Erric Pegram never became a household name, but he became an essential piece of a Steelers team that reached a Super Bowl.
While the Steelers lost many players during the dawn of free agency in the 1990s, Pegram was one of their key free agent additions. Pegram was acquired from the Atlanta Falcons in 1995 after former Pittsburgh running back Barry Foster left a void in the Steelers backfield. Foster retired at age 29 at the end of the 1994 season just two years removed from setting the franchise record for rushing yards in a season with 1,690.
Heartbreak could have been among the reasons for Foster's early retirement. The Steelers finished three yards shy of Super Bowl XXIX, dropping a 17-13 decision to heavy underdog San Diego at home in the '94 AFC Championship.
Still, the Steelers had great promise heading into 1995. Enough promise to intrigue a former 1,000-yard free agent running back that was looking to play for a contender.
"When I was a free agent that year, I told the Green Bay Packers that I would take less money to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers," Pegram told the Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin in 2011. "They asked me why and I told them because if I signed with the Steelers we would go to the Super Bowl and we did. The previous year they lost in the AFC Championship to San Diego and in my opinion they should have won the game."
A fifth year back at the time, Pegram played his first four years in Atlanta after spending his college years at Joe Greene's alma mater, North Texas. He started seven games his rookie year and helped the Falcons win a playoff game before bowing out in the divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl champion Redskins.
Despite gaining individual success that included rushing for 1,185 yards in 1993, the Falcons posted losing records in each of Pegram's last three years in Atlanta. After sharing a locker room with egomaniacs Andre Rison and Deion Sanders in Atlanta, Pegram said the culture that existed within Atlanta's organization was vastly different from the one he found in Pittsburgh.
"When I was with Atlanta I thought 'this was the NFL.' Selfish players (with) no team concept," Pegram said. "When I walked into Three Rivers Stadium and saw those four Super Bowl trophies encased in glass, I knew right away it was different. It was like making the team all over again, but this time it (felt) right."
Pegram was the ideal fit for the Steelers, who were looking for a change of pace back to go with power back Byron
"Bam" Morris. While Foster and Morris equally shared the load in 1994, Pegram desired to be the featured back in the Steelers offense.
"I told my father I'd have the starting job by week five because I was going to out work Bam," Pegram said. "(Bam) had such a good year the previous year it didn't matter what I did in camp; they were going to start Bam in front of me, but I also knew that I'd get my shot sooner than later."
Pegram did just that, starting and rushing for 95 yards and catching three passes for 32 more in a win over San Diego in Week Five. He rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown and caught four passes for 38 yards against Jacksonville in helping jump-start Pittsburgh's eight-game winning streak. In the Steelers last ever game at the old Municipal Stadium, Pegram tallied his first 100-yard game as a Steeler by gaining 112 yards in Pittsburgh's 20-17 win. He gained a season-high 122 yards in Pittsburgh's win over Oakland two weeks later as the Steelers wrapped up the AFC Central championship.
Entrenched in one of the greatest championship games ever, Pegram had several key runs in the Steelers 20-16 win over the Colts to advance to Super Bowl XXX. I remember NBC color man Paul McGwire going out of his way during the Steelers-Colts game to say how much he liked Pegram when the broadcast team met with him and other Steelers the previous day. He said that Pegram was a lighthearted individual that would fall asleep to reruns of Sanford and Sun each night. He finished the year as the Steelers leading rusher in 1995 while teaming up with Morris to form one of the better running back duos in the NFL.
Pegram teamed up with a new running mate in 1996. Jerome Bettis was acquired from the Rams to replace Morris, limiting Pegram to just four starts in 1996. Still, Pegram more than made his impact felt, leading the Steelers with a 5.2 yards per carry average while rushing for 509 yards.
Pegram and Bettis combined to rush for over 210 yards in Pittsburgh's Week Three win over Buffalo, with Pegram gaining a 84 yards on 17 carries. He was the Steelers leading rusher in his final two regular season games as a Steeler. Pegram gained 83 yards on 17 carries against a stout Chargers defense in a Week 15 win. He followed that effort up with an 103-yard effort the next week against the 49ers.
The 5'10, 195 pound Pegram also found a niche on special teams. He was Pittsburgh's best kickoff returner, averaging nearly 25 yards per return that included a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in a 42-6 thrashing of the Rams.
His 100-yard outing against the 49ers would be Pegram's last game in a Steelers uniform. A freak injury suffered in practice the following week kept him out of the team's season finale at Carolina and both of Pittsburgh's playoff games.
Pegram and the Steelers parted ways after the '96 campaign. Pegram retired the following season after finishing his career with the New York Giants. While Pegram said playing in Super Bowl XXX was among his career highlights, he said the time spent with his Pittsburgh teammates and coaches-particularly running backs coach Dick Hoak- was the best facet of his time with the Steelers.
"There were so many players who inspired me," Pegram said. "Dermontti Dawson, Yancy Thigpen, Kordell Stewart for taking me under (his) wing. Charles Johnson, who was so cool as a person and hell of a competitor. Ernie Mills (and his) smile. 'Fast' Freddie McAfee and our endless joking with on one another. Greg Lloyd, one mean SOB (who) I enjoyed watching work. Kevin Greene's long hair. 'The Preacher' Levon Kirkland and 'Big Play' Ray Seals, giving it all with his torn rotator cuff. It's those things that makes the trip worth while. I love them all."