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The Other Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback from Louisiana: Remembering Bubby Brister

Terry Bradshaw is the best known Steelers quarterback from Louisiana. But he wasn't the only one. Often underestimated, sometimes overrated but never duplicated, Bubby Brister serves as the perfect icon for the taunting and tantalizing Pittsburgh Steelers of the late '80's and early 90's. Yesterday was Bubby's 51st birthday, and Behind the Steel Curtain takes a look back.

Terry Bradsaw wasn't the only Steelers quarterback from Louisiana....
Terry Bradsaw wasn't the only Steelers quarterback from Louisiana....

One of the greatest things about Twitter is that it's an excellent source of random facts.

Yesterday veteran Pittsburgh journalist John Steigerwald provided this nugget:

That little plum forced the 40 something subset of Steelers Nation to do a double take on their hair and waste lines - when the stars of your high school days pass the half century mark you're officially getting old.

Bubby Brister was the first Steelers signal caller with no link to the Super Steelers (no David Woodley does not count.) And that's fitting, because no one better characterizes the late-80's early 90's Chuck Noll-Bill Cowher era of Steelers:

  • Brimming with enthusiasm
  • Tantalizing with potential
  • But ultimately frustrating with unfulfilled expectations

Another Cajun ‘N Steelers Nation

Like his predecessor, Terry Bradshaw, Brister not only hailed from Louisiana but also played his college ball in the Bayou state. Like Bradshaw, Brister had a rocket arm and like the blond bomber Brister was oft accused of having rocks in his head.

Bradshaw of course wore number twelve, while Brister wore number six. At the end of the day Brister may have been half the quarterback Bradshaw was, but he certainly was almost as colorful.

  • Brister wore his emotions on his sleeve, to the delight of journalists and chagrin of his teammates.

In 1988 he once exclaimed that Tom Moore's offense was "so complex and conservative that we might as well punt on first down." That remark earned Brister the wrong kind of attention, because Tom Moore's offense was pretty vanilla (just ask Peyton Manning.)

Yet Brister balanced outbursts like that with declarations such as "I am your man," in early July of 1988, assuring reporters that he would beat out Todd Blackledge for the starting job. Noll had taken the unheard of step of bringing in Blackledge via trade, so reporters were understandably skeptical.

  • Brister of course had the last laugh.

He also had the last laugh a year later when he scrawled "Playoffs 89" on the chalkboard at St. Vincents, foreshadowing the 1989 Steelers storybook season.

For all of his flamboyance off the field, it was Brister's play on the field that both thrilled and aggravated the hearts of a nascent Steelers Nation.

The Bubby Brister Era

Here's what you need to know about the Pittsburgh Steelers of the Bubby Brister era. In Brister's first year as a starter, he posted a 65.3 passer rating.

  • And that was considered a success...

His immediate predecessor, Mark Malone, had posted a 46.7 passer rating in 12 starts in the strike shortened 1987 season.

Brister won his first game as an official starter in 1988, dealing Tom Landry an opening day loss in what was the Pittsburgh Steelers first game without "The Chief" Art Rooney Sr.

  • Its not everyone who can say the beat a Tom Landry coached team in their first non-injury start.

Alas, Brister would go another 12 weeks before he tasted victory again, having sat out injured watching as Rod Woodson helped rally the Steelers to an upset over Denver at mid season.

In fact, Brister would lead the Steelers to 3 victories in their final 4 games of the 1988 season, planting the seeds for the aforementioned 1989 resurgence. And if Brister's numbers in that 1989 campaign didn't lend a lot of promise, the same could not be said about his spirit.

Time and time again during the season the Steelers would broach total ruin, only to bounce back with Brister leading the way, he did in week 3 vs. Minnesota and then again in week 8 vs. Kansas City. In weeks 11 and 12 he led back-to-back come from behind victories over San Diego and Miami in what ultimately would culminate in an improbable run to the playoffs.

Once there, Brister's color and candor went on display again, as he informed the NFL that the Steelers were going to "Shock the world."

  • And they did.

The Steelers traveled Houston and upset the Oilers in the Astrodome - where it was Brister who rallied the team to the game tying touchdown that forced overtime. It was Brister who believed.

"I Don't Mop Up for No One"

Although Brister's magic fell just shy of another improbable Steelers upset vs. Denver (if only Dermonti Dawson hadn't had cramps forcing Chuck Lanz into the game) Bill Walsh thought enough of him to project him as a future star.

But of course that didn't happen, and much of the reason for it stems from Chuck Noll's ill-fated decision to hire Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator.

Brister hated Walton's offense with a passion, and he let everyone know about it. Much has been made of Ben Roethlisberger's relationship with Todd Haley, but Brister and Walton didn't simply "fail to jell"; Brister actively resisted the new offense. (Walton, for his part, told Myron Cope that he used the exact same playbook to win national championships with Robert Morris, explaining that "Brister couldn't remember the formations.")

The result? In 1989 the Steelers finished 9-7 and made the playoffs as the lone Wild Card. In 1990 the NFL added a second Wild Card and the Steelers defense finished number 1 overall, but another 9-7 finish this time landed outside the playoffs.

By 1991 Chuck Noll was wearying, and used  a minor injury as an excuse to give Neil O'Donnell a try as Tony Defeo reminded us a few weeks ago. Even if the offense ran more smoothly with O'Donnell, victories still didn't come with much more consistency.

With three games remaining the 1991 season, the Steelers were down 31-6 vs. the Oilers, and Joe Walton pulled O'Donnell, ordering Brister into the game.

Brister steadfastly refused, declaring "I don't mop up for no one." Rick Storm went in instead, but Noll went and confounded his critics one final time, overruled Walton, and started Brister for the final two games of the season.

Brister rewarded him by quarterbacking the Steelers to two wins, including Noll's final victory over future Steelers arch nemesis Bill Belichick.

Brister in the Age of Cowher Power

Bill Cowher declared the starting job open when he arrived in 1992, but Neil O'Donnell beat Brister fair and square that summer at St. Vincent's.

Brister would get four starts that year. He won one in mid season vs. the Colts, looked awful in another vs. Chicago and bad again vs. Minnesota. But he redeemed himself in his final start vs. Cleveland and, with his usual flair for flamboyance, remarked after the game that he wouldn't mention any of his critics by name, "Just by the initials, O.J. Simpson."

Although the Steelers had a first round bye in the 1992 playoffs, Neil O'Donnell wasn't quite healthy. Cowher started him anyway, the Steelers lost the first home game at Three Rivers Stadium since 1982.

Brister, who up until that point managed to remain friends with O'Donnell despite their competition, was critical of O'Donnell in some of the final comments he made as a Steeler.

Epitaph: Brister's Revenge as an NFL Nomad....

O'Donnell got a restricted free agent offer in the spring of 1993 from Tampa Bay. Management strongly considered letting him go in favor of keeping Brister, but Cowher lobbied for O'Donnell and got his way. Brister would finish his NFL career with stints in Philadelphia, New York, and Denver.

His final stop was in Minnesota. On Christmas Eve in the 2000 Steelers secured a 9-7 record on the strength of Kordell Stewart's phoenix like rebirth, yet they needed help to reach the playoffs.

Going into the late games everyone else had lost that the Steelers needed to lose, save for Indianapolis who were playing Minnesota, who were out of it. Daunte Culpepper was giving the Colts a run for their money until he got hurt. In came Bubby Brister in what would be his last game in the NFL. Suffice to say he didn't quite measure up to Peyton Manning, and the Vikings lost.

As my buddies at Baltimore's legendary Purple Goose Saloon said, "Bubby Brister managed to keep the Steelers out of the playoffs one last time...."

And if you think that's unfair (and it is, a little at least) or just not right to end on a negative note, click here for some fun facts on Bubby Brister, (think of them as "Outtakes" to this article.)