This review ran on BTSC Oct. 9, 2013. Mr. Pomerantz will be a part of the ceremonies and festivities this week as the Steelers retire the No. 75 jersey of "Mean" Joe Greene, the featured member of Pomerantz's book, "Their Life's Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers"
There are basically three epochs in Steelers history that bear significance. There's the early days when the team accidentally won games. There's the Steel Curtain Era, in which games weren't lost easily and the Steelers brand became synomymous with toughness, intensity and winning.
For those of us in the third time period, call it the Resurgence, the era in which the Steelers went to five AFC Championship games, winning three and bringing two more Super Bowl trophies back to Pittsburgh, we experienced the dizzyingly high moments of steel-colored euphoria. We had our own players who earned One Name Only Status in Steelers history - Bus, Hines, Ben, Troy and Harrison.
The affinity of Steelers fans with their players is nothing new, but is unique in the sense today's generation inherited the players of the 1970s. With how drastically different the game is now compared to then, it's hard to get a real picture of how truly dominant those teams were.
What's more, we know of that era through stories more than highlights, and through history more than current events.
Gary Pomerantz's "Their Life's Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers" is the vessel in which the current generation can travel back to those days and immerse itself in the history of this franchise.
It reads as if taken directly from a script of a Ken Burns documentary; as if David McCullough is narrarating tales of Art Rooney Sr., the Steelers' patriarch, walking the streets of steel soot-raining Pittsburgh in the 1930s. Colorful tidbits about the Chief envelop the story, like his affinity to send postcards to people in his life, and the general implication that Rooney's contact list would fill the data storage of several iPhones, in today's vernacular.
No one would have more Facebook friends than the Chief. And maybe he would have been a serial "Like"r. Pomerantz's description of him is that of a warm, loving man who made more out of his time on earth than anyone who dared to try.
Stories of his Irish family are detailed wonderfully with anecdotes of living rooms filled with people, friends, players and their wives, talking about life in general.
"Their Life's Work," a phrase Steelers coach Chuck Noll often mentioned, according to Pomerantz, fits the narrative perfectly; stories Pomerantz cites come from both his past notes as a journalist covering the dyanstic era of Steelers football and current updates from all the major players.
Pomerantz logged over 200 interviews in three and a half years of what he described as "a labor of love," and the result is something only a remarkably talented narrator and journalist with an outstanding editing staff could produce.
It details extensively the work of Terry Bradshaw in his life's work - broadcasting, speaking, entertaining. Franco Harris's calm, collected persona and how he's the engine behind the reunification of the players on those teams, including most recently in 2012, the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.
It goes well beyond just individual features on the players, though. He tells the stories of the relationships between those players, and paints pictures more in detail about what happened outside the chalk of the field than while inside it.
Pomerantz's prose can be melancholy but relatable for any audience. The strained relationship between Bradshaw and Harris is particularly powerful. The difficulty of moving forward together is brought on by Harris's desire to relish the memories they had, and Bradshaw's struggles getting past the boos and insults he suffered in his early years with the team. Bradshaw survived a benching while Harris was the immaculate receptor. Both are legends who took separate lanes on the same highway to greatness, then different roads entirely after their careers.
It speaks of "Mean" Joe Greene, perhaps the best defensive player in the history of the game (Pomerantz noted a report from a scout describing Greene, in all caps, as "AGILE, MOBILE and HOSTILE AS HELL"). Greene's individual accomplishments are well-documented, but Pomerantz brings out a side of Greene that seems especially prevalent.
A story about Greene, after a high school football game, at a restaurant, gives a unique, yet familiar, look at the unadulterated hatred Greene had for losing.
He and a few teammates were out after losing a game, and the opposing team happened to show up. Greene took defeat as well as cats take to swimming, and in frustration, took an ice cream cone and smeared it on the face of an opposing player. That player yelled and swore at Greene, wrote Pomerantz, but was smart enough not to engage him. Instead, he proceeded outside to the team's bus, swearing at him the whole way.
Greene followed the player, and went as far as to get on the bus, looking for his prey.
The bus was empty. Every player and coach had exited upon seeing Greene approach.
He was a junior in high school.
Greene had that side; the intimidation, the sheer power and the absolute authority. But Pomerantz shows the gentle, grandfatherly side of Greene, as exhibited by Greene's quote at his retirement press conference: "Just remember Joe being a good football player, and not really mean."
Pomerantz highlights a soul-warming experience of watching a replay of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl IX win over the Minnesota Vikings with Greene in 2009. Greene claimed never to have seen highlights of it, and the visual Pomerantz displays of Greene, in his sixties, pointing out moments of the game excitedly, like a kid again, as he watched himself utterly destroy the Vikings' offensive line - Minnesota rushed for 17 yards on 21 carries in the game.
Greene is now the only surviving member of the Steel Curtain - the Steelers defensive line of Greene, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood, who passed away Sept. 29, during the process of writing this review. Pomerantz had highlighted the deep love Greene had for those men, as well as The Chief.
"As a player, Joe Greene’s emotions never were far from the surface," Pomerantz said in an interview. "In a sense, he is still that way. He is an emotional guy and at 67 that means he feels the full force of the passing of Ernie Holmes and Dwight White (both in 2008) and now Greenwood.
"Joe is the last surviving member of the original Steel Curtain. He misses those men, and loves them deeply. Their brotherhood was authentic, and beautiful. We should all have such relationships in our lives. They are powerful."
Powerful is the simple way to describe the interviews Pomerantz has with Pam Webster, ex-wife of the late Mike Webster, the unfortunate subject of the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy - a condition discovered by the forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who studied the brain of Webster after his death in 2002.
For all the glory Webster achieved on the field, he and his family suffered because of it. Pam often teared up during interviews, revealing the shocking reality behind the long-term dangers of the game. It isn't done in a way to condemn the game - perhaps a suggestion Webster played a few years too long - but rather, to explain, objectively, what happened to perhaps the greatest center the game has ever seen, and how such a brilliant football mind came to live a destitute and despondent life after his career was over.
Injuries in general, badges of glory from earning the title of the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever seen, mark these men, and this story is written with the backdrop of their greatness, but never in pandering or sycophantic tones. Pomerantz creates a wonderful image of all of them - they are just men, only far more accomplished than others. They have four Super Bowl rings and survived a savage and beautiful game. But they appear approachable, and, above all else, human.
The reader is left with a feeling like they could run into Franco at one of his many charity functions, or feel a justified deep loss in reading tear-jerking descriptions of how he was one of the last people to visit White in the hospital before he passed away.
Each member of that team as highlighted by Pomerantz has a memorable role in a dramatic, inspiring and wondrous tale of brotherhood, camaraderie and spirit.
It's the text book for Steelers 101. It's the Bible for Steelers Spirituality 201. It's the reading material necessary to pass a citizenship test for entry into Steeler Nation, and all residents should be issued it upon their arrival.
Their Life's Work is published by Simon and Schuster, and is set for release Oct. 29.