For many years, Art Rooney, the saintly fellow with the cigar about his visage and coaster-thick lenses, was known as a "lovable loser." Then, in the late '50s, the Steelers began to evolve from a complete laughingstock to a mediocre club and, even, into a winner!
With blessings like the presence of former Lions quarterback Bobby Layne and the finest years of running back John Henry Johnson's career, the late '50s into early '60s clubs weren't to be confused with the league's elite, but they certainly did win their own share of games.
However, by 1964, Layne had left and John Henry Johnson was entering the twilight of his career, which saw a marked decrease in his production. Years earlier, he became a consistent force as a runner and the team's first 1,000-yard back.
The '64 Steelers finished a disappointing 5-9, but this did not happen without a few emphatic wins over the seeming class of the NFL.
Twice, the Steelers of 1964 took on NFL greats and turned them from elites into fallen giants! The first example, Y.A. Tittle, literally was a fallen Giant! New York Giants, that is...
After an opening-day loss to Deacon Jones and the L.A. Rams, the Steelers took the Pitt Stadium grass again in Week 2 to contend with the Giants, a team that had lost the last three NFL championship games, two of those defeats at the hands of the Green Bay Packers and head coach Vince Lombardi.
Quarterback Y.A. Tittle was among the finest field generals in the game. However, on one violent hit, the future for Tittle and the Giants collapsed right on the field.
An interception touchdown and two-yard scoring run had the Giants ahead 14-0 after the first quarter. Deep in his own end, the defending league MVP Tittle dropped back, hoping to lead the team to a commanding 21-0 advantage.
Instead, Y.A.'s career—at least its competitive phase—would essentially end with this one brutalizing hit.
Defensive end John Baker came unimpeded off the line of scrimmage, nailing Tittle in the midsection just as he released his grip of the football in the passing motion.
The ball fluttered into the air. Tackle Chuck Hinton snagged the pigskin and delivered momentum in spades to Pitt Stadium, cutting the Giants' edge to 14-6 after a missed extra point.
The defense, which included Pro Bowlers Charlie Bradshaw (Hinton's adjacent tackle) and linebacker Myron Pottios, celebrated. The Giants' sideline was in shock, but the look of dejection was not elicited by the stunning score. Instead, the result of the tackle on Tittle, the ferocity of which nobody could have fully anticipated, was on gut-wrenching visual display.
The image of a collapsed hero, battered and bloodied, on his knees in the end zone was symbolic of the immediate decline of a proud team and quarterback.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Morris Berman captured an image that will endure endlessly in sports lore. Tittle is on his knees, his helmet ripped off and blood dribbling down his bald head, seemingly staring into space. The image, which can be seen displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is aptly titled "Fallen Giant." The Giants team would finish 2-10.
Tittle wouldn't be the last fallen giant that the Steelers took down in '64. The eventual champion Cleveland Browns would also fall, victims of John Henry Johnson's greatest game.
Pittsburgh opened play with a field goal—a result that would seem merciful in retrospect following a night of complete Black and Gold domination.
Next, a defense that included corners Brady Keys and Dick Haley, tackles Chuck Hinton and Charlie Bradshaw and Pro Bowl linebacker Myron Pottios, began the game of their lives.
The Browns quickly went three-and-out.
John Henry Johnson began his brutalizing assault. Glances and blows by defenders off his legs and shoulders were repeated as J.H.J. (Jack Hammer Johnny?) smashed away at Browns defenders, which included Pro Bowlers Jim Houston (LB), Dick Modzelewski (T) and Bill Glass (DE).
From the Cleveland 33-yard line, a punishing Johnson run up the middle and over defenders, including Modzelewski, and ended with a touchdown.
Pittsburgh led 10-0. Against an opponent of such high caliber, the stunning start was a surprise to many, including Steel City locals. The question remained:
When will the bubble burst?
Instead of any bubbles, the Browns hogs, along both the offensive and defensive fronts, did the bursting. Pittsburgh won, 23-7. The Steelers outrushed the Browns, 354-96.
Johnson finished with 30 carries for 200 yards and three touchdowns. Jim Brown never even approached 100 rushing yards.