In 1976 Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons released a song call "Oh What a Night - Late December Back in '63." It was number one on the charts for three weeks, but I hated that song for what it reminded me of: a frozen December day back in 1963 when the Steelers lost their title hopes. But let me start at the beginning instead of the end.
The Steelers were coming off a 1962 season that saw them with their best record in franchise history, 9-5. That was the year they unveiled their new logo and only wore it on one side of the helmet in case it didn't go over well. After the success of 1962 they kept the single helmet logo while optimism spilled into 1963.
1963 started out quite uneventful as the Steelers traded their first seven draft picks. Unthinkable today, but Coach Buddy Parker made that practice regular habit. The only draftee of note was a linebacker from Missouri taken in the 16th round by the name of Andy Russell. Russell made such an immediate impact that he ended up starting.
Tragedy struck on May 10 when Big Daddy Lipscomb, a 6-6, 300-pound defensive tackle (huge in those days), died of a heroin overdose while partying with two women one night. The drug scene hadn't hit mainstream America until the late '60s, and that was Marijuana and cocaine. Lipscomb, having grown up in Detroit with no father and a mother who was murdered when he was 11, obviously lived on the darkest of edges.
Lipscomb never went to college after a troubled childhood. He joined the Marines and trained at Camp Pendleton, which was in between San Diego and Los Angeles. The Rams were right up the road and saw this athletic beast and signed him. After playing three years with Los Angeles and then five with Baltimore, the Colts traded him to the Steelers where he played his final two seasons. He made three Pro Bowls and was MVP in two of them.
From the Steelers' perspective, how badly would they miss a massive tackle who not only made the Pro Bowl the previous season, he was the Pro Bowl MVP...at defensive tackle! Moreover, he was alongside fellow tackle and Hall of Famer Ernie Stautner. So not only did we come into the season without the first seven draft picks, we didn't have the heart and soul of our defense.
The next tragedy that occurred in 1963 affected much more than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Toward the end of the season, November 22 to be exact, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on a Friday morning. I vividly remember getting sent home from school and being glued to the TV set. News was something most kids rarely watched, but this was different. Two days later Commissioner Pete Rozelle decided to play the NFL schedule. He later would regret that decision as the greatest mistake of his life.
That Sunday the Steelers hosted the Chicago Bears and no one much cared. People cared even less when, less than an hour before kickoff, Jack Ruby shot and killed Kennedy's suspected assailant, Lee Harvey Oswald. As a young boy I was following my father's lead, of course. That game remains the only Steelers game in 45 years that I chose not to listen to, watch or attend. There have been many times when I have missed the Steelers due to travel or business, but only once by choice.
Two weeks later, with but one game left to play, the Steelers found themselves in the de facto NFL Final Four and in control of their own destiny. Their final regular-season game was against the Giants with the winner going on to play the Bears in the NFL title game. Pittsburgh was 7-3-3 and New York was 10-3, but a win by the Steelers would give them a higher percentage in the Eastern Division. (And yes, three ties were yet another strange occurrence in 1963. Since the Steelers came into the league in 1933, it has been done only a handful of times.)
Moreover, the Steelers had pounded the Giants into submission earlier in the season by a score of 31-0. The team they would play for all the marbles, the Chicago Bears, had come from behind and were fortunate to tie Pittsburgh late in the game during the Kennedy weekend. The Steelers had everything right where they wanted it.
It didn't take long to realize that whatever had cursed the Pittsburgh Steelers for exactly 30 years was alive and well in Yankee Stadium. Early in the game the Steelers talented young receiver, Gary Ballman, was going into the end zone when he decided to switch hands with the ball on the one-yard line avoiding a tackle. The ball squirted loose and was recovered by the Giants and returned to the 34-yard line.
While the Giants were scoring 16 points in the first half, Pittsburgh continued to be frustrated in the Giants' red zone. Twice they fell one yard short at the New York 14-yard line. John Henry Johnson, Pittsburgh's Hall of Fame fullback, was en route to a 100-yard rushing game, but the football gods (and perhaps the Giants) just wouldn't let them score.
In the third quarter the Steelers drove down the field and this time Ballman did get into the end zone to cut the lead to 16-10. You always had the sense that Pittsburgh was the better team. Did I mention that the Steelers pummelled the Giants 31-0 in their first meeting?
But here we go again. The Seelers snuffed New York on their first two plays and were about to take charge when, on a third and long, Y.A. Tittle threw a horrible pass to Frank Gifford, who somehow made a one-handed grab just above the frozen turf for a 29-yard gain. Gifford later said "That was the greatest catch I ever made." Typical Steeler fortunes.
Another circus catch by Del Shofner followed by a touchdown reception by Joe Morrison put the dagger into the Steelers' hopes. Buddy Dial's late TD was little consolation. Final score: 33-17.
As if the Steelers didn't have enough frustration that game, their quarterback, Ed Brown, was terrible. He completed 13 passes and threw 20 incompletions for a shameful 39 percent. He was throwing the ball all over creation. Brown's own coach, Buddy Parker, sald after the game that "Had my quarterback had a good day Ballman would have scored five touchdowns." Unusual to throw a player under the bus, but Brown was that bad and Ballman was that open.
Ernie Stautner admitted that he never forgave Brown for being so awful when the team had a championship well within their grasp. That was the last game Stautner would ever play and he could have gone out the way Jerome Bettis did 42 years later. Stautner played his entire 13-year Hall of Fame career with the Steelers and had been through so much misery.
Younger Steeler fans remember Neil O'Donnell's 1996 Super Bowl. O'Donnell laid just two eggs in that game, albeit they were deadly. Ed Brown laid more eggs than a Christmas goose against the Giants. His coaches and teammates wanted to kill him. The Giants simply could not cover Gary Ballman and Buddy Dial. Those two receivers were so open that despite Ed Brown's incompetence, they racked up 196 yards between them.
The Giants went on to lose to the Bears, 14-10, in the championship, but oh what a night that was, late December back in '63. God, I hate that song.