There was a time in my life when I really took Steelers’ preseason games seriously—kind of like how social media still does now.
With Pittsburgh’s first preseason matchup of the summer taking place Thursday evening against the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game, I thought it would be cool to talk just a little about my all-time favorite Steelers preseason affair. (I wanted to type “exhibition” just then to avoid word redundancy, but I know the NFL hates when you use that word to describe a meaningless football contest that it charges full price to attend and includes people of my talent level playing by the fourth quarter.)
Let me take you back to the summer of 1984; I was 12-years old and in prime “They better win this preseason game!” mode. That was the year I witnessed my favorite Steelers preseason game.
I still remember it well.
It was August 4, and the legendary Terry Bradshaw had recently announced his retirement after 14 glorious years. Bradshaw, who was still dealing with elbow issues stemming from a surgery he had prior to the previous season, had finally had enough and decided to head for the broadcast booth where he would get on with his life’s work. Even though Bradshaw didn’t make things official until late July, the Steelers were still prepared to move forward thanks to a February trade with the Dolphins for quarterback David Woodley. Woodley would compete with Mark Malone for the starting role. Malone, a first-round pick in the 1980 NFL Draft, really should have been at the point of his development where he was ready to step in for Bradshaw.
But he so wasn’t.
Anyway, that’s enough backstory for this game. Wait, no it’s not. In fact, I haven’t even filled you in on the best part of the story. Do you know who the Steelers' opponent was for this game? The Browns! I’m not making that up. That’s right, Pittsburgh opened up its 1984 preseason schedule on Saturday, August 4, 1984, at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. The Browns were division rivals! This wasn’t a rare one-off, either. No, according to the WPXI broadcast team covering the game—a team led by play-by-play man Randy Waters (whoever that was) and color analyst Rocky Bleier (the real hero of Super Bowl XIII)—it was the 13th preseason matchup between the two squads.
Can you believe NFL teams were so cavalier about protecting secrets back then? What were the Rooneys thinking? I know they had a reputation for being cheap, and Cleveland is only a two-hour bus ride away, but come on. I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised division rivals exposed themselves to one another in games that didn't matter back in those days. After all, we’re talking about a time when people openly smoked cigarettes on airplanes and thought asbestos was harmless.
Picture the Steelers and Browns, still division rivals, facing off in a preseason game today. It’s hard to do, right? And if you can conjure up that image in your mind, isn’t quarterback Ben Roethlisberger quickly kneeling after each snap? Wait, why is he in the game even in your imagination? Are you nuts?
OK, now that's enough backstory...for the game. As for yours truly, to give you more context, I was in the basement of the neighborhood fire department early that morning, picking out my helmet and football pads; that's correct, my Sheraden Vikings teammates and I were gathering equipment for our own training camp, a training camp that would prepare us for the rigors of midget league football.
I only mention this tidbit because I wore my helmet and pads later that night while watching the Steelers take on the Browns in the aforementioned preseason game. I watched the game with my mother, who seemed a bit annoyed and had to be thinking, “I helped to produce this idiot?” To be fair, she may have been annoyed by the fact that she was missing one of her primetime soaps. (Don’t worry, it was 1984, and you were allowed to joke about women liking soap operas—even though everyone now knows that stereotype was never true.)
As for the game, I was pretty distraught when the Steelers fell behind 14-3 at halftime thanks in large part to multiple turnovers by Malone, who, little did he know, was about to experience fan hatred on par with what Bradshaw had to endure early in his career—only, without the Super Bowl rings that came later.
Woodley started the third quarter and, in a battle of mostly backups, third-stringers and future grocery-baggers led a second-half comeback that saw Pittsburgh score 28-unanswered points en route to a 31-14 victory.
I was way too euphoric after such a meaningless game, but what did I know? I had just found out about Santa Claus and was still almost a decade away from discovering the secrets of professional wrestling.
I re-watched the game online recently. Franco Harris wasn’t even there because he was holding out of camp and would soon be released. Jack Lambert didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to play his last season. Other than Louis Lipps and a few others, there really weren't many young, future hopefuls on that ‘84 team.
It’s now easy to see why things fall off pretty quickly after that surprise '84 campaign that saw the Steelers make it all the way to the AFC title game.
Oh well, I miss the days when I truly cared about the preseason. That time in my life might be gone, but it was nice to take a look back thanks to the wonders of the Internet.
Finally, I may have long since accepted the fact that preseason games aren’t real, but I’ll never get over Santa Claus.