What was the greatest moment in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers? That’s a question with an array of possible answers.
The franchise has won six Super Bowls, many with unforgettable moments attached — Lynn Swann’s acrobatic catches in Super Bowl X, Antwaan Randle-El’s reverse-pass to Hines Ward to seal the win in Super Bowl XL, the near-impossible throw from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes to clinch Super Bowl XLIII. And, preceding it all, the Immaculate Reception, one of the most unforgettable plays in football history. Steelers’ fans young and old are privileged to have a broad menu from which to choose.
For me, the greatest moment wasn’t a “play” in the traditional sense. It occurred when I was six years old, too young to really understand the sport. Most Sundays in the fall back then, our family would gather to watch football. Sometimes at our house, sometimes my uncle’s, usually my grandparents. The adults drank beer and shouted generic instructions at the players on T.V., like “Catch the ball!” and “Get him!” I would watch for a few plays then spend the rest of the game acting out what I saw. I would run around in my Toughskins with my Nerf football, leaping over couch cushions, diving onto the linoleum floor, tackling my little sister until she inevitably tattled. I didn’t know anything about the history of the game nor did I know the rules. I loved it, though. I just needed a defining moment to understand why.
To relive that moment, let’s travel back in time. It is January of 1976. The Steelers are playing the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X at the Orange Bowl in Miami. We are gathered in the den at my grandparents house in Margate, a quiet shore community just south of Atlantic City. Everyone is rooting for the Steelers, not because they are Steelers fans but because this is South Jersey, where those who like football root for the Philadelphia Eagles. As Eagles fans, it’s impossible to cheer for the hated Cowboys. So, by default, sentiment on this day rests with the Steelers.
The early details of the game are lost on me. In all likelihood I spent it like I normally did, running about the house, pretending to tackle and be tackled, getting yelled at for almost knocking the onion dip off of the kitchen counter. The Cowboys led 10-7 in the third quarter when the Steelers lined up to kick a game-tying field goal. This I remember only because my mother had corralled me, sat me on the couch and forced me to eat a slice of pizza. I was seated between my father and my uncle. That’s when it happened:
Kicker Roy Gerela missed the field goal. Dallas safety Cliff Harris, in a gesture my uncle would refer to as a “typical punk move,” taunted Gerela, prompting Steelers’ linebacker Jack Lambert to defend his kicker by grabbing Harris and hurtling him to the turf. The room erupted in cheers. There was nothing that pleased my family more than the administration of street justice to a member of “America’s Team.” We were by no means savages. But these were the Cowboys. Special conditions applied.
The television ran the replay a few times. I stood up and moved closer. I couldn’t stop watching No. 58 in black and gold. The way he swooped in at the first sign of trouble and handled the bad guy. I had seen Batman cartoons before. This was just like them, but in real life.
The Steelers rallied to win Super Bowl X, 21-17. In the “America’s Game” series that aired years later, many of Lambert’s teammates credited his defense of Gerela as the catalyst that spurred their comeback. “It showed that no one was going to intimidate the Pittsburgh Steelers,” former safety Mike Wagner said in the documentary. “It helped further define what Steelers football is all about.”
For me, that moment created a relationship with the franchise that lasts to this day. And Jack Lambert? He became my hero. I wanted to be just like him. I adorned the walls of my bedroom with his posters, my favorite being a copy of a Sports Illustrated cover where Lambert snarled toothless through his face mask at the camera. I signed up for football and of course played linebacker. I even acquired a fake tooth, courtesy of a run-in with an unforgiving coffee table, that I would remove while playing for full Lambert effect. When he retired in 1984, I tried finding a new favorite player. The Steelers would produce some worthy candidates over the years, Troy Polamalu being the closest. But no one resonated with me quite like Jack Lambert.
I have thought over the years about why his defense of Gerela affected me so. This was the Swann game, after all. Why wasn’t I enthralled by Swann’s acrobatics in the same way? Why did Lambert’s gesture have such a lasting impact? My mother, an elementary school teacher whose concentration was children with reading disabilities, had always preached fairness in our home. She espoused a philosophy similar to that of legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, who believed his athletes should be treated not equally but fairly. Equality was complicated but fairness could be administered unilaterally. “Treat people fairly,” my mother would say, “and stick up for those who can’t stick up for themselves.”
Lambert’s defense of Gerela was my mother’s philosophy personified. Over time, the Steelers would prove to be an organization that, while not perfect, tended to emphasize a corresponding values system. Pro football was a cold business, but the Steelers in general, and the Rooney family in particular, treated their players well. This was the Steeler Way, passed down from the great Art Rooney Sr. Their success on the field was impressive, but it was what they stood for as an organization that defined them.
I have now spent thousands of hours watching, reading and writing about the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s been a beautiful relationship for 45 years and counting. And to think — I owe it all to a kicker, a bully and a real-life Batman.