Pittsburgh Steelers: The 5 Best Steelers Who Never Were
The annals of history shed a glowing luminescent light on the athletic heroes that define a franchise. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, names like Bradshaw, Greene, Bettis and Polamalu conjure warm feeling and a timeless sense of pride from within loyal fans who adore the gridiron greats whose heroic football feats have helped establish their favorite franchise among the NFL's best.
This article is not for the icons, though; it is for an entirely different group.
It's not designated for busts, either.
So who are these men who find their names on this countdown?
They are lost heroes. This handful of men wore the Black and Gold, whose talents made their potential for greatness limitless.
Yet, none of them truly established themselves as Steelers greats. In fact, none even came close.
Some found success elsewhere, while others had great starts to promising professional careers only to immediately fall flatter than an open soda can.
From a quarterback who overcame the controversies of his time to our "One for the Thumb" member of the countdown who left right at the precipice of becoming a legend, these guys make one word stand out to describe their place in Steelers history: Almost.
A few prerequisites considered were having put in playing time with the Steelers (hence-forewarning- no Unitas) and the demonstration of great skills either in the 'Burgh or thereafter.
These are the five potentially best Pittsburgh Steelers who never were; a collection of athletes who had all the promise of Steel City studs only to ultimately take a different path.
Honorable Mention: Steely McBeam
Meet Steely McBeam, the official (or "official," in the hearts of many fans) mascot of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A contest was held where fans could submit suggestions regarding the name of a new fabric fanatic for the franchise, and McBeam was selected from thousands of entries (an estimated 70,000 names were volunteered).
According to his Wikipedia entry, the name stems from the combination of a few central themes:
Steely is for Steel. Get it?
The common name prefix "Mc" stands for the Rooney family's Irish roots.
And Beam is inspired by the steel beams produced in Pittsburgh, as well as Jim Beam, the favorite drink of the nominator's husband.
The character causes one to ask how often the household miss helped herself to that liquor cabinet.
The apparent ill-conceived concept born of Bill Cowher, a construction worker, Muppet(s) and an overactive imagination,—or lack thereof—most fans cringe at seeing the burly creation. Years after his introduction, McBeam still struggled to garner any fan support, and in most conversations, Steelers fans have more than expressed embarrassment to me regarding the mascot.
Mascots are great for youngsters and do wonders to help teams with community outreach. The cloth creation is simply not regarded by most as Steelers worthy, however.
Somewhere Stevie Steeler is smiling, and thinking, "See?! Isn't so easy, huh?"
No. 5: Eric Green
Eric Green entered the NFL as the 21st selection in the 1990 NFL Entry Draft to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Ozzie Newsome continued to break the mold of the NFL tight end in Cleveland. This was after Kellen Winslow of San Diego had showcased the potential of a large, fast athlete dominating the position through the passing game.
Nevertheless, the hybrid blocker, pass-catcher and game-breaker at tight end was still relatively uncommon in the NFL, but Green brought this type of skill set to Pittsburgh.
Green was immediately stubborn, holding out of the team that drafted him due to the unique nature of his gifts and a self-perception of his worth.
He ultimately played in the 1990 season, scoring touchdowns on an anemic offense and causing the Steelers' selection to seem brilliant. Such a rare athlete was Green that he played at receiver and running back atop of his typical duties at tight end.
While Green continued to be productive, he missed six games due to suspension in 1992 after failing the NFL's drug policy.
After catching more than 60 passes for almost 1,000 yards in 1993, the athlete's egotistical ways overcame him again. Heading into a promising 1994 season, Green held out again, only to sign a short-term deal with Pittsburgh to set himself up nicely for free agency after the campaign.
The athlete with so much potential left Pittsburgh with his self-promotion and lack of focus overwhelming natural gifts that could have allowed the Steel City to have one of those timeless tight ends. But skill isn't everything, and a lack of work ethic would never have allowed Green and his immense talent to be in the rarefied air of a Gonzalez or Gates.
In fact, a year removed from leaving Pittsburgh, Jimmie Johnson and the Miami Dolphins released Green because of his lack of work ethic.
In the 'Burgh, 1,000-yard seasons for tight ends are not even considerations, but Green was able to come within a few catches of the feat during his career at Three Rivers Stadium. This was before Neil O'Donnell had found his passing groove (1995) and when the Steelers were known for "grounding and pounding."
Imagine what type of mold Green could have created for those succeeding him in the NFL ranks had he just worked. I can't imagine anything irritating the blue collar ethic of Western Pennsylvania more than an insistent self-promoter later fired for his laziness. Plenty of hardworking citizens could give Green a lesson in manners.
Thankfully, that next generation of great tight ends didn't take their cues from an underachieving athlete whose unprofessional ways caused his accomplishments in Pittsburgh to be largely forgotten.
Years later, a much more worthy Steeler would put on jersey No. 86.
No. 4: Joe Gilliam
The quote above came from Terry Bradshaw regarding the 1974 season. Prior to that campaign, the first championship entry in the Steelers' current stellar library of success, Pittsburgh had a quarterback controversy brewing.
Would Noll and company start the "Blonde Bomber" Bradshaw, or would they buck the trend and start the labelled "Black Quarterback" Joe Gilliam?
Ultimately, Gilliam took most snaps during exhibition (an undefeated preseason) and owned the starting job heading into the regular season. Bradshaw saw his strong arm, as did the rest of the team, and the Pittsburgh offense got off to a scorching start in 1974.
Gilliam was the African American quarterback of a great team, the field general of an improving franchise with the promise of greatness in his powerful right arm.
That greatness dwindled to mediocrity and, ultimately, the mediocrity shrivelled into shame.
We all know the story: The offense fizzled.
Had the unit sizzled, Gilliam may have been the leader of a dynasty. Who knows?
In any case, Bradshaw took over for the talented signal-caller and led Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles, throwing a fourth-quarter touchdown in all four contests.
So what happened to the trend-setting Gilliam? Where did that rocket arm head to? Was he there to back up Bradshaw in the case of emergencies?
Or did the cannon make its way to another NFL locker room?
By the end of 1975, the quarterback with so much promise was out of the National Football League. It may be unfair to speculate, but the pressures of the times and competition couldn't have been easy.
No excuses, though.
Gilliam slowly went downhill. From alcohol to drugs to homelessness, his was a case of seemingly having so much—then, nothing.
If a few things had gone differently, perhaps he'd have been on the back of a pickup, riding down the street with black and gold pieces of confetti landing on his shoulders. Maybe he'd have inspired even more young men to overcome odds and stigmas.
Maybe, just maybe—but not.
Gilliam brought notoriety and excitement to the Steel City in the early 1970s, but the promise of greatness faded.
No. 3: Mike Vrabel
Vrabel came to Pittsburgh from Ohio State as one of the finest defensive ends in the school's history. Becoming a Steeler after the 1997 NFL Draft, Vrabel was relegated to the ranks of backup, but it didn't take long for the selection to pay huge dividends in the Steel City.
After an exciting campaign in 1997, the Steelers and Patriots were in the midst of a defensive stalemate. Their divisional playoff affair saw Pittsburgh leading 7-6, and Drew Bledsoe's offense had control of the football in the game's closing seconds.
As the Pats secured a first down and continued to drive toward midfield, Vrabel's sack of Bledsoe ended the contest, securing a trip to the AFC Championship game for newly-appointed quarterback Kordell Stewart and the Steelers.
It would be Vrabel's most enduring moment in the Black and Gold.
For the NFL, Vrabel's abilities seemed more catered toward becoming a linebacker. While these intangibles are great assets at the professional level, it was the setting in Pittsburgh that held Vrabel back.
Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Levon Kirkland—a team steeped in the linebacker tradition was loaded at the position, a regularity that kept the former defensive end relegated to the role of backup.
From 1997-2000, Vrabel allegedly considered retirement, but the support of coaches and teammates kept the fire burning. In 2001, Mike left Pittsburgh to pursue starting prospects in New England.
It was a match made in heaven.
While the Steelers' organization saw Vrabel as a potential starter, it's debatable if they truly knew the type of larger impact he would have elsewhere. Perhaps otherwise Vrabel would have been among the starting ranks in the Steel City, along with his entrenched peers.
After acquiring 37 tackles, seven sacks and two turnovers in Pittsburgh, Vrabel went off in New England. He nearly doubled his career tackles his first season in Boston, peaking with 108 tackles in 2005.
In two separate seasons, Vrabel harassed quarterbacks and sacked more signal-callers than his entire stead in the Steel City. From 2001-2008, he finished with more than 700 tackles, 17 turnovers and and 50 sacks as a Patriot.
Additionally, the franchise took advantage of the linebacker's versatile athleticism, implementing him into their goal-line offense as an eligible receiver. In his career, Vrabel has 10 catches.
He has 10 touchdowns. Anyone questioning his actual versatility and true athleticism should forward the video to 3:30 and watch his toe tap in the back of the Lambeau Field end zone.
In reality, the talented defensive star rose to fame and acclaim that may have never been rightfully bestowed upon him in Pittsburgh. The former Steeler with his boatload of talent became a legendary Patriot, a timeless icon who helped define their playoff success and dynastic era.
In a city known for producing the greatest NFL linebackers, Vrabel was one of the great talents who got away, either for a lack of recognition or an overload of talent at the turn of the century. Either way, his heart, dedication and ability would have allowed him to blend into the great Steelers defensive tradition.
Simply, it wasn't to be in Pittsburgh.
No. 2: Kendrell Bell
While Mike Vrabel rose to stardom in New England, Kendrell Bell played his finest games with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Fewer cases in team history have seen such a fast rise to the top and sudden drop from the NFL ranks.
The "Bell" tolled in 2001 for Steelers opponents, a gong of doom summoning in one of the finest rookie defensive seasons in team history. Bell gathered 83 tackles and nine sacks, earning him the honor of AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.
His blitzing style and ferocity made him a fan favorite along the defensive front. Heading into 2002, the talk of the town revolved around the rise of a new-age Steel Curtain headed by the rapidly-rising Joey Porter and the young demon, Kendrell Bell.
After a disappointing AFC Championship game loss to New England to end their stellar 2001 campaign, the NFL scheduled a rematch to open up the Monday Night Football season in 2002. The trip to christen Gillette Stadium was an utter failure, a 30-14 shellacking at the hands of the Patriots (and their new linebacker, Mike Vrabel) that came at a deeper cost.
It was the first of many injuries Bell would suffer. After a return to the lineup weeks later, Bell's 2002 campaign paled to his rookie success, and a playoff knee injury would effectively end the year for the rising Pittsburgh star.
With 2003 came a return to form for Bell, who amassed 99 tackles. The following year saw another unfortunate knee injury, a brief return and yet another injury to the knee.
Despite two stellar campaigns that showcased the promise of a potential all-time Steel City great, Bell's injuries were significant, and the linebacker would never fully reach the height of talents he clearly possessed.
A true shame for a man who showcased such positive aggression in his first year, the linebacker attempted to rekindle his career in Kansas City. In three seasons with the Chiefs, Bell's accumulated stats with KC did not even equal those of his best season in the 'Burgh.
Injuries continued to mount, and the linebacker with timeless potential retired in 2007.
If he hadn't damaged that knee in 2002, who knows what heights Bell may have achieved on healthy ligaments?
Instead of potentially playing the twilight seasons of a stellar championship career as we speak, Bell is at home with the rest of us wondering what could have been and viewing the Roethlisberger era in high definition opposed to live action.
No. 1: Barry Foster
Playing the Madden NFL video game against a close friend years ago, I remember his habit of allowing kickoffs to bounce into the end zone, expecting the same touchback rules that apply to punts. With every new recovery for touchdowns, he would angrily toss the controller out of embarrassment.
Against the San Francisco 49ers in 1990, Chuck Noll had Barry Foster line up for a kick return.
Guess what happened?
Noll, due to a lack of trust in Foster, limited his touches for the rest of the campaign. An injury in 1992 kept Foster on the sidelines even longer.
The Steelers brought in Bill Cowher, and he saw potential in the running back that perhaps Noll did not fully realize, and "The Chin" made Foster the primary running back in the Steelers' offensive attack. Predicated on running the ball and controlling the clock, Foster's bruising season was perfect for the Pittsburgh offense, helping to catapult the Steelers from the NFL's lackluster to its elite.
With more than 1,600 yards and 11 touchdowns, Foster put together a career year in 1992. The Steelers finished 11-5, and despite an upsetting playoff loss against the Bills, the "Cowher Power" era started without a hitch. The team found its physical identity and rekindled the winning spirit Steelers Nation had grown accustomed to in years prior.
In that 1992 season, Foster set a team record with 12 games of at least 100 yards rushing, tying the all-time NFL mark for a single season.
To say Barry was considered among the best backs in football without using his last name could cause fans to confuse him with another great runner of the time. That said, Foster was certainly among the NFL's elite halfbacks, a key cog in a Steelers machine that returned to the playoffs in 1993.
Yet, the team stumbled from 6-3 to 9-7, largely due to an injury to the bruising runner. With more than 700 yards in nine games, Foster's season came to an end during a 23-0 blowout of the defending AFC champion Buffalo Bills.
Having been on pace for another great season, the Steelers entered 1994 with high hopes. Foster was returning healthy and had all the potential for another record-breaking season. The Steelers' defense was rapidly rising to the best in football, and they were dubbed "The Steel Trap," a new-age moniker for the dominant unit.
Despite a disappointing ending, the Steelers met expectations in 1994.
Foster ran for more than 800 yards in 11 games, limited due to injuries once again, but he was healthy for the playoffs. In a final triumphant performance, Foster ran for 133 yards in a 29-9 demolition of arch-rival Cleveland, the third win of the campaign by Pittsburgh over the Browns.
A week later, Steelers fans' final memories of the running back came without glory. Trailing 17-13, the final play of the game was an unsuccessful pass attempt to Foster in the end zone, knocked down by Dennis Gibson.
Steelers fans were shocked to see Foster leave for Carolina prior to the 1995 season. They must have been equally surprised when the expansion Panthers cut the running back after he failed the team physical. Foster would sign with the Bengals, but he retired before playing a game.
As quickly as his powerful running began, it was over. For three seasons, including one record-setting year, Foster ran the Steelers to victory. He was largely regarded as the team's best offensive weapon since Franco Harris.
But instead of continuing a promising career, fans hear Foster's name and often reply, "Oh yeah, I remember that guy!"
These are words that are not used for Steelers legends like Harris and Bettis.
With every opportunity to entrench himself as an all-time icon in a football hotbed, Foster retired young, leaving many to wonder what a glorious career he could have had with a bit more focus and long-term commitment to the organization that made him a brief household name.
For a flash, Foster infused a level of excitement into the Steel City it had been missing. Now, after a career that left everyone desiring more, there are only six words left to be said:
"Oh yeah, I remember that guy."