.  

    Prior to the start of the '69 season, Noll gave a candid assessment of his team.  The description is a chilling portrait for the team of '69, as many of their faces would not return for the glory just ahead.  However, it is the golden frame in which a new picture of greatness would be placed in Steelers lore.

    In America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions, Andy Russell recounts Noll's words of...inspiration?...to the team upon his arrival:

    Look, I’ve been watching the game films since I took the job.  And I can tell you guys that the reason you’ve been losing is not because of your attitude, or your psyche, or any of that stuff. The problem is you’re just not good enough. You know, you can’t run fast enough, you can’t jump high enough, you’re not quick enough. You’re techniques are just abysmal.  I’m probably going to have to get rid of most of you, and we’re going to move on.

    And you know—five of us made it from that room to our first Super Bowl following the ’74 season.

     

1992: Cowher Power

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    Bill Cowher's first game as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers was the type of effort that immediately bonds a community with its new NFL leader.

    Though Chuck Noll had a final "hurrah!" in 1989, leading an underdog Steelers team into the playoffs, the following two seasons saw the team return to struggles that had plagued them in the late '80s.  Most felt the game had passed by Noll, in spite of all of his greatness.

    The Steelers signed the youthful and fiery Cowher, whose attitude and commitment to winning created a fitting juxtaposition between coach and community.

    Though Cowher played for the rival Cleveland Browns (during the "Kardiac Kids" era) and served as defensive coordinator for the team under Marty Schottenheimer in the '80s, he was actually a local product from Crafton, Pennsylvania, further adding to the appeal and intrigue of Steelers Country heading toward 1992's NFL season.

    With Terrible Towels torquing violently and excited fans yelling boisterously, "Cowher Power" had immediate impact in the Steel City.  The Steelers, with the aid of some great talent left from the Noll regime (Woodson, Lloyd, O'Donnell, etc.) and the infectiousness of Cowher's desire to win, finished 11-5.  This earned the top seed in the American Football Conference, though the team would be upended by the Bills in the midst of their four consecutive Super Bowl losses.

    B.I.L.L.S.= Boy, I Love Losing Super Bowls.

    In the first game of 1992, Cowher's Steelers got a huge springboard win.  Gaining momentum for the rest of their campaign, the Men of Steel defeated the Houston Oilers on the road in a contest that saw Cowher's ability to gamble to win.

    The Oilers, considered by most a heavy contender in the AFC and universally viewed as a playoff team, were a stiff opening-day test.  Houston took a 14-0 lead rapidly, and they led at halftime by a 24-16 margin in a track meet that promised more points for both sides.

    However, instead of a second-half shootout, the Steelers came out with all of the armament, shutting out Warren Moon and crew after halftime and rallying for a surprise win.  Moon's five interceptions (O'Donnell had no interceptions) lost the game for Houston, and Cowher's antics won the game for Pittsburgh. 

    The decisive plays were Cowher's gambles, which included a run on 4th-and-4, a fake punt and other unexpected calls.  The fake punt was a pass. It set up the touchdown that changed Houston's first-quarter advantage from 14-0 to 14-7.

    After three quarters, Houston still led 24-22, and in the first series of the fourth quarter, they ran the run-and-shoot to perfection, driving to the Pittsburgh 3-yard line.

    On 2nd-and-goal, against the odds, the instinctive Cowher suspected Moon would pass following a mere one-yard gain on a previous run play.  Disguising nothing, the first-game coach sent out a base pass package.

    Just as expected, Moon retreated dropped back to pass despite a congested Steeler secondary, whose great coverage forced him to scramble.  Despite the option to throw the ball away out of the end zone, Moon insistently threw into coverage, making the further mistake of throwing back to the middle of the field against his body after rolling right.

    Rod Woodson made his second interception of the game, returning the pick 57 yards.

    O'Donnell drove the Steelers to the winning touchdown, engineering a confident drive against the sulking Oilers.  Neil capped scoring with a touchdown pass to tight end Adrian Cooper, and coach Cowher won his first-ever contest as a head coach, 29-24.

2004: Big Ben's Record Rookie Season

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    Incumbent quarterback Tommy Maddox fell to injury in Baltimore during Week 2, and the Steelers season hinged on the play of their first-round draft pick, rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

    Circumstances were fitting for a player being thrown into the storm of starting an NFL game in his first weeks of professional action.  After all, Big Ben's first start occurred during a hurricane.

    As Hurricane Jeanne pelted the Florida coast, the first-year phenom threw a late touchdown to Hines Ward to secure a 13-3 win over the Dolphins.  Showing extraordinary control against the odds and elements, Roethlisberger's aplomb was evident to all who watched the delayed game, which had been rescheduled to night time because of conditions.

    This was only a small portion of a magnificent season ahead. Fifteen consecutive wins later, Ben Roethlisberger was the "stuff of legends."

    After wins over the AFC North's Ohio contingent, including a great throw on the run against the Browns in a sort of coming out party, the league's biggest story traveled to the state where everything is allegedly bigger.

    If big things do indeed come in Texas, Ben proved the adage at Texas Stadium.  The burly QB completed 21-of-25 pass attempts, rallying the Steelers from a 20-10 deficit.  Cowboys quarterback Vinny Testeverde committed his customary late-game turnover against Pittsburgh, opening the door for a 24-20 win and an ongoing win streak.

    At 5-1, the Steelers used their momentum to annihilate consecutive undefeated teams at Heinz Field.  Tom Brady and the New England Patriots fell first, ending an NFL-record 21-game win streak of their own.  Next, Hines Ward mocked Terrell Owens' touchdown celebration twice, spreading his arms and flapping his wings during a 27-3 demolition of the Philadelphia Eagles that wasn't that close.

    If the word fluke was being passed around with regard to Ben's performances, the rookie silenced doubters by outplaying two of the game's finest quarterbacks on consecutive weeks, Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb.

    The rest of the campaign saw three fourth-quarter comebacks, proving Roethlisberger's aplomb in Dallas was not the result of a young man unaware of the big stage. 

    Football is a team game, and the performance of the '04 Steelers squad was magnificent all around, not merely the work of one record-breaking man.  The defense played lights out throughout the regular season, a unit headlined by greats such as James Farrior, Joey Porter, Troy Polamalu, Kimo von Oelhoffen and Casey Hampton. 

    While the Steelers' starters get most of the glory, the season finale saw the backups playing against Drew Bledsoe and the Buffalo Bills, who had every reason to want to win against Pittsburgh.  A victory by Buffalo would secure a playoff spot—but the Bills lost the game to a more determined roster of first-time starters, athletes clearly hungering for their first vie at a 2005 roster spot.

    Yet, while the whole team excelled, the story of 2004 was clearly Ben Roethlisberger.  Unfortunately, the quarterback hit a wall in the playoffs, the result of fatigue and simple odds.  However, that couldn't erase the glimpses of greatness to come, the optimism that the season infused into the Steel City (which was one year away from claiming the elusive "One for the Thumb"), or a 15-game winning streak that catapulted Ben's career in the right direction.

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