While many of those names are household legends with their busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there are some players that were significant contributors that are often overlooked.
One of those players, is Mike Wagner.
Wagner was an eleventh round draft pick from 1971 out of Western Illinois who would fight his way to the top of the depth chart for Pittsburgh and remain there throughout the 1970's. In his career he would make two Pro Bowls, be selected for two different All-Pro teams and lead the league in interceptions in 1973. Though Wagner may never be immortalized in the Hall of Fame, he was one of the too unsung role players in the legendary Steelers defense that defined a decade.
We take a look at some old school highlights of Wagner.
Mike Wagner might not look it from how easy going he looks during interviews today about his days as a player, but he was every bit as tenacious as you would want a player in the black and gold to be on the gridiron. Watch here how he comes up to the line of scrimmage and teams up with Ernie Holmes, and later the entire Steelers defense, to make a big stop in the running game. The Steelers were able to neutralize the Raiders ground game two years in a row in the playoffs despite their offensive line touting three future Hall of Fame players and leading the league for years in their ground attack.
Wagner often flew to the ball and could be found at the point of attack or delivering a punishing blow on receivers.
Interception vs. Oakland Raiders AFC Championship Game 1975
This would be the first of two interceptions Wagner would record on Ken Stabler this afternoon. Wagner was often in position to make plays and here was again being in the right spot to create a turnover on a low and away pass from a Hall of Fame quarterback.
Not only does he show the athleticism to cut under this route and make a diving catch, but shows the wherewithal to realize he was not touched by an opponent and return the ball for extra yardage. The early seventies featured a lot of good plays from Wagner, and the 1975-1976 postseason was one of the best stretch of performances he would deliver in his career.
Interception vs. Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl X
This might be the most talked about interception in Wagner's career. Shortly after a fourth quarter field goal which gave Pittsburgh their first lead of the game at 12-10, the Steelers had the Cowboys pinned in their own territory and were looking to push forward with their momentum to take over the game.
Wagner did just that when he would intercept Hall of Fame quarterback, Roger Staubach, on the first play of the next series and return the ball inside the ten yard line.
Part of what made this play so great was that it was Wagner's own personal adjustment after seeing this play earlier in the game. On the Cowboys' first drive of the game, Drew Pearson cut over the middle of the field and under the safeties to catch a wide open pass from Staubach and score a touchdown. Designed to cut under safeties playing deep coverage, the goal of the play was accomplished and Wagner swore to not fall for the same scheme again.
This time, Wagner cut under the route and made a perfect play on the ball to intercept Roger Staubach. Staubach would later comment after the game, "It's been our bread and butter play all season; it was the first time it didn't work."
Wagner made his living in Pittsburgh
Though from Illinois, Wagner would stay in the Pittsburgh area to fill out his life's work as Chuck Noll often told his players when they retired or were let go from the team. He would work as a defensive backs coach for high school Pine-Richland for a few years before he would earn his M.B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh. After his NFL career, Wagner would work for UPMC selling health insurance to major corporations before he would become vice president of the Private Banking Group for the First National Bank.
Wagner will forever be a solid representation of what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler when it comes to hard working and overcoming odds. Going from an eleventh round draft pick to a four-time Super Bowl champion with 36 career interceptions and many highlights in the NFL postseason that help Pittsburgh become the greatest franchise in the NFL's Super Bowl era.