In 1933 Art Rooney won a bundle betting on the horses and then pushed his luck by buying a professional football franchise in Pittsburgh for $2,500. If you said Rooney called his team the Steelers because they were a steal, you would be wrong. He called them the Pirates, and under that name, under that of the Steelers, under that of the Steagles (they merged with the Eagles in 1943), under that of the Card-Pitts (they merged with the Cardinals in 1944) and as the Same Old Steelers they never won so much as a division championship.
But, like most horseplayers, Rooney never lost hope, and now, 38 years later, he may finally have a winner. Last weekend the Steelers eked by San Diego 21-17 in Three Rivers Stadium. They are 2-1 in the AFC Central and if they can beat the Cleveland Browns this weekend they will be at least tied for the division lead.
In the Steelers' first two games—they were beaten by the Bears, who turned two recovered fumbles into touchdowns in the last four minutes, and beat the Bengals—their defense, particularly against the run, was outstanding. Against the Chargers it was, to be kind, horrible. The Steelers gave up 427 yards, most of them on John Hadl passes, but they held when it counted most.
Three times in the last five minutes San Diego had first and goal; three times the Steeler defense, anchored by Mean Joe Greene (see cover), stopped them.
With less than five minutes left in the game and the Steelers leading 21-17, the Chargers had a first down on the Pittsburgh seven. Hadl sent rookie Running Back Leon Burns straight ahead. He was stopped for a yard gain. Then Hadl, who completed 25 of 36 passes, threw twice incomplete into the end zone. Fourth and six. Hadl dropped back to pass, only this time the ball never got to the end zone. Greene leapt high and batted it down.
The Steeler offense could move only to its own eight, and following a punt to midfield, the Chargers came on. With a first down on the 10, Hadl again went back to pass. This time Greene hit him as he threw and the ball fluttered into the hands of rookie Linebacker Jack Ham on the one. Ham stepped back to down the ball in the end zone, mistakenly believing it would be a touchback, but his teammates managed to push him out to the four-yard line.
There was now 1:28 left and Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers' quarterback, who had scored a touchdown on a five-yard keeper and completed 15 of 24 passes for 175 yards, handed off to John (Frenchy) Fuqua. Fuqua, who had scored the other two Pittsburgh touchdowns, one following a fumble recovery by Greene, ran nine yards to the 13. On the next play Bradshaw sneaked for the first down, then unwisely struggled for meaningless additional yards and fumbled. Art Rooney must have thought how familiar it all was. First down, San Diego, on the Steeler 20 with 1:06 remaining.
Hadl got his third and last first and goal on the eight-yard line with :56 left when Cornerback Mel Blount was guilty of pass interference. Then Hadl swept to the two, where the Chargers took their last time-out. Forty-eight seconds to go. Burns went into the line. No gain. Burns again. Tackled by Greene for a yard loss. But the Pittsburgh fans were making so much noise that Hadl was given an extra time-out by the officials, allowing the Chargers a final huddle. On the next play Hadl's futile pass into the end zone was knocked down by Ham.
"This makes up for Chicago," Bradshaw said after the game. "Now we don't have to say we should have won, but we didn't. Maybe this is the kind of luck you need to win a championship."
Or as Linebacker Andy Russell put it, "I think we're growing up now."
Indeed they are, surely but slowly. "You would like to do it all at once, but that's just not possible," Head Coach Chuck Noll said the day before the San Diego game. Noll is only 39 but he came to the Steelers in 1969 with impressive credentials: seven years as a messenger guard and linebacker under Paul Brown at Cleveland (five conference, two NFL titles); six years as an assistant to Sid Gillman of the Chargers (five division championships, two AFL crowns); three years as defensive coach for Don Shula when he was with the Colts (one NFL championship). Noll reflects the personalities of all three; he has some of the reserve and dignity of Brown, some of Gillman's flair and all of Shula's ability to identify with the players.
"We made our big jump last year," he said. "The year before we couldn't move the ball. Now we can score from anywhere on the field. What we have to develop is consistency, and that comes with experience."
While the Steeler offense was developing, the club lived as best it could on a tough defense, which is even stronger this year than last. "We needed more speed on defense," Noll said. "Last year Cincinnati ran us to death on sweeps. Last week our defensive line was quick enough to shut off the sweeps." Cincinnati gained 28 yards on the ground against the Steelers.
One of the quickest men on the defensive line is Greene, who, although he is 6'4", 280, is so compactly built that you do not realize how big he is until you stand next to him. A first draft choice from North Texas State in 1969, Greene has already attained the stature of a Bob Lilly or a Merlin Olsen. And although he plays with the violence inherent in his position, he does not believe he deserves to be called Mean Joe Greene.
"That happened my sophomore year at North Texas," he said, sitting on a stool in front of a commodious locker in the carpeted Pittsburgh dressing room after a practice last week. "We wore green and the defense was going good and they called us the Mean Green. Me being named Greene, it naturally rubbed off on me. I do the best I can on every play and I go hard, but I'm not mean. Sometimes I may talk to the quarterback if I get to him, but it ain't mean. Like one time I sacked somebody, I don't remember who, and when he got up I said, 'Don't bother to run the draw, because I'm going to be sitting right there in the hole waiting for it.' "
Although he has the classic attributes of a defensive tackle—size, agility, quickness and speed—Greene considers another quality even more valuable. "My best asset is my vision," he said. "I can see what is happening, where the blocks are coming from and where the ball is going. I haven't changed much from college except in refining my moves. Last year I guess my biggest handicap was guessing, but Coach cured me of that. Coach pointed out to me when you guessing, you only right half the time. Other half, you get creamed. When you do the job you supposed to do and let the others do their job, then you right a lot more than half the time.
"Now, don't take this as a criticism of offensive linemen," he went on. "But no offensive lineman should ever beat a defensive lineman man on man. They all tough, but we got the advantage. Some of them got great quick, some try to overwhelm you with strength, but they all can be beat, one way or another. I don't study the man going to be blocking on me. I just wait and see what he do when the game starts and I do what I got to do."
Greene paused to autograph a piece of paper for a little boy who had wandered into the dressing room.
"What's your name?" asked the youngster, who was about five.
"What you want it to be?" Greene said, grinning.
"I don't know," the kid said.
"O.K., I'll write it out for you," Greene said. He signed the paper Joe Greene, leaving off the Mean.
"This year we can do it," he continued. "Now we putting points on the scoreboard. Now we keeping the ball, moving it. We're growing, getting consistent. The offense is better and that's what we need."
The offense is, indeed, better. Bradshaw, everyone's No. 1 draft pick last year, suffered through a most difficult rookie season, but he has improved markedly. Much of the improvement must be credited to Babe Parilli, the Steelers' quarterback coach. Last year the Steelers did not have a quarterback coach, even though both their quarterbacks, Bradshaw and Terry Hanratty, were very young.
During a practice session two days before the San Diego game Parilli spent 20 minutes standing a foot or so inside the sideline and catching passes from Bradshaw, 30 yards away. Only once or twice did Parilli have to step over the sideline to catch the ball.
Later, in the coaches' lounge, he said, "We've been working on the short pass all this season. Terry could always throw long, but last year, throwing short, he threw the ball so hard it was bouncing off the receivers. He's got to develop a touch and that's what he's doing now. He was confused much of the time, too. He couldn't read the defenses and he was hesitant on his calls, so we're working on that, too. We give him a little bit at a time and work on it until he gets it cold. Repetition, repetition, repetition. I learned that way myself and I still believe in it."
At 6'3", 218, Bradshaw is a big quarterback, and he has unusual speed; last season he averaged 7.3 yards a carry and ran 22 yards for a score against Cleveland. "His running ability is a big help," Parilli pointed out. "It's like a pitcher is a good hitter, too. If he can't find an open receiver he has a burst of speed and he might run for a good gain instead of being trapped for a long loss. His running handicaps the defense, too. The linebackers can't help out much on short pass patterns until they find out what Bradshaw is going to do. They have to play up tight."
Bradshaw, of course, is not the Steelers' principal running threat. One of their best runners, and certainly the most spectacular both on and off the field, is Fuqua, a 5'11", 200-pound sprinter from Morgan State who is now in his third year as a pro. Fuqua came to the Steelers from the New York Giants in a trade before the 1970 season. The Giants rarely used him but he led the Steelers in rushing last year with 691 yards on 138 tries for a five-yard average, and he finished the season with a flourish, carrying for 218 yards against Philadelphia, including scoring runs of 72 and 85 yards.
Fuqua is an ebullient, joyous man with a penchant for extraordinarily flamboyant clothes. Possibly his most memorable costume is a purple jump suit, which he wears with mid-calf leather boots, a glass cane, dark glasses and a big black apple hat. He lost the hat recently and placed an ad in the Pittsburgh newspapers offering a $100 prize for the best design for its replacement. He got 200 suggestions, which he has narrowed down to a) a white musketeer with a purple plume and a pink feather and b) a white turban with a large purple brooch.
"I've been wearing clothes like that all my life, since I was a little child," he was saying in the Steeler dressing room the other day. "You got to be yourself, express your emotion. I like to be noticed. It's a great feeling."
Fuqua looked across the room and gave a whoop of laughter. Charles Beatty, a defensive back, had just arrived wearing a knee-length white robe with white velvet trousers, sandals and a cross between a turban and a Russian cap.
"That's my competition," Fuqua said. "Hey, comp, you dead."
Beatty bowed ceremoniously.
"I broke his spirit last year with that purple suit," Fuqua said. "Just like you break a horse. Beat him day after day with different outfits. He dead."
"He goes out and buys things all the time," Beatty said. "I beat him just dipping into my closet."
"He's right," Fuqua said. "I'm all the time walking around in the little neighborhoods when I go out on a speaking engagement, just looking for something different. When we're on the road and everybody else goes to the movies, I go looking for clothes and I don't tell anyone where I got them. One time here I bought a very unusual suit in a little store, and a couple days later one of the other players showed up in the same suit. Never bought another thing from that store."
Fuqua calls himself the Count, explaining that he is really a French count but he spent so much time taking the sun on the Riviera that he has never been able to lose his tan.
Fuqua missed the Cincinnati game with a bruised knee he sustained against the Bears, a game in which he gained 114 yards in 17 carries. "Dropped me down to 12th in ballcarrying, missing one game," he said. "But I ain't worried. All the backs I got to beat play on teams that have got to play us and I figure they ain't going to gain then. So I'm heading for No. 1."
Fuqua's volubility does not diminish during the game. He even chitchats with Dick Butkus. "That first game, he hit me pretty hard," Fuqua said. "I am very aware of the Bears because they gave me this a couple years ago when I played with the Giants." He touched a one-inch scar on his right cheekbone. "But I ain't afraid of them. So I told Butkus, 'Hey, man, you look like you limping.' He had a knee operation. Next time he hit me even harder and wouldn't get off me. He look down at me and say, 'French, you going to be limping in a little while.' So when I got the bruised knee and went off, he hollered, 'Come on back, Frenchy. Why you limping?' "
Fuqua felt his knee and flexed the leg. "Knee is fine now," he said. "And I got to play. I just can't stand to sit on that bench. Now we got offense to go with the defense. I want to get in there."
Andy Russell has the locker next to Fuqua. "You'll play," he said. "Don't worry about it."
Russell has been with the Steelers for seven years. He makes up for his lack of size with exceptional intelligence and the ability to diagnose plays. Last year, against Cleveland, he overheard Quarterback Bill Nelsen warn Leroy Kelly to watch for a safety blitz. Russell's assignment on the play was to cover Kelly on a pass. Instead he blitzed himself, knowing Kelly would be staying in, and dumped Nelsen for a big loss.
"It's coming to the point where we feel we can win," Russell said. "We used to keep wondering when the other team was going to make the big play. Now we wonder when we will. And we're reacting more quickly. We're getting more comfortable in this defense and we move instinctively, without thinking. We no longer suffer from what Coach Noll calls the paralysis of analysis. Greene is a perfect example of that. He has the ability to make an instinctive, confident decision and act upon it immediately. That's why he's in their backfield all the time."
Russell stroked his mustache. "This team does not think of itself as a powerhouse," he said. "But we feel we have a real good chance to win our division. After that, we'll see."
Art Rooney is waiting.