Like many Steelers fans, I’ve pretty much been a Steelers fan since birth—born into citizenship in Steelers’ Nation.
But, my first memories as a Steelers fan date back to about 1977, when I was five years old. The first game I have vivid memories of watching is the 1980 Super Bowl.
So, most of my favorite Steelers are from the last twenty-five years. But a couple of the '70s greats still crack the list.
While I started out intending to do a top ten list, I just couldn’t do it. I was not willing to leave any of the top thirteen players off the list. So, I expanded.
Of course, you can’t have a Top 13 list, so I added one more, which also gave me a chance to sneak an offensive lineman onto my list.
Even at fourteen, it meant that current players like James Farrior, James Harrison, Aaron Smith, and Ike Taylor didn’t make the cut, even though they are fantastic players.
It also meant that several Hall of Famers from the 1970s didn’t crack the list as well as some of my favorites from the '90s like Carnell Lake and Leon Searcy. Even with five linebackers on the list, plenty of greats like Chad Brown, Jason Gilden, and Joey Porter were left off. There simply wasn’t room to add any more.
If I had been born ten years earlier, the list would likely look quite a bit different. I can’t imagine a Steelers fan born in the mid-60s would leave Terry Bradshaw or Franco Harris off the list.
So, let me know how this list compares to yours. Who would you have put in those top spots?
Like many Steelers fans, I’ve pretty much been a Steelers fan since birth—born into citizenship in Steelers’ Nation.
From 1976 until 2000, the Steelers had all of two starting centers. “Iron” Mike Webster turned the reins over to Dawson in 1989. They actually played together on that line for one year when Dawson was a rookie in 1988.
That longevity at the center position is nothing short of incredible and was a real point of pride for Steelers Nation.
The Steelers changed their coaches about as often as they changed their centers, which was close to never. That is probably one of the reasons so many Steelers' fans were so high on Alex Mack before the draft—hoping to regain that great center legacy.
Like Troy Polamalu, Dawson had an incredibly friendly and easy manner about him off the field, but would transform into something entirely different on it. He was an absolute mauler who would blow guys off the line of scrimmage, opening holes in the running game.
Dawson was incredibly consistent and more durable than steel, being named to seven straight Pro Bowls while playing in 171 consecutive games. That’s almost eleven straight years (playing on the offensive line, crashing into defenders on every offensive snap) without missing a game. He played on all of those great Steelers teams of the 1990s.
Dawson has been a finalist for the Hall of Fame every year since he first became eligible in 2005 and stands a fair chance of making it in the future. He deserves it.
Greene looked like a studio wrestler on a bad hair day. But, he was part of one of the all-time greatest linebacking corps, teaming up with Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, and Chad Brown for a couple seasons.
He was a well-established player long before he became a Steeler and continued his superb career in Carolina long after he left the Steelers. Not unlike Jerome Bettis, he put up huge numbers for the Rams before signing with the Steelers. He sparked a defensive renaissance in Carolina when he went there following his few short years in Glory Land.
While he was only a Steeler for three years, he was fun to watch while it lasted.
Looking at his career, he was arguably one of the greatest impact defensive players in the history of the league. He played in 228 games over a 15-year career, twice leading the NFL in sacks while leading his team in sacks 11 times. He also played in six conference championship games.
No linebacker in the history of the league sacked the quarterback more times than Kevin Greene’s 160. He was successful as a rusher both as a 3-4 and a 4-3 linebacker, which is also impressive.
Jack Splat is the enduring image of the '70s Steelers with his signature gap-toothed growl. He was as mean as a Grizzly Bear on the field—the intimidator in the middle of that storied defense.
Lambert was also the first in a long line of hyper-intense linebackers who have played for the black and gold, a tradition kept alive in the likes of Greg Lloyd and James Harrison. He started for 11 seasons, averaging a mind boggling 146 tackles per year over most of that time.
When the Steelers’ offensive firepower all went down to injury in 1976, resulting in a 1-4 start, Lambert challenged the defense to carry the team on its shoulders. The result was arguably the greatest defense in the history of the NFL, even though they didn’t win the Super Bowl that year. Lambert was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and eight of the Steelers defenders off that squad went to the Pro Bowl. The squad simply did not allow other teams to score any points, giving up all of two touchdowns during a nine game stretch in which they recorded five shutouts.
For many Steelers fans, Lambert is still the enduring image of Steelers football. On Super Bowl Sunday, I pulled out my Jack Lambert throwback jersey to wear while watching the game.
Big Casey was a critical piece in the two recent Super Bowl runs. He was the monster in the middle, the unmovable force of nature. Almost nobody has been able to successfully run on the Steelers’ defense since Casey came to town, and he is a big reason for that. When a team has to throw two blockers at him if it wants any chance of pushing him off the line in the middle, it frees other defenders to run free and make plays.
And what isn’t there to love about watching a guy that is about the size of a small planet running down the line to bury a ball carrier?
Hampton is also a likable guy—someone who really seems to love playing for the Steelers. A nose tackle in a 3-4 defense will never get the glory, but their importance is nearly unmatched.
I think part of the reason that we like Heath Miller so much is because the Steelers have never really had a great tight end before. Even the storied '70s squads had pedestrian tight ends. And, while Mark Bruener was an excellent blocker, he didn’t bring much to the passing game.
Miller is both a great blocker and a superb pass catcher. I did the happy dance when he slid to the Steelers late in the first round. And as good as he has been so far, I think he is one of the players that may really have an incredible season next year. He really seemed to be in sync with Ben Roethlisberger more and more as the season progressed.
And you got to like a player named “Heath,” especially when you all get to yell his name whenever he catches a ball.
Swann is the second and last member of the '70s squad to make the list. He was the very picture of grace and agility—a human highlight reel. He would sail into the air over defenders to make awe inspiring catches. And he had a knack for having his biggest games when it mattered most—the Super Bowls. He was a one-man Cowboy killer.
Like many Pittsburghers who were kids in the '70s, I wanted to grow up and be like Swann. The fact that I had about a two-inch vertical, hands of stone, and about a seven second forty yard dash time got in the way of that dream. I learned that when an elementary school teacher looks you in the eye with a saccharine smile on her face and tells you that you can be anything you want when you grow up, she is lying through her teeth.
Lloyd is the third linebacker to check in on this list. I had a chance to go to several games in the 1990s. I was always fascinated watching Greg Lloyd before the game when he would stalk back and forth on the sideline like a caged beast. I would watch his routine and then look up at the prominent “Avoid Lloyd” sign hanging in Three Rivers Stadium and think, “Yeah…good advice.” Hard to believe that he was a sixth round draft pick, joining the Steelers in the same year as Rod Woodson.
The guy had legs that looked like tree trunks. Lloyd was the fiery leader of what may have been the greatest linebacking corps in the history of the game. No less than Dan Rooney indicated that he thought Lloyd was one of the greatest linebackers ever to play the game.
Lloyd took some hits from the media because of his temper and generally nasty disposition. But, it was that nasty disposition that made him such a special player. He was probably the most feared Steeler to wear black and gold since Jack Lambert took the field.
Wow, there sure are a lot of linebackers on this list. The Steelers’ tradition at linebacker is incredible. They’ve produced one top linebacker after another, and Woodley is the latest of them.
While Steelers’ Nation can’t wait to see how fellow draftee Lawrence Timmons does in his first year as a starter, Woodley has already established himself as one of the top outside linebackers in the league. He has notched eight sacks in four playoff games so far at a torrid pace.
Like James Harrison, Woodley gets held on almost every play, although it is almost never called. It is as if the referees have decided that it just isn’t fair that offensive linemen need to figure out how to block these guys, so they don’t throw the flags.
Woodley is not the equal of Harrison yet, but he is well on his way. With this guy, the sky is the limit.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player that has quite as contrasting personalities on and off the field as Troy. Off the field, he is the nicest guy in the world—a man of deep faith who never has a bad word to say about anyone. On the field, he is a terror, making bone jarring hits and running around the field like a wild man.
Polamalu is redefining the safety position. At times, he plays like a fifth linebacker. Other times, he plays like a cornerback. He is versatile, smart and very good.
He is one of those rare defenders that offenses need to account for on every play. Failure to do so has dire results.
I don’t think I appreciated Rod Woodson as much as I should have until after he left. For the Steelers, Hot Rod was both a great cornerback and a great return man. He was an electrifying player and one of the best cornerbacks ever to play the position. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest players of all time, making nearly every top-100 list. He also had a knack for finding the end zone, returning twelve interceptions. He transformed into an offensive playmaker the moment he intercepted the ball, returning twelve of his 71 interceptions to the end zone and piling up 1,483 yards after making interceptions. He recorded 17 touchdowns in his storied career. His best days came as a Steeler so it was fitting that he went into the Hall of Fame as a Steeler.
The Steelers struggled to find good cornerbacks after the departure of Woodson. Rod Woodson loved the city of Pittsburgh and adopted it as his own. While most of us (perhaps even all of us) in Steelers Nation generally despise the Ravens, I was glad to see Rod Woodson get a Super Bowl ring, even if it was while playing for the carrion-eating flying rats.
The Bus was a fixture at running back for what seemed like forever, and we loved watching him run over defenders. One of my favorite memories was watching him run over Brian Urlacher on his way to the endzone.
Hard to believe that the only reason the Steelers got Bettis was because the St. Louis Rams were enamored with Lawrence Phillips and decided to draft him. That has to rank right up there among the stupidest all-time decisions—shipping off a Hall of Fame running back at the beginning of his career so the team could draft a criminal. The Bus had what may have been the greatest ending to a career in the history of the league, winning a Super Bowl in front of his hometown.
Funny story: A couple years before Bettis retired, I was visiting family and friends in Pittsburgh. One night, I was out to dinner with some friends at a local restaurant…Eat N’ Park, I think. We were talking about the Steelers, which was not unusual. I was opining that Bettis’ best days were behind him and that it was time for him to retire, perhaps a little too loudly. One of my friends, sitting across the table from me, nodded behind me and told me I might want to cut the Bettis-is-over-the-hill talk. I turned around and there was the big guy sitting at a nearby table waiting on take out. I decided the rest of that discussion could wait for another day. Although, I did notice that despite the larger than life running back being in the restaurant, nobody bothered him. I always like that about Steelers’ fans. We may be fanatical but, by and large, we respect the privacy of the players.
I used to love watching Kirkland play football. He was an absolute mountain as an inside linebacker, approaching 300 pounds despite standing only 6’1”. Yet, he was fast and plenty agile. I’m not sure there has ever been a 300-pounder who could cover as well as Kirkland. I remember watching him running down the field stuck like glue to Shannon Sharpe. When the Steelers went to their nickel after Greg Lloyd was lost to injury in 1996, it was Kirkland who stayed on the field. He made four interceptions that year.
Nobody could run up the middle with big Levon prowling the middle of the field. Kirkland could do it all; erase an opponent’s running game, cover, intercept passes, and get to the quarterback. He may be one of the most underrated players ever to play the game because he broke the mold. Nobody looking at him could picture him playing linebacker the way he did. Emmitt Smith got to know him plenty well in their Super Bowl match up. He spent much of that Super Bowl stuck in neutral in large part because of Levon and his ten tackles. Kirkland also dumped Troy Aikman unceremoniously on his back with a key sack.
Kirkland never got the acclaim of his more theatrical linebacker mates, but he was the best of the bunch. His rock solid dependability in the center of the defense gave the Steelers the freedom to wreck havoc with some of the other outside linebackers, like Lloyd, Kevin Greene and Chad Brown.
Levon Kirkland became a salary cap casualty before the 2001 season. But, he will always be one of my favorite all-time Steelers.
I believe Roethlisberger will one day be remembered as the greatest quarterback to ever play for the Steelers. He is an absolute clutch performer—the kind of guy you want leading your team with the game on the line. Think about all the memories he has already given us at the age of 27. We’ve had the rookie win streak, the tackle, the block, and the drive. I’m curious to see what he does for an encore, as he is only now entering into his quarterback prime.
One of the most important moments in Steelers’ history was the 2004 draft when team after team passed on Roethlisberger. I couldn’t believe we got him. Since then, he has become one of my all-time favorite players.
Roethlisberger is an innovator, playing what he calls backyard football. Terrell Suggs advised teams not to rush him because you are playing into his hands. He likes to be chased around and make plays, and nobody does it better. Maybe that is the real reason why the Steelers’ offensive line looks so porous at times. They are just helping their quarterback out.
Nobody epitomizes Steelers football more than Hines Ward and that is all the more remarkable since he plays wide receiver. I’ve got a feeling that thirty years from now, I’ll be telling my grandkids about the little wide receiver who played for the Steelers and terrorized the linebackers and safeties of the league.
No player has meant more to his team throughout his career than Hines Ward. He never takes a play off and might be the best blocking WR in NFL history. His passion for the game inspires all his teammates to excellence.
He is a high character guy who has helped create great locker room chemistry for a team he has helped capture two SB rings with, one as the MVP. He epitomizes the team-first player and perfectly captures what Steelers football is all about. His love of the game is unmatched as he flashes his signature grin throughout each game—that grin that Steelers' fans love and Ravens' fans hate.
I live in Korea at the moment. Whenever I wear Steelers' clothes around the country, it always makes me laugh when Koreans come up to me with big smiles on their face and say "Hines Ward!" as they flash the thumbs up sign. They may know absolutely nothing else about football, but they know Hines Ward. He is something of a celebrity here.
Ward holds most of the wide receiving records in Steelers' franchise history, one that included Swann and John Stallworth. Quite simply, he is the best wide receiver ever to wear the black and gold.
Playing on teams emphasizing the run, Ward never complained. He simply became the best blocking WR in the game—a guy so good at it that it has completely thrown other teams off their game. He's so gotten into the heads of the Baltimore Ravens after leveling their stars (Ed Reed, Bart Scott, etc.), that they've lost focus on the game. When playing against Ward, you better keep your head on a swivel.
He has made the key blocks repeatedly on big Steelers' runs. And he has been Ben Roethlisberger's absolute go to guy on third downs, allowing the Steelers to control the clock.
He has also made the players around him better, mentoring guys like Santonio Holmes. Too bad Plaxico Burress didn't pay better attention. For all of these reasons, Ward tops my list. There has never been a player quite like him who has worn the Black and Gold.