Steelers fans around the globe knew Sunday January 21, 1979, was going to be a special day. Their Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys, the Steel Curtain and America’s Team, were meeting that afternoon in Super Bowl XIII at the Orange Bowl. That championship game held much promise for both teams laden with talent – 14 Hall of Fame members would eventually be inducted between them – as they scrapped for their third Lombardi Trophy.
I was a mechanical engineering student at West Virginia University. One of my housemates was a sophomore who had as guests a few sophomore friends from around the Pittsburgh area. We were primed to watch the Steelers. The keg of Genesee was on ice, a turkey was in the oven, the television was tuned to KDKA-TV’s pre-game, and the cocaine was lined out on a full-length mirror lying on the coffee table.
What those fans got was more than they were expecting. A 35 – 31 Steeler victory totaled 66 points, then a Super Bowl record, in an exciting game that was not decided until the final minute. The 1978 Dallas team lives through the frustration of being, then and now, the only Super Bowl team to score over 30 and lose. Small consolation.
Fortunately, I spent college nearly broke, preventing me from purchasing such expensive recreational street drugs. When I saw the sophomores roll up the nostril-sized Hamiltons and snort the powder, I quickly added up the money spent on the cocaine and proclaimed to myself that I had the better grip on the situation. They didn’t realize: one line buys a lot of beer.
The 13th Big Game featured an early big time Dallas defensive play for a score. Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass, fumbled, recovered the fumble, set up to pass again only to be sacked by Steelers fans second “favorite” Cowboy, “Hollywood” Henderson. Dallas’ Mike Hegman then stripped the ball from Bradshaw and rumbled in for the touchdown, giving the Cowboys a 14-7 lead.
For Steelers fans, it seemed to take an agonizing several minutes for the play to unfold in slow motion, and was only part of the struggles the NFL MVP would experience in the first half.
Toward the end of the first, the coke had time to cure in the brains of the sophomores. They convened in the living room and proceeded to get in a major tussle, as if four testosterone-stoked UFC fighters entered the cage and began bludgeoning each other.
Terry Bradshaw worked through a shaky start in the second quarter with a lot of help from John Stallworth. After catching a Bradshaw pass at the Pittsburgh 35, the fleet receiver broke a tackle and zipped downfield for the touchdown that tied the score at 14.
I sat back with my blue and gold WVU plastic cup of Genesee to watch a quartet of complete idiots bloody one another and destroy the two end tables we were renting from our landlord. There was no use saying anything; they were beyond reasoning. Interestingly, though, the sacred mirror was spared.
Bradshaw spotted Rocky Bleier in the end zone for a TD, with the big-armed quarterback closing out the first half after tallying three touchdown passes. That Terry found a way to get through the trials of the first two stanzas and get the lead says a lot for his mental courage. Or, as it’s often said, a great NFL quarterback possesses no short-term memory.
The turkey was served during halftime. It was a succulent bird, and was offered no mercy as the coke heads tore into it like the worst of foul-mannered fraternity boys. After their hunger was sated, another fight broke out, this time in the dining room. During the ruckus, the remaining turkey was stripped and flung throughout the house.
I quickly headed away from the bizarre display of boys gone crazy to watch the halftime show “Carnival Salute to Caribbean,” a ridiculous lesser of two evils.
It was difficult for either offense to mount any kind of drive in the third quarter until Tony Dorsett slashed downfield to get the Cowboys to the Steeler 10. From there, Roger Staubach threw to tight end Jackie Smith in the end zone. Smith reeled the ball in, then proceeded to let it slip from his fingers.
The infamous drop of a wide open, albeit low trajectory touchdown pass late in the third pasted an indelible mark on the 16-year Hall of Fame career of Jackie Smith. Pittsburgh’s faithful breathed a huge collective sigh of relief after the botch. Dallas fans, settling for a Rafael Septien chip shot to get within four, were left wondering if their team’s troubles with the black and gold had become a jinx.
I entered the fourth quarter happily holding onto my fifth pint. The coke, the rolled tens, and the raw noses appeared again, helping the crew get through the game’s end. The Greek derivation for “sophomore” is “wise fool.” Today, these boys left the wise part at the door.
Two more Genesees carried me with the incredible action of the fourth. Franco Harris popped through with an exciting and angry 22 yard touchdown run over “Hollywood.” Lynn Swann pulled down another one of his patented circus grabs. It was 35-17 and the Steelers sideline was celebrating.
Not so fast, I imagined Roger Staubach to say. Dallas unloaded most everything in their computer-generated playbook, including two onside kicks. One led to a 35-31 score. The final one was recovered by Rocky Bleier, setting Terry Bradshaw up to run out the clock.
As the game progressed, Dallas struggled to keep pace with the Steelers’ scores. Smith’s drop loomed darkly over the Cowboys’ chances. Ultimately, the four point difference between Smith’s potential touchdown and Cowboy kicker Rafael Septien’s field goal was the losing margin of the game.
One more thing about the Jackie Smith debacle: two Cowboys took full responsibility for the futility. The man who threw it, Roger Staubach, and Jackie Smith, described by Dallas radio play-by-play man Verne Lundquist as “the sickest man in America,” each unequivocally shouldered all the blame. Despite being bitter foes of the Pittsburgh franchise, we all have to agree that those two men represent by far the class of those who played throughout the history of the league.