BTSC writers are collaborating on a series highlighting their favorite memories involving Steelers games. Whether these are wins or losses, in this decade or the last, Steelers games mean something different to everyone. Here is an installment in that series. - nc
Unless you are a season ticket holder, and perhaps even if you are, attending a Steelers playoff game can be a pretty special event. I consider myself fortunate to be able to count as one of my life memories a divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Colts in 1976.
The opportunity was a surprise on a number of different levels. First of all, no one was expecting the Steelers to make the playoffs that year. Most had written them off after a horrendous 1-4 start and the loss of quarterback Terry Bradshaw for most of the year after Cleveland Brown defensive end Joe ‘
The circumstances of the team’s comeback had a particular benefit for me as well. I had been living in
On a mild, sunny, Sunday morning, I made the two hour drive down I-95 to
Our seats were near the 50 yard line directly behind the Colts’ bench. So close, in fact, that we had to stand throughout the game just to see over the heads of the players at the action on the field. The perspective was one I had never experienced before and it deeply enriched how I viewed and understood the game.
The Steelers broke the huddle and lined up for their first play. Everyone in the stadium, and I suspect, watching on national television knew what was coming next. Steeler football. Franco to the right, or Franco up the middle, or Franco to the left, right? What actually happened seemed like a scene from a bad football movie. Bradshaw gave a play action fake and set up to pass. Although football is generally speaking, a very telegenic game, there are certain advantages to watching a game at the stadium. You can often see a play unfold in a manner that the restricted focus of a television set does not reveal. And what was unfolding at that moment in Memorial Stadium caused Colts fans to gasp in horror as Steelers fans watched in giddy disbelief. Wide receiver Frank Lewis was fleeing down the near sideline at least ten yards beyond the nearest Colt defender. Lewis was the Mike Wallace of his day; the Grambling wide out was the fastest player on the team. This is why it seemed like something out of a bad football movie, because in real life nobody ever gets that open. Bradshaw lofted a perfect pass that caught Lewis in stride. At that point it looked like a touch football game played in the backyard when you catch a pass over your eight year old cousin. Lewis, who could not have been caught if he had just a step on a defender, romped to the end zone, rotating the ball around his waist in celebration every step of the way. The competitive phase of the game was over.
However, the Steelers were in no way finished with punishing the Colts. Someone once described watching the 70s Steel Curtain defense like being at the circus when the bears were loose. The
The final score was 41-14, and believe me the game was not nearly that close. In fact, I’m at a loss to remember how the Colts managed those two touchdowns. I am one of those who believe that this particular Steelers team was the greatest that the franchise has ever fielded. How could that be if they never earned a Lombardi? In spite of the absolute dominance exhibited in this game, the seeds of tragedy were sown that afternoon. Late in the game, Franco would suffer a rib injury. We were unaware then, but neither Franco nor Rocky would be available for the conference championship game the following week. With a backfield consisting of Bradshaw and Frenchy Fuqua,
Is tragic too strong a term? A little context might help. As difficult as it might be to believe, the defending world champs went into the playoffs being viewed as a Cinderella team, so amazing and heroic was their comeback during the season. They were on the brink of being the first team to win three Super Bowls and to do so consecutively. But, not only did they lose, they lost to the Raiders.
Let me explain something to younger readers or to those who are relatively new to following this team. We have some pretty potent rivalries that are ongoing. I dislike the Ravens. I dislike the Patriots. And I don’t have much use for the
Nor was this just about a bunch of bullies brawling in some back alley. For five consecutive years these two teams met in the playoffs beginning with the Immaculate Reception Game. In three of those five games the winner went on to be World Champion. The only good thing about this was the fact that the two communities were separated by thousands of miles, therefore civilian casualties were kept to a minimum.
A final note on the Colt playoff game. It was around sunset when we started walking back from the stadium. After walking a couple of blocks we had to dodge fire engines rushing back toward the stadium. This being in the pre cell phone era, we were unaware of what transpired until we were able to get in front of a television set some time later. A small airplane crashed into the upper deck of Memorial Stadium not long after the conclusion of the game. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.