Gary M. Pomerantz is the author of THEIR LIFE’S WORK: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, now available in trade paperback from Simon & Schuster. Follow on Twitter @GaryMPomerantz, and on Facebook. Watch a trailer for the book here on YouTube
Submitted by Gary M. Pomerantz
The Steelers will formally retire Joe Greene’s jersey No. 75 this Sunday in a halftime ceremony at Heinz Field. It’s only the second time that the Rooneys have retired a jersey since The Chief paid $2,500 in 1933 to buy his NFL franchise. Defensive tackle Ernie Stautner (No. 70) was the only other Steeler to have his jersey retired, and that happened 50 years ago, in 1964.
It might be another half century before another Steeler jersey is formally retired by the Rooneys, or perhaps it will never again happen. If the Rooneys honor just one player from the 1970s empire, then Joe Greene is the right guy.
Which player goes next?
That’s not an easy question to answer. It’s subjective. There is no single correct order. Many factors must be considered. I’d do it in this order:
1. Franco Harris, 32
2. Terry Bradshaw, 12
3. Jack Lambert, 58
4. Jack Ham, 59
5. Mike Webster, 52
6. Mel Blount, 47
7. John Stallworth, 82
8. Lynn Swann, 88
Here’s my thinking.
Harris, 32: Picking him to follow Greene, actually, is easy. Harris is Mister Immaculate Reception, and he ran for more than 12,000 yards in his NFL career. In 1972, he came to a team that had never won, and during the 12 seasons he spent in Pittsburgh, the Steelers never had a losing record. If Greene was the beating heart of the 70’s empire, then Harris, still much admired by teammates, was its soul.
Bradshaw, 12: No doubt some Steeler fans would place Bradshaw lower on this list. His critical comments about the Steelers through the years, and his absences at The Chief’s funeral and, more recently, Chuck Noll’s, haven’t endeared him to Steeler Nation. But he was the quarterback, after all, and he won two Super Bowl MVP awards. Bradshaw and Joe Montana remain the only quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls. Go review the Immaculate Reception on YouTube: Note how Bradshaw nimbly eludes the Raider pass rush, and also his laser- beam pass downfield to Fuqua. Bradshaw’s skill set startled.
Lambert, 58: Such flair! The toothless look, the stamping feet, the explosive hits. Locally, Lambert remains the most popular player from the days of empire. Just check out all those No. 58 jerseys in the crowd at Heinz Field. Tall, thin, and mobile – so different than Butkus and Nitschke – Lambert forced scouts and coaches to rethink the middle linebacker position. At a time when steel was dying, Lambert embodied the best of Pittsburgh’s workman spirit.
Jack Ham, 59: I nearly placed Ham in front of Lambert. Ham was calmer, less likely to draw attention to himself, but every bit as remarkable. Ham played outside linebacker the way DiMaggio played center field, with range, dependability, and style. Ham was a sure tackler, and rarely dropped an interception he should’ve made. He had the fastest five-yard burst on the team. Coach Woody Widenhofer told me that he once watched a game film and realized that Ham wasn’t knocked off his feet by an opposing blocker the entire game. Wiedenhofer had never seen that before. Tight ends such as Denver’s Riley Odoms and Oakland’s Dave Casper struggled to block him. Ham had that kind of balance.
Mike Webster, 52: You could make a strong argument to place Webster higher on this list, ahead of both Lambert and Ham. He might’ve been the greatest and most durable center in NFL history. The NFL put Webster on anniversary all-time team in 1994, along with its 75th center Mel Hein of the New York Giants (1931-1945). But Webster’s story is a cautionary tale. He played 17 seasons at a position that no man should ever play in the NFL for 17 seasons. He became the first NFL player diagnosed posthumously with CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative brain disease. In the archives of the 1970s Steelers’ legacy, next to the four Super Bowl trophies and those 12 Hall of Fame busts, must go the stained laboratory slides of Mike Webster’s brain. Cause of death: football.
Mel Blount, 47: Like Wilt Chamberlain in pro basketball, Mel Blount’s style of play caused rules to be changed in the NFL. With his bump-and-run defense, Blount punished smaller wide receivers. When the NFL sought more scoring in the late 70s, it outlawed that style of pass coverage. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, his teammates called him Superman. Blount had long arms that seemed to stretch from one sideline to the other, and he used them to great advantage in pass defense. Blount was unlike other cornerbacks of his era. As a punctuation mark to his resume, he intercepted 57 passes.
John Stallworth, 82: When people talk about the Steelers’ two great receivers, they always say, "Swann and Stallworth," almost never reversing the order. I’m reversing the order here. Stallworth played five years longer than Swann, and as a result his career stats are superior. Stallworth exceeded Swann by 201 catches, nearly 3,300 yards and 12 touchdowns. Stallworth was a bigger target and better blocker than Swann. He was also a game-breaker in Super Bowls XIII and XIV, shattering the Rams in the latter game with a 73-yard scoring catch. In retiring Steeler jerseys, I say, "Stallworth then Swann."
Lynn Swann, 88: Swann played a brutal sport with athletic elegance. The MVP of Super Bowl X, Swann moved like a dancer. He might’ve been small, but he had a big personality, and a big smile; he hailed from a big city (San Francisco) and a big school (USC), and he was a big-play guy, especially in big games. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, Swann, in an act of friendship and devotion, told the crowd that that day wasn’t his greatest hour, only his greatest half hour. "It’ll be the greatest hour," he said at Canton, "when I can sit in that back row and John Stallworth is wearing a gold jacket and making this speech." A year later, Stallworth got in.