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How a contract holdout ruined my first Steelers jersey

Wow! Thanks for nothing, Mean Mike Merriweather.

San Francisco 49ers v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Growing up as a poor kid in Pittsburgh in the early-'80s, the thought of owning an authentic Steelers jersey was merely a pipe-dream.

I never even considered asking for a Steelers jersey of one of the heroes of the Super ‘70s, and even if I had, I’m sure the answer would have had something to do with going out and getting a job. I didn’t go to my first game until late in the depressing and forgettable 1988 season; therefore, the chance of having one of those “Wow! Thanks, Mean Joe!” moments was also out of the question.

Speaking of Joe Greene, I did own my own jersey at one point during the summer and fall of 1984; only, it wasn’t a Steelers jersey. No, it was a Sheraden Vikings jersey. That's right, I was a defensive lineman/offensive lineman/running back/tight end/linebacker/safety for the Sheraden Vikings when I was 12 years old. And what digit did I pick out when “Pick Your Number” day arrived late in training camp? No. 75.

You talk about a lot of nerve. As you can guess by my “versatility,” I didn’t play all that much during that ‘84 season, and even when I did, I didn’t produce all that much. I did, however, get to wear the most famous football number in the history of Pittsburgh sports—professional, collegiate or whatever level 12-year-olds play.

Fast forward to Christmas of 1987. I had finally decided I had to have a Steelers jersey, but I didn’t even consider any number made famous by a player from the previous decade. No, by that point, I wanted one from the current roster of players...for some reason.

There wasn’t much to choose from in terms of superstar talent in the mid-‘80s. Sure, Rod Woodson had arrived by 1987, but I couldn’t have predicted at the time that he’d go on to have a First-ballot Hall of Fame career. Louis Lipps just had back-to-back forgettable seasons and, despite my love for him, I was unsure of his immediate future with the franchise. Gary Anderson was arguably the best kicker in the NFL back then, but I just didn’t think a kicker’s number was cool enough, even if I, as a chubby 15-year old with a bad haircut and bad fashion sense, was the total opposite of cool.

With all of that in mind, I decided on the No. 57 worn proudly by Mike Merriweather, a decorated outside linebacker who the Steelers selected from Pacific college in the third round of the 1983 NFL Draft.

Merriweather had been voted to three Pro Bowls through the 1987 season (1984-1986) and was also named a Second-Team All-Pro three times (1984, 1985 and 1987).

Merriweather had tallied 31 sacks in five seasons—including a whopping 15 in 1984—and an impressive 11 interceptions.

Merriweather was well on his way to continuing the great success the team previously had at outside linebacker with both Jack Ham and Andy Russell.

A number 57 Merriweather jersey seemed to be the perfect choice as my first, and I couldn’t have been happier when I opened my presents on Christmas morning.

It wasn’t long before I began to wear my number 57 jersey to school every Friday, which I did all throughout the remainder of ninth grade.

Unfortunately, everything began to change in the summer of 1988 when Merriweather held out in order to force the Steelers to give him a new contract. Sadly, this was before free agency and the salary cap, which meant even stars had little choice but to either play for what teams were willing to pay them or force a trade.

I was hoping Merriweather would come to his senses, but he never did. Merriweather’s holdout continued all throughout the 1988 regular season, as Pittsburgh posted its worst record—5-11—since going 1-13 in 1969. Maybe Merriweather would have made a difference for this downtrodden Steelers team. Perhaps the Steelers were so downtrodden that the organization was convinced that even a superstar outside linebacker wouldn’t have been able to help.

I continued my Friday tradition of wearing my Merriweather jersey during the Steelers 1988 disaster of a season, but the kids in 10th grade were cruel and would say things like, “Where’s Merriweather?” No, they weren’t the most creative bullies, but they still ultimately forced me to stop wearing my No. 57 jersey to class.

Merriweather and the Steelers never did come to an understanding, and he was eventually traded to the Vikings in exchange for their first-round pick in the 1989 NFL Draft (24th, overall). Pittsburgh used the pick to select Tom Ricketts, offensive tackle, University of Pittsburgh. No, Ricketts didn’t wear number 57, but he also didn’t give anyone a reason to wear whatever his number happened to be during his brief career with the Steelers.

My grandmother eventually took the name Merriweather off of the back of my Steelers jersey, but I still didn’t wear it all that much after 1988.

As for Merriweather, he didn’t produce at the same level with the Vikings, tallying just 10 sacks over four seasons before quietly finishing out his career with the Packers and Jets.

For as much as I wanted a Steelers jersey as a kid, that passion didn’t stay with me as an adult. Someone did buy me an authentic Hines Ward jersey which I proudly wore for years, but the tradition didn’t carry on after No. 86 retired.

I wonder if my fondness for Steelers jerseys would have continued to grow if my initial infatuation was nurtured a bit by Mike Merriweather going on to have a storied career with the Steelers?

I guess I’ll never know the answer to that question, which begs this one: Should I try for jersey love again at this point of my life, or is it simply too late for me?