Mr. Friedman is back with the next installment of his 'One Sunday In...' series. Just like the first four posts in the series, this one is excellent and brings back great memories. -Michael B. -
One Sunday In September
For the first 39 seasons of their existence the Pittsburgh Steelers were perennial losers. Our Steelers had played 39 seasons without even a Kewpie Doll to show for their efforts. The trophy case was barren. The Steelers were sad sack. They were the Washington Generals to the NFL Harlem Globetrotters. They were the NFL version of the '62 Mets except the losing went on for 39 years. In 1969 the Mets became Amazin' while the Steelers hired young Chuck Noll, a Paul Brown & Don Shula disciple. While the attitude began to change and the roster began to change the record did not. Amazing Steelers was still off in the not too distant future. The Steelers finished 1-13 in Noll's inaugural season and followed that up with a more respectable 6-8 in 1971. The franchise was without any hardware in the trophy case but had the playoffs on the horizon. The pieces of the puzzle were being added by Noll and Dan Rooney. Joe Greene had been drafted in 1969 and Terry Bradshaw in 1970. Frank Lewis, Jack Ham, Mel Blount and Dwight White were added in the 71 draft. In 1972 the Pittsburgh Steelers added perhaps the most important piece to the playoff puzzle when they drafted Penn State's Franco Harris in the 1st round. This would allow the Steelers to eventually run the ball consistently and not depend on journeymen Preston Pearson (future Cowboy in X) or John Fuqua (see Immaculate Reception) August soon turned to September in Pittsburgh. There was no Italian Army, no Towels, Gorilla's or Polka's. But those of us around Pittsburgh at the time were starting to have a feeling. As the Steelers broke training camp in Latrobe PA they were prepared to turn 40 years around starting one Sunday in September.
On September 17 1972 the Pittsburgh Steelers opened up their season against the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. The Steelers roster had gone through a transformation since Chuck Noll's arrival on that regal day in 1969. The defensive team that took the field for Pittsburgh that Sunday featured Mike Wagner, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Joe Greene, LC Greenwood and Dwight White. Rookie Franco Harris lined up behind an offensive line featuring Jon Kolb, Gerry Mullins, "Ranger" Ray Mansfield at Center and all pro guard Bruce Van Dyke. Rookie Frank Lewis was teamed with speedster Ron Shanklin at WR. Big TE John McMakin would be a favorite target of young QB Terry Bradshaw. The Steelers were ready to right 39 years of wrong.
The mighty Raiders struggled that day against an up and coming ferocious Steelers defense. It was if the Steelers defense had dropped a curtain on the Raiders. Coach John Madden started the game with inexperienced Kenny Stabler taking snaps at QB alternating with ageless kicker George Blanda. The young Steelers came out firing on all cylinders. Early in the first quarter Steelers starting middle line backer (Jack Lambert was still trying to get on the field at Kent State) Henry Davis blocked a Jerry DePoyster punt and chased it down in the end zone for a 7-0 Steelers lead. Later in the first quarter Terry Bradshaw eluding a Raider rush, took off and scrambled for a 20 yard TD run. The Steelers had a 17-7 lead at the half and were relentless.
The Steelers were controlling the ball and the clock. In what would become a blueprint for Steeler victory after Steeler victory for decades, the Steelers ran for over 100 yards and threw the ball little. A wide receiver made a big play and the QB made mistakes but alternated running for clutch first downs with passing to his tight end when in danger. Dominating the 3rd quarter action, Roy Gerela kicked another field goal and Terry Bradshaw ran for another TD and the Steelers entered the 4th quarter cruising with a 27-7 lead.
On this day in history Steeler Nation was still a ‘Burgh. The famous good luck charm "Terrible Towel" was still a yellow dish towel in Myron Cope's kitchen. While the Steelers had yet to taste success they were laying the foundation and Three Rivers Stadium was ecstatic on this one Sunday in September 1972. Oakland's tough defense had stifled rookie Franco Harris (10 carries 28 yards) but Preston Pearson had a respectable day (18 carries 54 yards) and young athletic QB Terry Bradshaw had run for 49 yards and 2 TDs despite 3 INTs. Staring at a blow out, Raider coach John Madden turned to his "fireman" Darryl Lamonica in the 4th quarter. In a prevent defense momentum shifted. It was suddenly bombs away for Oakland's "Mad Bomber." He hit WR Mike Siani with a 24 yard TD pass. Bradshaw was unimpressed. The Steelers own "Blonde Bomber" (he still had hair) wound up and threw 57 yards to Ron Shanklin for a TD on his only catch of the day. It was a big play and the Steelers regained the big lead at 34-14. Back came Oakland. Don Highsmith would run for a short Oakland TD and after holding Bradshaw and the Steelers conservative offense the "Mad Bomber" hit Mike Siani for 70 yards and a score. Late in the 4th quarter the Raiders had trimmed a 20 point lead down to 6 at 34-28.
Historically this was when the Steelers folded if they hadn't already. Thus the mantra "Same Old Steelers" rang out throughout the Steel City in days gone by. On this Sunday in September it was no longer "Same Old Steelers" who had perennially found a way to lose their way. Chuck Beatty (a 7th round draft pick and teammate of Joe Greene at North Texas State) pulled in his second INT and when added to Jack Ham's INT the Steelers had picked off 3 Raider QBs 3 times. The defense came to the rescue and the Steelers were able to hang on for a 34-28 win and a 1-0 record.
This Sunday springboard sent the Steelers on a path to an 11-3 1972 record and the first "real" playoff game in the team's history later in December. That playoff game would be a rematch of this first Sunday in September. This Sunday in September gave the Steelers the confidence they would need later to battle the Raiders into the final seconds of a December playoff rematch. On that Sunday, the Italian Army had mobilized and Franco Harris plucked the pigskin out of the sky and ran to immaculate glory. This first NFL Sunday in September 1972 would be the starting point of a dynasty. It was one small step for the Pittsburgh Steelers and one giant leap for the Steeler Nation.