Pre-script: Given that most of the posts and articles now appearing on BTSC deal with either draft analysis, the remaining playoff games, or rants-and-raves against one aspect or another of the Steeler front office, coaching staff or roster, I thought I would offer something of an allegorical nature.
The Steelers are out of the playoffs and discussions and speculation have only just begun on what is seen by many as a major transitional year for the Steelers. The core of accomplished veterans who have helped make the Steelers one of the dominant teams of the 2000's finds it members nearing the ends of their illustrious careers, and questions over the competency of an offensive coordinator takes on increased rancor.
Like most of Steeler Nation, I find my January weekends bereft of meaningful football, and the only reason now to anticipate February is that it is one month closer to Spring. With so much unexpected free time on my hands, and with two of my boys graduating high school this year, I find myself reminiscing as I work with them on their applications to college. I look at them and remember what I was like at a similar stage in my life, which happened to coincide with the original Steeler Dynasty's final Super Bowl run and more specifically, the Steelers / Oilers AFC Championship game that I attended at Three Rivers Stadium on January 6, 1980.
The 1979 season began with the Steelers as the reigning Super Bowl champions, being the first team to ever win 3 Super Bowls, having defeated the Dallas Cowboys 35-31 in what many still consider one of the best Super Bowls ever played.
The first game was a narrow 16-13 victory over the New England Patriots, followed by a statement-making 38-7 victory at home against the Houston Oilers. The next three games against the St. Louis Cardinals, Baltimore Colts and Philadelphia Eagles were all decided by three points, with the Steelers winning two out of the three, their first loss of the season occurring in Philadelphia. The 4-1 Steelers then traveled to Cleveland where they got into a high scoring contest with the Browns, ultimately prevailing 51-35 after leading the Browns 21-0 in the first quarter. An apparently exhausted team then lost its second game of the season, falling to the Bengals 34-10, managing to score its sole touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Steelers would win their next 4 games by an average of 26 points, including a Monday Night game against the Denver Broncos which the Steelers won 42-7. Now 9-2, the Steelers proceeded to lose to the San Diego Chargers by a score of 35-7, and then barely hold off the Browns in their second game of that series, 33-30. From there, the Steelers finished out the season with only one additional loss, to the Oilers in Week 15, ending the season with a shut-out of the Buffalo Bills, 28-0.
At 12-4, the Steelers once again finished atop their division, winning it for the sixth year in a row, and for the seventh time in the decade of the 70's. There were 10 Pro Bowlers on the 1979 Steelers, with six players being voted AP All-Pro (this was back when both designations actually meant something). The AFC Championship game was to be a grudge match, the Oilers having been denied a trip to the Super Bowl in 1978 by the same Steelers, leading Head Coach Bum Phillips to complain that "...the road to the Super Bowl goes through Pittsburgh". The Oilers were also talented, with Earl Campbell the NFL rushing leader, Offensive Player of the Year, and NFL MVP. Mike Reinfeldt led the league in interceptions, with 12 picks.
My mom gave me two tickets to the game as an early high school graduation present. I invited my friend, Sheep to go with me. His real name was Ray, but with a head full of naturally blondish white hair the texture of lamb's wool, it was an obvious nickname. Sheep was two years ahead of me in high school and one of the most gifted athletes I've ever known, lettering in baseball, basketball and football; an example of his athletic prowess was once, on a dare, after he had a full day of football practice, and while still in full uniform, pads and helmet, he raced our cross-country team over the entire 3.2 mile course, and handily beat every one of us, including our all-county runners.
I met Sheep in 1978 at the local steakhouse, where we both worked on the grill line. It became a routine for us to agree to work Saturday mornings in exchange for Friday night's off, so the two of us could buy a case of beer, a bottle of schnapps, and a pint of cheap brandy, and I would drive us all over Beaver County to high school football or basketball games to watch the teams Sheep had played against two years before. Initially the friendship was based upon the fact that I had a car; as gifted an athlete as he was, inexplicably, Sheep could not handle driving. However, over time he and I became friends, sharing an enjoyment of sports, hell-raising, and a mutual desire to see the world.
Sheep was not ambitious; he was content to find work where he could, like the majority of Pittsburghers in 1979, clinging to the same hopes of generations past that there would always be work available for an honest man not afraid to get his hands dirty. He wanted to travel, but wasn't concerned over material things; he toyed with the common avenue of escape, the military, but he didn't think he would react well to military authority. Sheep wasn't interested in school, his presence in a class room occurred only because his coaches forced him to be there. But he was a gentle soul, who surprisingly knew more about the world beyond Pittsburgh than one would suspect from someone who was never seen with a book in his hand.
We got to Three Rivers just in time for the kick-off. The temperature was barely in the low 20's, with a light but steady wind. In our seats at the very top of Three Rivers, the wind chill was bitter. I don't remember much of the game, as we were well supplied with toddies from several leather flasks full of hot apple cider and Jack Daniels we had snuck in under our coats, as well as drinks traded for with the other screaming, Terrible Towel waving lunatics perched so high above the field with us. The one thing I do remember clearly was the disputed non-touchdown catch of Mike Renfro; our seats were directly in line with the corner of the end zone where that infamous play took place. We were sure, as Steeler fans, that Renfro had stepped out of bounds; review of the game film afterwards reveled a blown call, but by then it was too late as the Steelers had won 27-13, and were on their way to what was to become their record fourth Super Bowl title in six years.
In the 1980 season, the Steelers finished third in their division with a 9-7 record, two games out of contention for a wild card spot. 1981 was worse; although finishing second in their division, at 8-8 they were again two games out of contention for a wild card spot. From 1982, a strike shortened season during which the Steelers managed to finish fourth, making the playoffs but losing in the first round to the San Diego Chargers, through 1984 when they lost the AFC Championship game to the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers were still relevant, but only a shadow of what they once were. After 1984, the Steelers would have only one winning season until 1989, when they made it to the Divisional playoff game, losing to the Denver Broncos. Super Bowl XIV was to become the last one the Steelers would be in for fifteen long years.
The Dynasty of the 70's was aging. By 1983, three short year after winning it all, 16 of the original 24 starters from the 1979 championship team (including kicker and punter) had left the team, either to play elsewhere, or as Coach Chuck Noll would say: "to seek their life's work". Bradshaw, Harris, Blount, Swann and Ham were gone; half of the remaining original Steel Curtain, L.C. Greenwood and Joe Greene were gone, as were Kolb, Grossman, Anderson, Davis, Mullins and Bleier; over two thirds of the team that had participated in the last Super Bowl played, would no longer be part of the Steelers, and the core players who made up the "Team of the 70's", its heart and soul, were no more.
In the summer of 1980, I graduated high school with an acceptance letter from the University of Richmond in my pocket. It was the typical summer before college, with me working as many hours as I could, hanging out with friends, trying to both hold on to what was familiar, and looking forward to starting the next stage of my life with excitement, and a little trepidation. Sheep and I hung out regularly, but there was a discernible change in our friendship; no longer was I just a drinking buddy, but someone that he could live vicariously through, not just my impending college life, but how the world looked through the eyes of someone getting out of the Pittsburgh area. Sheep was more aware of what was going to happen to our friendship than I was; he knew that once I left for school, I would never really ever come back, even if I did physically move back to the area. We talked about this, sometimes at length, and I sensed that he hoped I would maintain contact, and I naively assured him nothing would change, that I'd stay in touch and when back home on breaks, everything would be the same.
The Steelers had opened their season with wins against the Oilers and Colts, on their way to their ignominious 9-7 season. I became engrossed in college activities, sports, fraternities, and (somewhat) my education. Because I started school before the 1980 football season began, and being in Richmond, where the only football that got covered with detail involved either the Washington Redskins, or the Richmond Spiders, I never really got involved in the Steelers' progress , and lamentably I found other things to take their place as the team drifted further away from my awareness.
It was a weekend in September, I don't remember which one. Coming back from the dining hall, I found a note on my door from the Dean's office advising me to call home immediately. My mom answered the phone on the first ring, and informed me that Sheep had died. Apparently he was driving back from a Pirates game late at night with some friends, a week or so previous and lost control of his car on one of the many bridges surrounding Pittsburgh. His car flipped off the bridge, onto a roadway below. There were no survivors. She apologized for informing me too late for me to attend the funeral services, but she knew he was a good friend and called me as soon as she heard the news.
I spent the rest of that day under a tree by the lake in the center of campus, numb and not knowing what to feel. I naively thought I could always go home and nothing there would be changed; my folks would be there, and so would most of my friends. I was counting on the people from my old life remaining the same to provide me a basis of stability with which to help me handle all the changes I was undertaking. I understood that I was the one to leave them, that I wanted different things; I never considered that everything I counted on remaining the same, wouldn't.
I mourned Ray's passing alone that day, and would come to appreciate his prescience in how my life would change; my trips home from school became less that of the "return of the conquering hero" that I had imagined, to a more melancholy effort to forge new relationships with my old friends, for they had transitioned into stereotypical adulthood, getting married, having kids, maturing, while I was still in school, still partially sheltered from the real world of mortgages, unemployment, children. I would come to achieve the same things my friends had done, albeit several years later; I eventually too would became an adult. That gulf of time however, even more so than the geographical distance, forever separated us from what we had once been together.
The affect of time is also seen with today's Steelers. The 2012 Steelers face many crucial decisions, from potential coaching changes to hard choices about many of the men who have created a 21st century Steeler success story. The team has 11 unrestricted free agents like Gay, Madison, Cotchery and Moore, Starks and Essex, and another seven restricted free agents such as Wallace, Foster, Legursky, Lewis and Mundy. Then there are those players facing injury or age issues: Smith, (IR), Hoke (IR), Hampton injured in the Denver game, Mendenhall , injured in the final regular season game against Cleveland. Ward, Farrior, Foote, and Colon all facing questions about the level of play at which they can continue to perform, as age and physical wear and tear inexorably over take them. Decisions will have to be made on the basis of performance capabilities, salary cap issues, and, given the Rooney way, honor and respect for individuals who have embodied what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler.
The team that we suffered with during our unsuccessful attempts to get past the Patriots in the early 2000's grew and improved to become the team that carried us to Super Bowl victory in 2005, 2008, and, almost, in 2010, but now finds itself at a crossroads that we faced initially at the end of the 2010 season; we have a core of players who brought us this far - how many of them do we stick with, and who needs to move on to seek "their life's work"? What happened this past season indicates that the core has weakened, there are faults in the bedrock, that the mantle of responsibility needs to be passed on, and the next generation of Steelers is now called upon to uphold the tradition of success so admirably tended to by the previous ones, stemming back to that last great effort of the original Steeler Dynasty in 1979.
The 2012 PaVaSteeler family is facing major transitions as well. Soon, I will no longer have under my roof the little ones who used to race into my arms screaming with glee as I threw them as high as I could into the air, their eyes filled with trusting love that I will always be there on their return. Soon I'll have to watch these young men as they leave my arms again, this time walking away to their dorms and life away from my protection, my control, moving on to their "life's work", but hopefully turning back to give me one last smile, and I pray they will see in my eyes the same trusting love that they too, will always be there, that they will always return.