As is often the case for me during the winter and spring months, when going outside isn't always the best option, I've done quite a bit of reading this year.
A great deal of my reading has involved books about the great Steelers teams of the 1970s; three books in particular--Their Life's Work, The Last Headbangers, and The Ones Who Hit the Hardest--are either solely about or feature great stories regarding Chuck Noll's legendary squad of four decades ago.
Thanks to those three books, I've learned many great little details about the players, coaches, owners, front office personnel and even the fans who helped create a dynasty that produced four Super Bowls and left a legacy and a passion that has stood the test of time and may never be surpassed by any other sports entity in the City of Pittsburgh and the surrounding region.
Without going into a ton of detail and using exact quotes (I took these books out of the library and don't currently have them in my possession), I'd like to just casually touch on a number of things that I, as a fan, became much more familiar with during my fun little reading adventures that I hope to continue with throughout the summer.
Let's begin, shall we?
--I learned that the play that we all know as the Immaculate Reception really wasn't known as that, right away. While it certainly received that iconic name almost immediately, thanks to some fans and the late, great Myron Cope, it was actually casually referred to as "The Miracle Catch" for a number of years, according to The Last Headbangers, before the more legendary name stuck.
--Even though I kind of already knew this, the more I read about Joe Greene, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle who was Noll's first draft choice in 1969, the more it's cemented into my consciousness just how vital he was in helping to turn the long-time downtrodden and sorry excuse for a franchise into the model organization it is today.
Through talent, leadership and sheer will, Greene refused to allow the Steelers to conduct themselves as losers, anymore, and helped take them to heights probably once thought unimaginable by both players and fans, alike.
As a player, Greene was to the organization what Dan Rooney was as team president and Noll was as head coach.
--Speaking of vital, there is now no question in my mind that Bill Nunn, the long-time scout who just passed away recently, probably deserves at least a little consideration for some mythical Mt. Rushmore of Steelers greats, for his many contributions--including providing an entree into so many black colleges, during a time in the late 60s, when segregation was still very real and racial tensions were still very high.
Had it not been for Nunn, we might not be calling the likes of L.C. Greenwood, John Stallworth and Mel Blount Steelers legends, and by extension, today, we might not be able to ask rival fans, "Got Six?"
--I also learned that if you wanted to put Art Rooney, Jr., Dan's younger brother and the head of Pittsburgh's scouting department from the late 60s through the late 80s, on the mythical Mt. Rushmore alongside Mr. Nunn, it would be hard to argue against it.
--For all his breakthroughs with depression and ADD, as well as a seemingly repaired relationship with the City of Pittsburgh and Steelers fans who he thought hated him for many years, Terry Bradshaw is as reclusive as ever with his old teammates, and probably still holds a great deal of bitterness about his often tumultuous relationship with his old coach, Noll (speaking of seemingly repaired relationships).
But, of course, much like he was when he was a player, despite his insecurities and problems with forming intimate bonds with people, Bradshaw is still the life of the party no matter where he goes, complete with that infectious laugh and country sense of humor.
--Jack Lambert, the legendary middle linebacker who played with an intensity only surpassed by that of maybe Mean Joe, was described as a player to be defiant and an "independent spirit" in Their Life's Work. And that same defiance and independence is very much alive today, as he's rarely around for any Steelers functions, and if there was a quote attributed to "Jack Splat" in any of the books I've read, they were few and far between.
The late Dwight White once described No. 58 as "Difficult. Period. With everybody." Case-in-point, during a 1999 team reunion, Lambert refused to wear a jacket that was handed out to all the former players because he thought it looked like something the Pittsburgh Pirates would wear.
However, it was hard to deny Lambert's commitment to winning. According to The One's Who Hit the Hardest, after Lambert was drafted by Pittsburgh in the second round in 1974, he immediately began traveling from his home state of Ohio every week to watch film with his new Steelers coaches.
For all his quirks--the missing front teeth, the scowl, and his smoking habit--Lambert may have been the most intense and focused player to ever wear a Steelers uniform.
--Speaking of Noll and Bradshaw, it was their contrasting styles and approaches to the game that probably made their relationship so combustible.
Noll had a cerebral approach to coaching football, where attention to detail was paramount and "pseudo chatter," as Andy Russell once said, had no place. And there was Bradshaw, with his Devil-may-care approach, gunslinger mentality, and his unwillingness (or maybe, inability due to ADD) to study, as the quarterback, and in many ways, the extension of the head coach out on the field.
Is it any wonder that, while Noll rarely got in his players' faces and showed much emotion, Bradshaw was the exception who seemed to bring out the worst emotions in his head coach?
--Much like any other walk of life, even in the NFL, discussing politics, or bringing that into the mix, can prove to be toxic to a relationship.
Franco Harris (a democrat) talked about his once close friendship with Lynn Swann (a republican), and how things all changed when Swann ran for Governor of Pennsylvania in 2006.
--Speaking of Franco, much like when he was a player and came out of nowhere to put the Steelers on the map with his shoestring catch in December of 1972, or when he shed his normally reserved and quiet demeanor to challenge the Cowboys' Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson to a fight during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIII after a late hit on his quarterback, there was the former No. 32, one afternoon in the late 90s, willing to make a stand in Downtown Pittsburgh and crash a sanctioned KKK/Nazi rally, according to a chapter in Their Life's Work.
It wasn't the menacing Mean Joe, the tenacious Lambert or the outspoken Swann who was willing to fight for what he thought was right, it was the big running back with a finesse style who often got criticized for running out of bounds.
But like former Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, a player who will forever be linked to Harris thanks to the Immaculate Reception, said in Their Life's Work, "Anyone who says Franco was soft never had to try and tackle him."
Harris's loyalties to his adopted city, to his former teammates and to the legacy that he helped create with the Steelers are all very much alive today, thanks to his constant willingness to organize team functions, as well as his civic-mindedness.
One last thing on Franco. Much like Bradshaw's long-held resentment regarding his treatment from fans, his coach, and the media during his playing days, it's also quite apparent that Harris holds some resentment for Noll, 30 years after his "Franco who?"quote in the summer of 1984, during a contract dispute that ultimately led to the legendary running back's departure from the team, calling it a "stupid thing to say."
However, knowing Harris, he'd probably be the first one in line to help if his old coach needed it.
--I learned that steroids were very much a part of the Steelers and the NFL back in the 70s, and anyone who tries to deny this is only kidding themselves.
--I learned that Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center who had a tragic and unfortunate post-playing life that ultimately led to his untimely death, probably played about five years too long.
However, much like cocaine, heroin or painkillers, football was Webster's drug, and he was consumed by being a player and a warrior on the field, a behavior that probably led to countless undetected concussions that no rehab was going to fix, once the damage had set in.
--Speaking of Webster and the paranoia that reportedly gripped his post-playing days, Ernie Holmes, the ferocious defensive tackle who was known almost as much for his endless appetite for booze and food as he was for the terror he displayed on the field, also seemed to be gripped by paranoia throughout his life; paranoia that one day led to him shooting at law enforcement during a police chase in the early 70s.
It has been said that Webster almost always led with his helmet when engaging an opponent, and Holmes was described in The Ones Who Hit the Hardest as using his head as a battering ram on his opponents.
For all the talk about how physically demanding the game of football is on the men who play it, and how much it ravages the human body (and especially the brain), maybe the one saving grace (at least from a neurological standpoint) is that proper technique might matter more than we're willing to admit, and teaching it might save the game more than any safety rule possibly could.
--For as much as society rails against NFL players today for their behavior, I learned that every era had players who didn't always act the way the media and fans would want them to.
Can you imagine if the Holmes police incident were to happen today?
What do you think the reaction would be to Lambert shooting the speakers out of the radio during a party at his house if he didn't like the song that was playing (as told by his former teammates in Their Life's Work)? How do you think people would react, today, to Lambert throwing Cliff Harris down to the ground during the Super Bowl?
Would he be prosecuted for shooting a gun? Would he suspended indefinitely for his take-down of Harris?
What about the partying that took place and the "blurry-eyed" quarterbacks who stepped into the huddle on Sunday afternoons after being out all Saturday night?
My point is, all the behavior that we spend endless hours going crazy over today, was just the same in by-gone eras, such as the 1970s. Were those players better people than the "entitled" players of today, or were they just playing in an era where it really didn't matter, just as long as the job was done on Sundays?
--I learned that the respect and affection for Art Rooney, Sr., the lovable founder of the franchise, was very real and very important for the community and the men who played for him.
--I'll leave you with one last thing that I learned:
For as much as the game has taken from so many former players, physically and mentally, it's hard to find one who wouldn't do it all over again if he could:
"You go 35 or 40 and it's a blast! Let me tell you something: IT IS A BLAST! No matter what, God dang it, you are going to get...tore up, man! That's the way it is."
That was a quote from Kamal Ali Salaam-El, formerly known as Reggie Harrison during his playing days with the Steelers. He was a running back, but was known for his special teams work, where he was a "battering ram" on kickoffs and punts.
Salaam-El can barely get around, today, his body completely wrecked from his football career, but as the above quote clearly indicates, he has no regrets.
A former player's love for the game and to have a chance to do something that very few people ever can may be the most telling thing I've learned through reading about the 70s Steelers.