Pittsburgh Steelers 80th Anniversary: 80 Years, 80 Memories (Vol. 2)
The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers season marks the 80th anniversary for a team that has entertained its fans throughout, forging a relationship with them that is stronger than steel and utterly surreal.
While the early years were tough goings, earning Art "The Chief" Rooney an early moniker of "Lovable Loser," the second half of the Black and Gold chronology has featured among the greatest modern teams in the game. Pittsburgh became Six-burgh, the land where the only thing more consistent than the violently torquing twists of Terrible Towels is the tenacity of a perennially great team.
From good to bad (or black to gold), looking back on eight decades of the Steelers honors the rich tradition that has been established, reverently recalling each season—each a unique chapter or memory in its own right—that has blessed fans' live from the confluence of the three rivers.
It's been 80 years of a bond thicker than blood, and Steeler Nation has jubilantly backed the Rooney express not just in terms of years, but also for...
...and 20 different presidential elections! Indeed, just like this season, Pittsburgh football is a nice distraction from the autumn politics of an election year in Washington, D.C. Truly, muddy fields beat mud-slinging any day!
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 until every campaign has been remembered! 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!
If you missed Volume 1 (1933, 1955, 1969, 1992, 2004), you can check it out here!
1943: The Steagles
The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The proclamation of war was answered by the United States, and World War II had officially come upon the world not nearly long enough after World War I.
While president Franklin Roosevelt urged baseball to continue play as a means of increasing the morale of many U.S. citizens, football decided to follow in the footsteps of the great American pastime, also continuing play.
Many brave Americans sacrificed for their country, and that collection of courageous individuals included NFL players. Large were the numbers of athletes desirous to fight for their country during an incredibly patriotic era. There were also social influences, as many players felt shamed if they chose to play football opposed to contributing to the military.
As an example, William Ernest "Bill" Hewitt quit football in the middle of the season due to the embarrassment of ridicule from those who felt one that could play football could fight in the war. Hewitt, an eventual Hall of Famer (1971 class), was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles—well, at least until 1943...more on that in a moment!
With many teams' rosters were severely depleted due to war-service athletes. In reality, Philadelphia would have been almost alright to play with 16 eligible players still on the roster even after the final soldiers departed. However, Art Rooney's Steelers were only left with six men. As such, clearly they would have to be crafty in order to participate in the '43 NFL season.
When proposing a merger with Philadelphia, Eagles owner Alexis Thompson was not enthused with the idea. However, in the past, Rooney had made some business arrangements with Thompson that allowed him to keep the Eagles in Philadelphia, so Alexis kindly agreed to merge. Rooney, a fine man above anything else, had once again reaped the benefits of his kindness to others.
Who says kindness doesn't beget kindness? For some, reciprocity certainly exists!
The Pitt-Phil Steagles were born. Noteworthy is that the "Steagles" nickname is unofficial, and the team's actual name is simply the "Pittsburgh-Philadelphia Combine." The team wore the Eagles' green jerseys.
Once merged, both head coaches—the Eagles' Greasy Neale and Steelers' Walt Kiesling—refused to be demoted, leaving two leaders. The two could not get along so much as to even agree on a basic offensive system.
Late for a practice before the start of the season, Kiesling arrived to camp to find that Neale implemented the T-formation offense. The Steelers still ran the outdated single wing, a stale offense in the evolving NFL, where passing was gaining influence. With the T-formation, the Steagles were a more modern engine, though the Steelers reverted back to their former ways after the merger ended. During his stead as a Steagle, Kiesling coached the defense, leaving Neale to his offense.
The former bitter rivals actually began the season 2-0 en route to a 5-4-1 campaign.
The successful merger resulted in the first-ever winning season for the Philadelphia Eagles, and it was the second time Pittsburgh accomplished the feat.
1964: Fallen Giants
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.
1970: Bradshaw and the Blast Furnace
After Chuck Noll's inaugural season, nobody quite knew that he would be among the architects of arguably the greatest dynasty in NFL history. After all, the Steelers were 1-13 in '69.
Nevertheless, dark clouds have these things called silver linings. And the good news for the 'Burgh was that their awful football team would get the top pick in the NFL draft. With the selection, the team brought in a strong-armed quarterback and top-notch athlete from Louisiana Tech: Terry Bradshaw.
The Blonde Bomber certainly bombed in 1970, but not by any means in the manner fans had hoped. The youngster struggled early, as many rookies do and particularly on bad teams. Terry's six touchdowns and 24 interceptions inspired boos from the crowd, which was often impatient considering the huge expectations of this advertised savior.
No Franco. No Lynn. No Stallworth. It all added up to equal "not yet." However, the fans wanted to win desperately, and they certainly got on Bradshaw with ferocity, even though the team improved to 5-9.
The 1970 Steelers season was their first in Three Rivers Stadium. The venue would be nicknamed the "Blast Furnace." For No. 12, this would have still been a symbolic nickname prior to the winning, a house where he got blasted frequently on Sundays with verbal jousts.
After losing their home opener to Houston, the Steelers won their first game at the new venue over the Bills two weeks later.
As Terry and the team got better, both through experience and talent acquisition, Three Rivers' "Blast Furnace" nickname was used to symbolize the Steelers' rampant success at home in the '70s.
The team enjoyed a 69-13 home record in the decade, including a marvelous 8-1 playoff record. One week after the venue's first playoff affair, won on the "Immaculate Reception," Pittsburgh suffered its only home postseason loss in the '70s, 21-17, to the undefeated 1972 Dolphins in the AFC Championship game. At the time, home field was determined based on division on a rotating basis.
The site saw the Steelers win four Lamar Hunt Trophies en route to three Super Bowl wins and one loss.
If any team can give credence to the difficulty of winning on Three Rivers turf, it was the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers' archrivals started off 0-16 at their "House of Horrors," a couple of those losses being particularly painful, before finally winning a close game in 1986.
The noise reverberated nicely as the steep seating created a sense of vertigo when looking up from the field, and the lower stands would actually shake when the excitement developing inside the venue reached a fever pitch.
In 31 seasons at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers posted a record of 182–72, including a 13-5 playoff record.
1994: Struck Down by Lightning
The Steelers and their young coach Bill Cowher were gearing up for a potential Super Bowl run in the summer of 1994. After the growing pains of 1993, which ended with a fourth-down touchdown pass in the last seconds of regulation by Joe Montana in an overtime loss at Kansas City, a matured and talented team was considered a favorite to represent the AFC in Miami's Super Bowl XXIX.
Neil O'Donnell led the offense, a quarterback who protected the ball well and made—aside from one fateful January evening in 1996—smart decisions. While his receiving corps, consisting of Andre Hastings, Yancy Thigpen and Ernie Mills, left much to be desired in the minds of most experts (they would begin coming through in spades, however), Barry Foster was considered one of the league's best running backs.
Yet, realistic fans across western Pennsylvania knew the team would go as far as the defense carried them.
The "Steel Trap" earned its nickname by graduating from all of the comparisons to the teams of the '70s and garnering an identity with a novel strategy known as the zone blitz. Anchored by Chad Scott, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson and a laundry list of other talented players, the Steelers defensive unit struck fear in opposing offenses.
Games were tense in '94, as the defense commonly secured victories that the offense was unable to put away. Thankfully, that same offense didn't throw wins away, either. During a four-week stretch, the Steelers played three overtime contests, ending with a win and 16-13 overtime thriller against Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins at Three Rivers Stadium. Mike Tomczak started the game in place of Neil O'Donnell.
One of the great stories of the season was the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the last time the original enemies squared off on a monumental stage. After two competitive regular-season losses to the Steelers, 17-7 and 17-10, the Browns felt confident that they could come to Pittsburgh and prevent a third loss in the same season to their archrivals.
Instead, Pittsburgh exacted a 29-9 shellacking upon the "Frowns," sending the Dog Pound players' tails between their legs and our towels into the air!
Yet, for the many great memories that showered Steelers fans in 1994, one painful defeat ranks atop the "heartbreak rankings" for many in Steeler Nation. Nobody old enough to recall will forget that pit in their stomachs and lump in their throats on January 15, 1995.
The team prepared to host the AFC Championship game for the first time in 15 seasons. They had grown over the course of the '94 campaign, which started with a 26-9 loss to the Dallas Cowboys and culminated in a near return to the NFL's biggest game. This was clearly their best chance since the '70s to actually get to and win the Super Bowl, and the town was abuzz with excitement.
In fact, most fans were fairly cocky in the week leading up to the contest against the Chargers, feeling they were inferior. Additionally, the California team would have to travel to cold Western PA and brave...
Sixty-degrees Fahrenheit?! In fact, one week earlier, the Chargers hosted the Dolphins in San Diego, where the temperature was one lone degree warmer!
A season of close calls, magical wins and great urgency came to a sudden halt in the AFC Championship game.
Leading 13-3 and leading San Diego in practically every statistical category, the Steelers watched as Stan Humphries summoned the previous season's Joe Montana magic, tossing two long touchdowns in the second half.
Trailing 17-13, the Steelers drove deep into Chargers territory, only to come up three yards short of the Super Bowl. Struck by lightning, stunned fans silently exited the old "bowl."
This season served as the perfect prerequisite to 1995, a campaign nicknamed "Three More Yards" that mirrored 1994 in most symbolically significant manners.
The 2010 Steelers were provided with every reason to throw in the towel. As any fan in the Steel City will tell you, Pittsburgh is known for only one towel. And, neither that towel nor the other was going to be thrown in by the '10 Men of Steel!
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended to start the season after allegations of sexual assault. At best, it was obvious he had displayed inappropriate public conduct, warranting the suspension.
The team stood tall, playing well behind starters Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch to earn a 3-1 start.
With the return of their franchise quarterback also came the growth of the pesky injury bug. It buzzed around the locker room, stinging anyone and everyone that it could. Fly swatters didn't come big enough to handle this enormous "stink bug."
The offensive line were like bugs themselves, effectively falling like flies, only to be reassembled throughout the year like a hodgepodge mix n' match of players who could start at random positions along the offensive front. It was the essence of a jigsaw puzzle.
One of the more famous injuries of the campaign was a broken Ben Roethlisberger nose, which dripped onto his white road uniform during a physical contest against the Baltimore Ravens. Replays saw that Ben was punched in the face; in the same game, a helmet-to-helmet collision could have literally caused Heath Miller to become a paraplegic, no exaggeration. Instead, an officiating crew from an NFL that was so adamantly protecting players from helmet-to-helmet contact threw no flag.
Late in the contest at Baltimore, the Steelers got the last laugh. Troy Polamalu stripped Joe Flacco of the football, and the offense retook possession with a 1st-and-goal, capitalizing for a 13-10 win that essentially secured the AFC North Championship.
Indeed, injuries were only part of a hectic and helter-skelter year defined by the controversial and unpredictable.
James "Silverback" Harrison became the center of a controversial league-wide crackdown on what was viewed as "dangerous hits." The star linebacker was fined more than any other player for alleged infractions, causing him to question his future in the NFL.
The low point of the season was a game against the Oakland Raiders. The Steelers were excessively flagged for penalties that almost seemed conjured from thin air by an officiating crew that either wanted to send a message or didn't know how to implement the rules. In either case, Pittsburgh was getting roughed by the refs, winning 35-3 anyway.
Incensing the players was the league's response to an event before halftime, where tackle Richard Seymour threw Ben Roethlisberger to the ground after the completion of a touchdown pass. Whistles blew, and moments later, the quarterback was flattened by Seymour's right hand.
Seymour's punishments paled in comparison to Harrison's fines for hits that could have easily been deemed acceptable.
The team overcame injuries, speculations and controversies to win the AFC North with a 12-4 record.
Their next test was against their division rivals in the divisional playoffs. Trailing the Ravens 21-7, the team overcame the deficit to tie the game, thanks largely to a slew of reckless Baltimore turnovers in the third quarter. Late in the fourth quarter, the offense converted a 3rd-and-19 against a defense largely regarded as one of the game's finest, as Antonio Brown caught a magnificent Big Ben deep ball against his helmet before running out of bounds. The huge play allowed the Steelers to complete a magnificent comeback with the winning touchdown run.
Conversely, it was the Steelers who were unable to overcome a deficit in the Super Bowl, trailing the Green Bay Packers, 21-3.
For their perseverance, pride and fortitude, the 2010 Steelers showcased what the will to win can bring teams with a great foundation.