Ernie Stautner, the 10-time All-Pro defensive tackle who played for the Steelers from 1950-1963, had it lucky because he came along way before championships had become a calling card for the organization.
You might say that’s crazy. Why would a professional football player not want to play in an era where trophies aren’t just expected, they’re demanded? For starters, you see that picture on old Ernie’s Wikipedia page, the one of him standing with his Hall of Fame bust after being inducted in 1969? Let’s just say that, had he played from maybe 1988 to 2001, this picture might have been taken after his third or fourth time on the ballot.
Take Steelers’ Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson, who finally punched his ticket to football immortality in 2012, some 12 years after retiring from the NFL. According to his Wikipedia page, Dirt was a six-time, first-team All-Pro. He was named to the 1990’s All-Decade Team and was considered the best center of his era by many people who know a thing or two about that. But the voters still rejected him multiple times before he finally made it.
The Steelers didn’t win a fifth Super Bowl when Dawson was in Pittsburgh, so that might have had something to do with it.
That’s the thing about an organization which has established championship success — once it does, a player’s career is often defined by it.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s like that pretty much everywhere. But I live in Pittsburgh, I’m a Steelers fan, and I know you kind of have your doubts about Antonio Brown, the receiver who’s on one of the greatest statistical runs in NFL history, complete with 582 receptions for 7,848 yards since 2013.
At age 30, Brown’s career numbers rival those of Jerry Rice at a similar stage of his career. No. 84 is unquestionably the NFL’s most dominant receiver since Terrell Owens. Brown may in fact be the most dominant player, regardless of position, in the NFL right now.
Yet, some people are like, “Yeah, I don’t know. He may need to win a Super Bowl or even two. If not, he may have to wait his turn before he can put on that gold jacket.”
And those people are likely right.
Owens had to wait his turn before he was inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. In fact, he had to wait multiple times, something so infuriating to the poster child for diva receivers, that he decided not to show up for the event (as of now, anyway).
Think about that for a second. Owens caught over 1,000 passes for close to 16,000 yards during his career, and he was passed over for induction more than once.
Owens was no Rice, but in baseball terms, if Rice was Hank Aaron, then Owens was Willie Mays.
So why’d Owens have to wait?
He was a big jerk for one thing. But it also didn’t help that he never won a Super Bowl title.
Championships mean more to a player’s legacy in the modern era of sports than they did in Stautner’s time. Sure, they meant something back then, but the truly great players could pass on into immortality a lot easier without them.
Even the unquestionable greats such as Rod Woodson, a cornerback who played 10 seasons with the Steelers and was a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 2009, doesn’t get celebrated in Pittsburgh as much as he probably should for such a decorated career.
Woodson was so good, he was voted to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team as an active player. Yet people are like, “Yeah, but I kind of have a problem with the fact that he never won a Super Bowl in Pittsburgh. Also, he left as a free agent and won a Lombardi with the Ravens. Sorry, Rod.”
Yeah, it’s like that now.
Character is a big thing, too.
Fans often celebrate Stautner’s legacy online by using his name or number when they visit various football sites.
”He was a great and classy man,” they say.
I’m sure Ernie was a classy dude, but that doesn’t mean he was a saint.
I mean, the guy would go out drinking with quarterback Bobby Layne and act as his bodyguard in-case, you know, they drank too much and trouble started. Heck, Myron Cope usually joined them on these little adventures, adventures that didn’t always end without police intervention.
Could you imagine if news broke that Ben Roethlisberger went out drinking with Cam Heyward, and Heyward often had to intervene when trouble started? Could you imagine if Tunch Ilkin was seen drinking with them?
Fans would lose their minds.
Actually, stuff like that does happen today (it used to happen with Roethlisberger a lot), and these days, people consider it wrong.
Forget drinking and fights, if a player is a bit too vocal on social media, it rubs people the wrong way (just ask JuJu Smith-Schuster in like five minutes).
In the modern era, championships are probably the greatest passport to immortality, and those legendary Steelers teams of the 1970’s changed the way we view legacies.
Anyway, you might think you’d still honor a legend like Stautner, had he played in this era and didn’t win a ring, but don’t be so sure.
If there’s one thing that’s changed since Ernie Stautner’s time, it’s that legacies aren’t cheap, and if you want one as member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’re damned-well going to have to earn it.