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Pittsburgh Steelers 80th Anniversary: 80 Years, 80 Memories (Vol. 3)

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIDecember 2, 2016

Pittsburgh Steelers 80th Anniversary: 80 Years, 80 Memories (Vol. 3)

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    Along the hillside overlooking the practice fields of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp in Latrobe, PA lies a huge banner featuring the official logo for the team's 80th anniversary. With today's fine athletes sacrificing blood, sweat and tears to prepare for what promises to be another successful season among the rich annals of Steel City football, the enormous logo is a reminder of the responsibility that lies ahead. 

    After all, 2012 is a significant franchise milestone that deserves to be honored in the grandest fashion. The banner says it all, reading "80 Seasons," an enriching eight decades for the many generations of fans who have bonded together in creating "Steelers Country."

    In order to truly appreciate the greatness that is the Steelers, one needs to have a proper reverence for the franchise's proud history, starting with the team's humble beginnings and progressing through the wildly successful Super Bowl era.

    This series reflects on the memory of each season—every campaign as a unique chapter or memory in its own right—that comprise the wonderful history of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    It's been 80 years since the wonderful man with the inch-thick monocles and never-ending supply of cigars brought football to the 'Burgh, a passage of time that includes:

    29,220 days...

    701,280 hours...

    42,076,800 minutes...

    2,524,608,000 seconds...

    ...and over 33,000 McDonald's restaurants! Just as Art Rooney's original investment has grown by leaps and bounds, restaurant owners Richard and Maurice McDonald created a small food joint seven years later, along 1398 North E Street at West 14th Street in San Bernardino, California. At the time, it was the first and only McDonald's in the world. Needless to say, sometimes from a small seed...a forest grows!

    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 the 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 the first two volumes, you can access them below:

    Volume 1: 1933, 1955, 1969, 1992 and 2004

    Volume 2: 1943, 1964, 1970, 1994 and 2010

1940: The Steelers Are Born

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    Many are likely wondering, "How can the team be 'born' in 1940 when it was clearly founded in 1933?"

    Indeed, the franchise did not originate at the start of the '40s, but technically speaking, the Steelers certainly were born seven years after their creation.

    After all, the first seven years of the team's existence was spent as the Pittsburgh Pirates, a nickname chosen in association with the city's baseball team, a tradition that was customary for the time. Most teams unified by a location shared the same nickname.

    The Pirates' inaugural seven-year stretch was abysmal, and the Steel City's football team compiled a 22-55-3 record, despite exhausting through five coaches and a few failed stunts, which included signing the first "big money" NFL player in Byron "Whizzer" White (1938) and bringing in Packers star player "Blood" McNally (1934). McNally earned all of 13 yards in his one season playing for the team. 

    Desperately wanting to change his teams' identity, Art Rooney chose a new nickname that he felt would be symbolic of the city's blue-collar work ethic. Asking fans for input, the name "Steelers" was submitted by 21 participants out of thousands of entries. For submitting the winning recommendation, that blackjack total of fans received what would be consider a real jackpot today: two pairs of season tickets! Though inflation must be considered, the total value for the package was about $5 per seat in 1940, and Rooney had trouble—despite decent fan interest in the team—filling seats for his "lovably losing" outfit.

    A few folks had their suspicions about Rooney's intention with changing the name. Was it a fresh start—or a sly scheme to get tickets into the hands of fans to promote game attendance? Havey Boyle, a sports editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who preferred the moniker of "Puddlers" (blech!), commented on his thoughts:

    Our own suspicion is that the whole thing was just another Rooney scheme to give away free tickets for his enterprise!

    History was made, and the name Steelers made its first appearance on a headline in the March 3, 1940 edition of The Pittsburgh Press.

    Though they had yet to choose that classic logo that is so vividly recognizable worldwide, at least the team had a name that was all its own!

    Luck certainly didn't change right away. Coach Walt Kiesling's team started without a loss through three games, thanks in large part to solid defensive play. However, as per normal, the team skidded through another painful campaign, finishing 2-7-1. Their fast start was a mere aberration. 

1957: The First African American Assistant Coach

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    Many view the "early years," namely the first 40 seasons, of Steelers football as a consistent period of losing, but few truly recognize that most of those four decades weren't spent in utter futility. Much of the time, the team was simply unable to get over the hurdle of mediocrity, mired in many seasons of near-.500 football.

    After a brief winning spike in the mid-'40s behind coach Jock Sutherland, the team was on the precipice of another successful stint in the late '50s. Since their initial successes, bad luck and hard decisions gone awry had kept the team in neutral, and 1957 would not yet be an exception to the norm.

    With future star quarterback Earl Morrall under center, along with backups Jack Kemp and Len Dawson, the team had a trio of starters who would go on to build careers with other franchises. Of particular note, rookie Dawson's release in 1959 would mark an exodus of a second future Hall of Fame passer in less than a half-decade, though the circumstances regarding Len's release (which will be overviewed in more detail in a future volume) were different from those with friggin' Johnny Unitas!

    Along with leading runners Billy Wells and Fran Rogel, Pro Bowl receiver Jack McClairen, and a defense led by future Hall of Famers Ernie Stautner and Jack Butler, the team held its own during a 6-6 season that would be of otherwise no exceptional footnote.

    However, 1957 stands out historically for another key reason. Today, the "Rooney Rule" requires NFL teams looking to hire for a coaching vacancy to interview at least one African American candidate. The Rooney family was always among the most considerate, wise and proactive football groups, family or otherwise, as it concerned being ahead of the curve by embracing racial diversity and demonstrating equality through action. It even dates back to those non-tolerant days of the '50s, when the team cancelled a scrimmage in Atlanta when they found out that black players were being asked to stay in a separate hotel from white players.

    Lowell Perry was a great player for the team through six games in 1956, but as the franchise's luck always seemed to have it, he was snuffed out before he could truly make a name for himself. In those first six games, he had well over 300 receiving yards with two scores, in addition to a bulk of special teams return yards.

    Later in his life, football writer Mark Latterman recalled his sickening career-ending injury (via The Coffin Corner), having seen it as a young man in the stands:

    A skinny 15 year-old boy and his dad were cheering the Pittsburgh Steelers new rookie star, Lowell Perry as he roared whippet-like around the New York Giants' fabled 1956 defensive line and headed full-throttle for the open field. The boy's cheers turned to tears when Giants' star Roosevelt Grier crunched Perry from behind and linebacker Bill Syoboda hit him from the side simultaneously, filling the stadium with a sickening 'crack!' which silenced the Steelers' faithful. I will never forget my sadness as the stretcher carried my new hero from the field. Perry's pelvis was fractured, his hip dislocated, and he never played pro football again.

    Imagine Perry's agony...

    A young man severely injured during medicine's caveman days. If a quick stitch couldn't fix it, three letters then came to mind: S, O. and L.  Advanced surgeries and rehabs were not available, and miraculous comebacks just didn't happen. After storming over the NFL, his lifelong dream, for five weeks, he would spend 13 much longer weeks bedridden, with his hopes to play pro-ball destroyed.

    Art Rooney, ever the humanitarian, was a man revered for giving "his guys" the second chances they needed. 

    Hired as a tight ends coach the season following his tragic injury, Lowell Perry became the first modern African American assistant coach in the NFL.

1974: Draft of All Drafts and the First Championship

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    By 1974, the improving Steelers had finally begun to put the pieces of a dynastic puzzle together. And, the final master strokes of a Super Bowl portrait took place on January 29-30, 1974.

    It was the draft of all drafts, and the Black and Gold selected an uncanny, unbelievable, infeasible...I'll simply digress with the adjectives. Words do not suffice as descriptors regarding the excellence of the scouting, collaboration and decision-making that berthed a dynasty. 

    Jack Lambert. Lynn Swann. John Stallworth. Mike Webster. 

    Repeat:

    LAM-BERT.

    SWANN.

    STALL-WORTH.

    WEB-STER.

    ONE DAY.

    The Steelers are still the only team to draft four future Hall of Fame players in one NFL draft.

    Steadily rising in the NFL rankings, many had their fingers on the pulse of Pittsburgh potential, but few truly expected the '74 squad to finally produce the final punch! Nobody quite yet knew what the team had produced that late January, and there were warning signs for a season teetering on the brink early in the campaign.

    1974 started with a quarterback controversy between Terry Bradshaw and Joe Gilliam. The team was losing games it should have been winning. Players were angering in the midst of not meeting their potential. Joe Greene reflects on these frustrations in the team's installment of America's Game.

    After Gilliam's offense began to sputter, despite showing so much potential in the season's first two games, Terry Bradshaw took over the helm. 

    Most point to this decision as unlocking the cuffs on the dynasty. Bradshaw took ownership as starting quarterback, and the culmination came when he threw the game-clinching touchdown pass in Super Bowl IX. It was a welcome habit that the quarterback would repeat three more times.

    His pass to Larry Brown put Pittsburgh ahead 16-6 late in the fourth quarter. The sheer force behind the throw caused a rifle-like pop to explode throughout the Tulane Stadium as pigskin met pads.

    In the big game, an ill Dwight White and the stout Steelers defense dominated Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings. In fact, Dwight—despite having suffered through pneumonia during the week leading up to the game—secured the first points of the game when he sacked Tarkenton in the end zone. Pittsburgh clung to the tentative 2-0 lead at halftime, despite utterly dominating the first two quarters of play.

    Luckily, the trend continued in the second half. The acclaimed Vikings quarterback finished 11-of-26 with three interceptions. The Vikings were only able to muster 119 offensive yards and a mere nine first downs.

    Pittsburgh beat down Minnesota, rendering their team as the "Purple People Eaten," thus setting the stage for a teary-eyed Art Rooney to finally claim the prize he deserved.

    Though hindsight is truly 20/20, reflecting back on the '74-'75 playoffs reveals a key truth: Super Sunday was a lackluster challenge compared to what the Black and Gold had faced one week earlier. 

    After beating the two-time champion Miami Dolphins in the "Sea of Hands" during the divisional playoffs, Raiders coach John Madden jubilantly called the game Super Bowl "Eight and a Half," figuring that defeating the defending champions was their stiffest challenge on the road to the big game. 

    Hell...Sports Illustrated even called the game as such on its front cover.

    With an uncharacteristically impassioned and confident tone, Noll told his players what would turn out to be practical gospel in the coming days (h/t Bob Labriola, Steelers.com):

    You know, the coach of the Raiders said the two best teams in football played yesterday, and that was the Super Bowl. Well, the Super Bowl is three weeks from now, and the best team in pro football is sitting right here in this room.

    Sports Illustrated, like the bombastic Madden, was wrong.

    Trailing 10-3 in Oakland at the start of the fourth quarter, Joe Greene and the Steelers entered a "zone," determined to drop the cocky Raiders at home in the AFC Championship Game.

    In recalling the contest on America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions, Joe Greene spoke about being in the zone during the AFC Championship Game win, marking this as the only contest of his career in which he was truly in the type of zone that so many athletes foolishly (and unjustifiably) claim to experience. 

    Finished Greene, "I think our who team was in the zone."

    In the fourth quarter, the Steelers outscored the Raiders 21-3, exacting their own version of a "Commitment to Excellence" on Al Davis' renegade outfit.

    First, Franco Harris tied the score. Next, Jack Ham intercepted Ken Stabler, and Lynn Swann subsequently scored to give the Steelers their first lead. Finally, ahead 17-13, Franco finished off the Silver and Black, breaking into the end zone to give Pittsburgh a 24-13 statement advantage.

    The Raiders played in Super Bowl 8.5, but they never made it to Super Bowl IX.

1988: All Good Things...

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    ...must come to an end.

    In a rich history, there are always going to be some blips on the radar. In the modern era, this may be the darkest such "blip," the single worst season for the Black and Gold of the last 40.

    Indeed, after a decade-long string of unprecedented dominance and a reputation for winning football that bled over into the early '80s, the magic carpet ride ended in the latter part of the decade. In fact, that proverbial carpet was effectively pulled out from under a team whose glory days were now far behind them.

    Sadly, the low point came in 1988, both literally and figuratively.

    Aside from Mike Webster, who played his final season at center in '88 beside his successor Dermontti Dawson (playing guard in his rookie campaign), the last two players from the team's dynastic days left in the offseason, John Stallworth and Donnie Shell.

    Art Rooney, the team's founder and one of the great men to ever walk the Earth, passed away two weeks before the start of the season. Many in the media found the absence of quarterback Terry Bradshaw during this solemn time to be a strange oddity. Few yet realized the depths of his disdain for a city that he felt turned against him during his playing days.

    While most fans were delighted at his departure, the team was in a quarterback transition from Mark Malone, who failed miserably as the heir apparent to Terry Bradshaw, to Bubby Brister. In fact, rumors of locker room fighting between Malone and teammates ran rampant, and many fans despised the perceived cocky QB for what they viewed as blaming teammates for mistakes.

    And, oh yeah...the team lost 11 games! Their 5-11 record was the worst since their 1-15 campaign during Chuck Noll's inaugural '69 season. That ignominious fact holds true to this day.

    Things started well enough. Earnest Jackson's 29-yard touchdown run helped secure an opening day win at Three Rivers Stadium over quarterback Steve Pelluer (you read that correctly...) and the Dallas Cowboys, 24-21.

    With that momentum, the team rode high...

    For two seconds. Then, they lost six straight and 10 of 11. Low point, eh? Still, some silver linings were to there to be had...

    Brister mostly struggled, but Merrill Hoge did his level best to help out in the running game, running hard to little acclaim. A true lunch-bucket runner, Hoge is still beloved in the Steel City, a back merely displaced among a series of bad Steelers teams.

    Like Hoge, receiver Louis Lipps was another fantastic talent whose Black and Gold years sadly fell outside of the team's best success seasons on the franchise's Venn diagram. 

    Lastly, the team won three of its final four games to finish 5-11, which felt like little consolation except to consider that the momentous finish may have given them the confidence needed to rally for the playoffs one season later.

    After these dark days in the Steel City, many wondered if Chuck Noll's days should be over with the headset. One season later, Chuck Noll's '89 Steelers would shock the NFL landscape, arguably the coach's greatest season at the helm with consideration to his roster and its truly unexpected accomplishments.

2001: Kordell's Rebirth...and the Birth of a Rivalry

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    Across the board, considering all phases of the game, the 2001 Steelers may have been a better team than the Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh squads that would fulfill the dreams of Steeler Nation later in the decade.

    However, the difference between now and then was as simple as one word: Roethlisberger.

    If No. 7 had played for the '01 squad, a solid team along both lines and with skill talent all over the roster, I shudder to imagine how dominant they may have been.

    The 2001 Steelers entered play having missed the playoffs in each of the three previous seasons. 

    With a brand new field to christen, and a momentous finish to their previous season in which the Steelers narrowly missed the playoffs, Pittsburgh hoped their first year at Heinz Field would be marked by a return to January's sudden-death NFL action.

    Things looked grim on opening weekend; the Steelers traveled to Jacksonville and played their typical road game against the Jaguars, losing 21-3.

    The offense was anemic, Kordell Stewart looked unsettled, the defense allowed huge plays to the Jags offense (particularly receiver Jimmy Smith) and optimism was certainly quenched.

    The loss proved to be a mere aberration. The nation grieved after the events of September 11th, 2001, and myself, like everyone else, had no desire to watch football on the 16th.

    By September 23rd, everyone was yearning for the seeds of healing, and the first step was some sort of return to normalcy. 

    With the NFL's Week 2 rescheduled to year's end, the Steelers' opener against the Browns was displaced, and the Bengals had the honors of christening state-of-the-art Heinz Field. Cincy's Bengals "bungled," and the Steelers won their home opener, 16-7.

    In his second of two career years (the other was 1997), Kordell Stewart rekindled the electrifying style of play he had entertained millions of fans with years earlier.  By limiting his bad decisions, particularly turnovers, and using his arms and legs to rank among the finest passers in the 2001 NFL season, Kordell and the Steelers exploded back onto the NFL landscape. They reentered the championship discussion.

    The Steelers finished 13-3, and they were the odds-on favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXVI.

    With Stewart, Jerome Bettis, Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward, the offense helped engineer a rebirth of sorts, both for "Slash" and the Steelers. Yet, it was the defense that truly anchored Pittsburgh back to the status of an elite NFL team.

    The "Big, Nasty D" featured leading tackler Earl Holmes, Kendrell Bell, Chad Scott, Kimo von Oelhoffen, Joey Porter, Jason Gildon and all-star run-stuffer Aaron Smith.

    Chad Scott led the unit with five interceptions, resulting in a whopping 204 return yards and two touchdowns.

    However, the true surprise of the season was rookie Kendrell Bell, who electrified Steelers fans with nine of the team's 55 sacks. Jason Gildon led the onslaught on opposing passers with a dozen sacks.

    The return to contention was also marked with the rise of a new NFL rivalry.

    In 2001, the defending champion Baltimore Ravens and proud Pittsburgh Steelers— whose envy couldn't be denied, having come so close to the prize only to fall short—engaged in three savage contests. 

    Tensions escalated, as the Ravens' championship mettle and the Steelers' statistical dominance of the two regular-season games gave both teams a swagger they refused to yield.

    In Pittsburgh, the Steelers' first-ever home loss at Heinz Field saw four missed field goals from the foot of Kris Brown, a painful memory from a dominating Pittsburgh effort. Undeservedly, the Black and Gold fell, 13-10.

    Revenge would be sweet.

    A late-season game in Baltimore saw the Steelers clinch the AFC Central Division Championship. Kordell Stewart's picture-perfect pass to a streaking Bobby Shaw covered 90 yards, giving the Men of Steel a late lead, 19-7, and truly drawing the ire of the proud defending champs. 

    The two teams, having split the season series, would next meet in the playoffs. A war of words was waged.

    Eventually, as all word wars that are waged do, the battle took to the field and real football was played. Or should I say, real football was delivered by the Steelers and to the Ravens. 

    On his first throw (and the Ravens' first offensive play), Elvis Grbac (who was chosen to replace champion Trent Dilfer at quarterback in the offseason by Brian Billick) was hit, threw a duck and was intercepted. A tone was set. 

    The Steelers jumped out to a 20-0 lead. Turnovers accumulated on the purple side of the ball and the black and gold continued to capitalize. The Ravens eventually fought back, and a Jermaine Lewis punt return for a touchdown (special teams was the Steelers' bane in the early decade) cut the score to 20-10. That is when Plaxico "Plaxiglass" (according to Shannon Sharpe) Burress proved his "bend but not break" credentials, hauling in a late touchdown to draw the game to its final score of 27-10.

    In the divisional playoffs, the Steelers looked like champions.

    In the AFC Championship Game, they looked like the exact same team that surrendered the Lamar Hunt Trophy to John Elway's Broncos in January 1998.

    This time, they were heavily favored to defeat the upstart Tom Brady and the "Cinderella" Patriots. However, ill-timed turnovers and special teams gaffes ended a magnificent season, and the Steelers fell to the Boston bunch, 24-17.

    It was an incredibly disappointing ending to a wildly successful 2001 season.

    Sadly, instead of "One for the Thumb," the rise of Tom Brady was right around the corner.

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