Saturday, November 24, 2012

My Steelers

1950s Steelers logo                          Dale Dodrill-1955 trading card

Hat tip Behind the Steel Curtain

Most readers of this blog know that I am a long-suffering Cubs fan (since 1963). Less written about here is my even longer-and just as intense- love of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I first became a Steeler fan at the age of 10 even though I was growing up in Los Angeles. For some reason, I was a rebel and tended to root against the LA teams. On October 2, 1955, one of the fathers on my block took a bunch of the kids to a Rams game at the LA Coliseum. They were playing the Steelers, and I instantly adopted the visiting team. Don't ask me why; perhaps, I just liked the black and gold uniforms. It was the 2nd game of the season, and the perennially-bad Steelers would jump off to a surprising 4 and 1 start. On that day, they fought to come from behind to take the lead only to lose on a last second field goal by Les Richter following a questionable pass interference call that gave them the shot at a field goal. Final score: Rams 27-Steelers 26, and I cried in frustration on the way home.

Steelers at Rams 1955

1955 Steelers

In that game, the Steelers' players featured Jim Finks at quarterback, Ernie Stautner, Jack Butler, Fran Rogel, Lynn Chandnois, Ray Mathews, Elbie Nickel, Dale Dodrill and others. Their head coach was Walt Kiesling. In addition, former Browns running great Marion Motley was on the roster for part of the season attempting a comeback as linebacker. He would be released that year. It was also the year Johnny Unitas was released in training camp before joining the Baltimore Colts in 1956 and becoming one of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks.

After the Rams game, the Steelers won three in a row before losing all their remaining games in 1955  and finished 4-8. Since their beginning in 1933 as the Pittsburgh Pirates, they had never won so much as a divisional title.

At that time, the Steelers were playing in old Forbes Field, which was also home to the Pirates. After the 1957 season, they began to play some home games at Pitt Stadium, home of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, moved there permanently in 1964 before occupying Three Rivers Stadium in the 1970s.

Steelers against Giants at Forbes Field 1957

In the ensuing years after 1955, the Steelers continued their losing tradition. They were long known as a team nobody wanted to play because of their bruising style. It was said even though opposing teams usually beat the Steelers, they suffered so many injuries it led to subsequent losses.

Things looked like they were going to change when Raymond "Buddy" Parker, the legendary Lions head coach, came to Pittsburgh and got Lions quarterback Bobby Layne to join him.  They promised changes, and the team began competing for the Eastern Division title, foregoing young players for proven veterans. Alas, they never quite made it to the championship game.

Bobby Layne

Layne was a legendary character who played without a face mask and usually showed up on Sundays after a night of carousing. In the late 1980s, when I was working with DEA in Pittsburgh, I was having a beer with some older Pittsburgh cops in a bar in the Hill District. They told me that Layne once came there on a Saturday night with his halfback, Tom "The Bomb" Tracy and a few other Steelers. So the story went, Layne told Tracy that if he didn't get up and sing a song, he wouldn't give him the ball one time the next day.

With Layne and the veterans gone due to age, Parker was soon gone, and the Steelers faded  to the back of the pack. My frustration continued. From the late 50s through the 1960s, it was just like the Cubs.

Layne against Eagles

One of my attractions to the Steelers was their owner, Art Rooney. He had purchased the team back in the 1930s with his winnings from the horse races. He was one of the most beloved figures in the NFL and in the city of Pittsburgh as well. He and his team exemplified the blue collar city, which was still the steel capital of the country. He was known as a kind man as exemplified by his treatment of a young player named Lowell Perry, who played very briefly as a Steeler in the late 1950s.

Rooney was getting on in years, (In the mid-70s, he turned over operational control of the team to his son, Dan.)  I really wanted to see him realize a championship before he passed. He would-and then some.
Art Rooney.jpg
Art Rooney

It was around the turn of the 70s that things finally changed. Chuck Noll was brought in as head coach and Terry Bradshaw was drafted. Then, after a couple of years of spectacular drafts, the team finally won a divisional championship for the first time in 1972. Sure enough, I was there to see it happen in San Diego as the Steelers beat the Chargers 24-2 on the last week in the season to clinch their division. The following week, was the Immaculate Reception by Franco Harris as the Steelers beat the Raiders 13-7 and went to the AFC championship game, which they lost to the Dolphins. Two years later came the first Super Bowl victory, and the rest has been history.

1972-The Immaculate Reception

Well, not quite.

In 1987, I was ending up my tour of duty in Italy with DEA and waiting to learn where I would be assigned stateside. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I learned I was going to Pittsburgh. From 1987 to January 1990, I actually lived and worked in Pittsburgh. My emotional attachment to the city deepened during that time.

Naturally, I managed to attend a few Steeler games though I didn't cotton much to going to games in the latter part of the season when it was cold. They weren't winning much those days. The days of the Steel Curtain and the 4 Super Bowls had passed. (Dwight White lived down the block from us, but I never actually met him.) One of the games I attended was their 51-0 loss to the Browns in a driving rain. It was their worst all-time loss to this day.

In 1988, Art Rooney was hospitalized at Duquesne University Hospital, and the city sensed that he was nearing the end. One morning, I was driving to work, and the radio announced that the family would be making a statement shortly. A few minutes later, it was announced that Rooney had died. What followed throughout the day on the radio was hours of people calling into the talk shows to relate their favorite Art Rooney stories. As is often the case when a long and storied life ends, the day became a celebration of his life. I would have never dreamed that when Art Rooney's time came I would be actually living in Pittsburgh.

It has been 57 years now that I have been a Steeler fan, and I am just as fanatical about them as ever. The team has established a standard of excellence, which, with few exceptions, has included very little tolerance for players who get into trouble off the field or cause problems in the clubhouse. We've enjoyed a couple more Super Bowl titles. No other team has as many Super Bowl titles as the Steelers though in the entire history of the NFL, the Packers are far in front with 13 NFL titles. No matter what happens from here on, I cannot complain.

But those Cubs........

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