One afternoon during practice I was watching the linemen pound away at each other—wump, clack. Guard Bruce Van Dyke paused to say, "What are you doing?"
"Trying to get a feel for this," I said.
"If you really want to get a feel for it you should put on some pads and get out here and get blocked," he said.
"Well," I said, "I thought I would get a feel for it by asking you how it feels."
August 11, 1974
"I try not to notice how it feels," he said. "If you felt it, you wouldn't do it."
I admired Head Coach Chuck Noll's response when a reporter came up to him after the Steelers' loss to Cincinnati and asked, "How do you feel?"
"It hasn't changed," said Noll. "I still feel with my hands." Often, you had to hand it to Noll.
So I thought I might try treating the question of how pro football feels by asking players about their hands. One conclusion I was led to from that line of questioning was that pro football feels terrible.
On the backs of their hands and on their knuckles many of the players had wounds of a kind I have never seen on anyone else: fairly deep digs and gouges that were not scabbed over so much as dried. They looked a little like old sores on horses. The body must have given up trying to refill those gouges and just rinded them over and accepted them. During the year, at Noll's suggestion, the offensive line did the backs of their hands a favor by adopting the thick black leather gloves that fighters use for punching a heavy bag. Before he started wearing these gloves, Van Dyke said, the backs of his hands were so sore all season from banging into defensive linemen's ribs that he hated to shake hands.
Different Steelers taped their hands all different ways: the middle two fingers together; the last two together; or just one or more jammed fingers taped singly for support. A jammed finger hurts less after it is taped. Craig Hanneman boasted that he and Mean Joe Greene were the only two defensive linemen on the Steelers who didn't tape and pad their hands and forearms heavily. I asked him why he didn't. "Just to be tough," he said in a self-deprecating way. But he did tape each of his fingers, because they were always jammed or broken from catching on opponents' helmets. Lloyd Voss, a Steeler defensive tackle who retired after the '72 season and is now with the New York Stars, used to tape all his fingertips, because otherwise he often would have his nails jerked out. (He also used to bring his small daughter into the dressing room, causing some consternation.)
"I've never broken a finger," said Greene. "I had 'em stepped on, twisted, but not broken. One time I grabbed at Jim Plunkett and my little finger caught in a twist of his jersey and he ran for a ways dragging me that way, by my little finger. That turned my little finger around, but it didn't break it."
Most of the defensive linemen had broken many fingers. "You can't play football, I don't care what position, without hands," said Defensive End Dwight White. "I use 'em to pull, knock down, grab. Hands are as important as eyes."
He glanced down at his. "See this fanger," he said. "I got it jammed five years ago, and it's just started to straighten out. See that fanger. Can't wear a ring on it. I got some of the ugliest fangers in the world. They get bloodshot from licks. Come in with the whole end of it brown from hitting."
In '72 L.C. Greenwood looked down in the midst of a play to see the upper two-thirds of his middle finger completely twisted around backward and crossed over the ring finger. "I couldn't figure out what had happened. So I fixed it right there in the middle of the play and went on." He had it splinted and played with the splint on, and now that finger sticks out at a grotesque angle. He said he would get it straightened after he was out of football; no point doing it until then. It hurt in cold weather, he said.
Fats Holmes, a tackle, pounded the in-sides of his wrists—where the veins and tendons that suicides slit are—in sand to toughen them up.
Safety Mike Wagner said he broke three fingers his first year in the pros from grabbing at receivers, so now he tries to keep his hands out of his tackles. It is good tackling technique in the open field to use your shoulder and body instead of your hands anyway, he pointed out.
Receivers, running backs and quarterbacks could hardly keep their hands out of play, and they had to use them too subtly to be able to tape their fingers. "My fingers stay jammed," said Quarterback Joe Gilliam. "Stepped on. Pop 'em on helmets. Holding on to the ball while people are trying to pull it away. Every time one gets jammed you have to alter your grip, and that makes you anticipate your throw. Makes you think about it. That's bad. My two little fingers never will be the same. I jammed the right one in camp last year and it's still bothering me. Imagine what somebody like John Brodie or Sonny Jurgensen's hands are like, who's been playing so long."
"I don't hold," maintained Guard Sam Davis. "If I know a guy's going to beat me and get the quarterback, then I'll hold. Otherwise I use my fists. Hit him with my fists—catch him on the side, uppercut him in the ribs. Make contact with your shoulder and then come up with your hands; it's like a second man coming in to hit him. You ball your hands up so you have a firm type fist situation." But Sam got called for holding a number of times during the year. Noll put together a film to send to the league office, showing Sam getting called for clean licks and other linemen holding blatantly without getting called.
"There isn't a play run," maintained Punter Bobby Walden, "when holding couldn't be called."
"That's an old wives' tale," said Center Ray Mansfield. "But if I'm holding on purpose, there's no way I'm going to be caught at it."
Things fall apart if the center cannot hold.
"Hands are all in your head," said Wide Receiver Glenn Scolnik of the concept "good hands." "A great receiver is totally relaxed from the waist up. The receiver's face is not all tight. He relaxes so his jowls hang, he eases, and he takes it real soft."
Some of the receivers worked putty in their hands to keep them strong, or squeezed rubber balls, or just spent a lot of time carrying a football around and tossing it from hand to hand. "In the off-season I spend 10 minutes a day with each hand dropping the ball and catching it," said Wide Receiver Ron Shanklin, a great man for getting at the ball as well as for hauling it in.
That is not easy, holding a ball out in front of you in one hand, releasing it and then catching it in the same hand. Wide Receiver Barry Pearson, the player you would think of first if you thought "sure-handed," said his hands weren't big enough to do that. He relied on concentration. "I watch the ball all the way-in. You can't let the point hit either of your hands; it should come between them."
"Lots of guys have good hands and nobody knows it," said Receiver Coach Lionel Taylor, "because they don't have the concentration." He put the Steeler receivers through a number of drills to make them concentrate on the ball.
He would throw them knuckleballs, floaters, end-over-ends. "I learned a lot of hard-catch drills when I was playing. You'd go out for a pass and they'd wave a towel at you, even throw weeds at you. Big handful of brush! You'd say, "What was that!' But then in a game you're used to distractions and you don't flinch.
"Another thing about receivers is when they get hit by somebody when they're coming over the middle. They come through the middle next time, they're short-arming it. They don't want to catch it. I always thought about two things when the ball was coming: catching the football and getting hit. Always expect to get hit when I caught the football. Expect somebody to tear my head off. Then I wasn't surprised."
You never get far from contact in discussing any aspect of football. But the contact of ball on good hands is a special kind. The ball is hard and the receiver's hands are also hard. But a pass goes snk at the end, or even sk or, more softly, ft, or p or pth—instead of splack—when the right touch gets ahold of it. "You don't fight the football," someone said. Iron hands in velvet gloves.
"See those hands," said Kansas City scout Lloyd Wells as we watched a college receiver go out for a practice pass. "Those are board hands. You be scouting long enough you can tell. The sound of 'em. Ball bounced off before he caught it. Plus the fact that the ball made him waver, it made him stride, it made him start to go raggledy-dedaggledy."
Wells said Jimmy Hines, the track star drafted by the Chiefs, "could fly on a pattern. Thought he was going to be another Bob Hayes. Run fast, fast, fast. But he could not catch the ball. Not with a basket could he catch the ball. Hank Stram did everything he could to make him a wide receiver. Used to take him out and throw him 200 and 300 passes. Made him walk around with the ball. He could not catch it."
Players who handle the ball frequently develop a connoisseur's hands. Field-equipment manager Jack Hart said he could spin a ball and tell whether it was balanced. Referees would reject a game ball if it had a little bulge around the laces or if the black stitching around the laces didn't follow exactly the black line around them. "Guys claim the night ball is fatter because the white stripes make it look that way," said Hart, "so we use those in practice a few days before a night game. A dark ball is better to grip. A lighter-toned ball is slippery."
"When you can get a good ball," said Quarterback Terry Hanratty, "you just want to stay with it. Some are slick and some are fatter than others. Noll will look at it and say no, that ball's not fatter, but unless you've thrown the ball as long as a quarterback has you can't tell."
Bradshaw and Gilliam both have big hands, like most quarterbacks and baseball pitchers. I told Bradshaw I'd seen a picture of him and President Nixon comparing hands, palm to palm, in some White House ceremony, and it looked like their fingertips matched exactly. "Nixon must have big hands," I said.
Bradshaw said, well, Nixon had cheated up on him a little bit from the bottom.
Wide Receiver Chuck Dicus said he'd had to stop working on cars, which he loved to do, because it cut up his hands too much and it was bad for a receiver's hands to hurt. I asked him, "Can you do anything special with them because they're a receiver's hands?"
"I can do this," he said, and he crossed his middle finger over his forefinger and his ring finger over his little finger at the same time, without using any of his other fingers to help them into place.
Now that, I thought, is a good little index to a receiver's hands. I was talking to one of the linemen about hands and I said, "Dicus can do this." And I did it.
Oddly enough I could only do it with my left hand. Still, it must not be much of a hallmark of receivers' hands. Unless...unless.... One afternoon during a Steeler practice, when I was all dressed up in sweat pants and a yellow jersey and shoes with lots of short plastic cleats for artificial turf, Placekicker Roy Gerela started lofting me passes and I looked marvelous. I don't think any other part of my body could conceivably make it in the NFL. Once I scrambled down a gravelly hill in front of a scout and at the bottom I said, "Pretty good feet, huh?" and he said, "Yeah. If you had one more of 'em you might be a player." Once in the dressing room the trainer came up behind me and kneaded me at the base of the neck. He acted as though I didn't have any muscles there. "We don't get many in here like you," he said. That made me feel wonderful.
But my hands were nearly as big as Bradshaw's (about the size, then, of Nixon's). I am a third baseman in Central Park Softball, and playing third base requires quick hands. I was catching passes from Gerela and a wave of competence came over me. Not only was I catching the ball neatly with my fingers—ft, pth—but I actually felt I was moving well. I was catching the ball at the sidelines and putting both feet down deftly in bounds.
"Hmm, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, eh?" said Gerela, and it sounded vainly like an acknowledgement. I trotted off the field and Dan Rooney said, "You looked like you knew what you were doing out there." The man who directed the club! I think I may have told him as modestly as possible that I caught the only forward pass completed all season by my dorm floor in freshman intramurals in college.
Still I had a great reluctance about asking the quarterbacks to throw to me. Once when Bradshaw was working his arm back into shape I ran out and he underthrew me. I may be the only person of my speed ever to be underthrown by Terry Bradshaw. I think he was afraid I would fly apart if he hit me. Or maybe I looked even slower than I was. At any rate I knew it wasn't doing his timing any good, throwing to me. So I never asked him to throw to me again. Photographer Walter Iooss did, though, and he barely got his hands up in time. "All of a sudden the ball was just there," he reported. "The ball came in a line."
In Palm Springs preparing for the playoff game with Oakland, the Steelers were very loose. They were usually loose, but in Palm Springs there was a lassitude, almost, in the air. Which Noll, as you can imagine, did not approve of. When Guard Moon Mullins pulled too slowly for his taste, though the rest of the offensive line thought Moon was pulling hard, Noll said in a very hard voice, "If you can't run any faster than that, maybe we've got the wrong people out here."
But generally the tone of things was very relaxed in Palm Springs, and I was spending even more time than usual with the players, since they didn't have homes to go to. One afternoon in practice I found myself catching up for Bradshaw. When quarterbacks warm up, they have someone else catch the ball when it is thrown back, so as not to take a chance on hurting their fingers. Bradshaw was throwing to someone next to Hanratty and Hanratty was throwing to me.
One problem was that I was wearing street clothes, including a shoe whose crepe sole was loose and flapping. Another problem was that I have never been able to throw a football very well. I have a good arm in softball. Ask anybody. But I throw a wobbly pass.
So when I tossed the ball to Bradshaw after Hanratty threw it to me, I looked bad from the beginning. I admit that. And the fans got on me for it.
There were fans watching. Local people who had nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon (I don't think anybody in Palm Springs has much to do; everybody looks rich; I hate Palm Springs) were clustered around the field watching practice.
But, hey, I was catching the ball. I would run a little pattern in the end zone and Hanratty would pop it to me and I would catch it with just my hands. "Great hands, terrible arm," laughed Hanratty once. I disdained the use of my arms and body, in part, perhaps, because I was mindful that Chris Speier, the San Francisco Giants' shortstop, had caught passes from the Steeler quarterbacks one afternoon and the next day the insides of his arms were black and blue. I wasn't going to wrap the ball up desperately, I was going to flick my hands out there like magnetized rags and just snk that ball. I did that. Twice. That pebble grain feels good, like living skin on the whorls of your fingers.
Twice. Or maybe three times. Then my hands gave out on me. I may have been noticing too much, and therefore became self-conscious. But it was also true that my hands got numb and leathery. I would put them out like before and there would be a sort of splutter, or splatter, as the ball struggled in them as though frightened and squirted through. Once, trying not to tighten up, I overeased and the ball just tipped my fingers and went zooming way beyond me. "How did I ever catch something like that?" I began to think.
Bradshaw was taking part by coming up heavily behind me like a defender. Footsteps. Like a coward, I would shy away and reach out at the ball awkwardly. Now I am not thoroughly frightened of running into big strong people. I wasn't afraid of bumping into Bradshaw. It was just that I didn't feel I belonged there anyway, and if Bradshaw wanted to be somewhere my instinct was to get out of his way.
But I should have flung my body at the ball if I couldn't get my hands to perform. Stop it some way. The ball, though, is hard, and it has that blunt point, like an unsharpened stake. For the first time in my life I had balls coming at me, which if I missed them would smash my face.
"Sacrifice your body," cried a still small voice in my head.
"How about my pride?" cried a louder, more vibrant one.
And the fans' voices did me no good at all. They were groaning and yelling and hooting, especially when I tripped over the pitcher's mound deep in the end zone and went sprawling, tearing the knee of my pants. "Here! Let me do it! He can't do it!" several adolescent boys cried out. "Oh, God!" some witness cried in perverse delight.
"Now you know what we have to put up with," Bradshaw said softly.
I persisted raggedly, and finally Hanratty and Bradshaw were through warming up. I took a nice soft one from Hanratty over my shoulder, spiked the ball to spite the crowd and trotted hangdog over to the sidelines. Dan Rooney looked away.
There was an 18-year-old girl around the pool at the Gene Autry Hotel, where we were staying, who was so wonderful-looking it made you mad. I'm not even going to try to describe her. She wore a terry-cloth bikini, which you could not have dried off a little mouse with. I think she was why the Steelers lost, if she bothered them as much as she did me. She was there with her mother. A Steeler went out with her one night. It was a chaste evening—her mother and a teammate were along—but the next morning a non-player made a funny, disparaging, indelicate comment on the Steeler's ineptitude, socially and athletically.
I relayed the remark to Linebacker Andy Russell shortly before my receiving experience began. He didn't really laugh. "That's cold-blooded, as the guys say," he said. When I came to the sidelines in disgrace Russell was standing there. I was filled, as I approached him, with the realization that as tight as I might be with the Steelers, for a scribe, I didn't have the license to exchange cold-blooded talk with them concerning on-the-field matters. I shifted the focus of my cold-bloodedness. "The fans hate me," I said. "I hate the fans."
"You loved that, didn't you?" said Russell, smiling.
Loved it? I was startled. I felt terrible. I had dropped all those passes....
"Journalistically," I conceded.
As I was getting some faint measure of feel for the game, the Steelers were losing theirs; it is hard to be intense in Palm Springs. Some interesting things happened. Art Rooney, the owner, used the term "bikinkies"—as in bikinky bathing suits; Joe Greene ate hot sauce until, according to some observers, steam rose from his head; a Steeler got a free massage at a local parlor by telling his masseuse she was under arrest; Van Dyke exemplified cold-blooded football humor by saying companionably to Bobby Walden, who'd been having an uneven season punting and was getting up in years, "Well, this is about it for you, huh, Bo?"
Van Dyke also confessed doubts on the part of the offense: "When we get down close to the goal, we're wondering if we can score. You're not just doing your job, you're asking yourself if you can score."
A sobbing anonymous father called the hotel from a Pittsburgh hospital to ask whether Greene and Linebacker Jack Ham would talk to his dying young son. They strained to hear the boy's weak voice. "We're going after those Raiders," Ham told him. "Are you going to watch the game?" The boy said he didn't know whether he would live long enough to. "Joe and I will come and watch you play football when you gel better," Ham said. The boy's answer was inaudible. Ham and Greene were shaken.
"The Raiders are just like any other bunch of kids who like to beat up another bunch of kids," said their great receiver, Fred Biletnikoff. But they were also the kids on whom the Steelers had perpetrated The Immaculate Reception in the playoffs the year before. And Oakland was where things had been so favorably wild for the Steelers six weeks before. On the way out onto the field Bradshaw slung his golden arm over my shoulder and sang a country song he said he'd written: "Hello, trouble...Come on in...Ain't had no trouble since you know when...." Whatever the sideline equivalent of being on the edge of your seat is, the Steelers were. I found myself sort of bouncing in place like the players, and stopped, feeling silly. The fans were primed. They were holding signs that said MURDER FRANCO and MEAN? JOE GREENE WEARS PANTY HOSE.
Just before the half Bradshaw hit Barry Pearson for a four-yard touchdown pass to make the score Oakland 10, Pittsburgh 7, and Van Dyke exclaimed, "We've got them now! And they know it. Oh, they may make it look good for the fans, but they know it." Surely the Steelers' winning nature would assert itself. Or the Raiders would choke. Somehow things would fit together.
They fit together for Oakland. During halftime Bradshaw nodded his head. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," as Noll tried to tell him what to do. In the third quarter the Raiders kicked two quick field goals and the Steeler offense didn't move. "We're trying to lose!" said Barry Pearson, as if he were a fan. "No sense in that!"
"We're getting beat across the board," said Defensive Tackle Steve Furness. "Offense and defense." The defense had been saving the offense all year; finally they both had gone flat.
"Could be a sad ending to your book," said Craig Hanneman.
"It isn't over yet," I said absurdly.
Franco Harris was pacing back and forth like a zoo lion whose knee hurt. L.C. Greenwood was sitting on the bench with his hands and arms swathed in thick peeling stained bandages like those on besieged Marines at Dak To in pictures in LIFE. His head was down. Linebacker Loren Toews got in a fight on the field, came off and was hit with a chocolate ice cream cone from the stands. Ice cream was all over the back of his head, mingling with sweat and grass and dirt and running down the cords of his neck. The fans whooped and laughed.
Bradshaw threw a touchdown pass, but he also threw three interceptions and the final score was 33-14 Oakland. Bradshaw dressed hurriedly and left. He didn't go back to Pittsburgh. Joe Greene sat in the dressing room. On the floor around his feet were scattered jockstraps, dirty towels and battered empty tape husks that had been cut away from hands and still looked grasping. "We're one of the best teams in the country with one of the best coaching staffs," he said. "But something was missing. Today that special ingredient was missing."
Then he sagged. "Now I got to go out and probably fight. 'Cause somebody's going to say something I don't agree with. You gonna help me?" he asked me.
I told him I'd be somewhere behind him, but all the bellicose fans seemed to have gone home. On the plane back, Ham and Wagner jocularly blamed various teammates. "It was your fault."
"It's a game of inches," Ham said.
"Sometimes it's a game of feet," said Wagner.
Rocky Bleier did his chicken imitation. He brushed his hair up like a comb and hunched down with his chest out huge and walked like a hen and clucked.
Sam Davis looked pent-up and desolate. I asked him a dumb scribe's question: How did he feel now compared to the way he felt after the last game in '72?
"Same," he said.
"Does it always feel the same after you lose the last one?"
"It does. To me."
Art Rooney was playing gin with Line Coach George Perles, in apparent equanimity. "Wait till next year," he said.
"A guy like me," said Defensive Back Dennis (Kamikaze) Meyer, meaning a marginal recklessly-disregard-your-small-body guy, "I don't know whether I'll have a next year."
"I'd call it a predictable ending," said Cornerback John Rowser. "With our offense, anything we got was a bonus." Several other defensive men agreed. They grumbled about Bradshaw's thinking, and Noll's.
"The terrible thing," said Mansfield later, "is that the defense didn't die on the beaches with their bayonets. They ran into the water and drowned. I think that's basic to the success of humanity—don't quit. What if the United States laid down in World War II?"
"It's like what Adlai Stevenson said after Eisenhower beat him so bad," Hanneman said. "He said he felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh."
Players were taking belts out of various things to augment the two free beers. "Watch out for Noll," someone said. "He won't venture back into the pit," said someone else.
In the dressing room after the game, in his last '73 address to the team, Noll had been brief: "We're too good a team to be losing. We're going to take a long concentrated look at the season. We're going to find out where the mistakes came and why. All I can say is Merry Christmas." He didn't smile. "Merry Christmas," he said. Now he sat wordless up front staring straight ahead. He had lost. He would be criticized by fans and scouts and scribes.
When we reached Pittsburgh I said goodby to people, as though it were a high school graduation. "I can't drive back to Oregon in time for Christmas," Hanneman said blearily, solemnly. "Can't buy gas on Sunday. Hell, Christmas is just like any other day to me. It'll be the 12th year in a row I'll have Christmas by myself." His face was grim. "You know what I said about Stevenson...not crying? I said that, but I will. I'll break down before I take off in the car."
What kind of end was this for a year with hard-rolling men of contact? Something missing. Something missing. In a plane crowded with 250-pound people, not one image of fullness.
"Sometimes," Bradshaw had said earlier, "you'd like to go out there and really give them something to boo: have 20 interceptions, hand off to the wrong people, lose 100 to 0. Come off the field and the coach is laughing, everybody's hugging everybody, just having a good time."
Later Mansfield ate his eggs, and then some of my eggs, in a late-night hash house in Pittsburgh and told me this: "In college they'd say, 'Mansfield, you're fat and last." They wanted me to run hard all the way, but I'd hang back and beat everybody in the last minute. They had guys built like Greek gods who couldn't block, and I got stomach hanging over my belt and I knock hell out of people. I didn't get the MVP my senior year—a guy who was nice did. That's what I like about myself: coaches don't like me. I like to have a good time. But I do the job anyway.
"I'm getting at the stage now where I have to worry about losing my physical ability. My neck hurts so bad sometimes I think about killing myself. I know I'll be a cripple by the time I'm 50. But if that's what it takes, all right. When I was growing up my family never had anything. I want to enjoy life. Next to love, football is the thing I like most."
And right after the playoff loss, in the dressing room before his sweat was dry, I talked to Russell. Russell, who used to be one of the game's great hunch-playing blitzers, but who had sacrificed much of his abandon to Noll's disciplined team-play system. Russell, who surely can't be playing for money, because he makes twice as much in business as in football. Russell, who on a tour of Vietnam, finding himself in a barracks vulnerable to attack, spent the night on its steps with a rifle and a martini.
That was the Russell who after the playoff defeat spoke literally of ecstasy: "I was into that game. There was no other world outside it. There was nothing. That's the thrill."
"Does that make it hard to lose?"
"No—easier. You know you gave it all you had. Some games you're distracted by an injury or something, and you get down on yourself, question your character. This game—I was into the game. We lost. But all I could think afterward was 'Goddam, I had fun.' "
And so I guess did all of that frothing crowd, and maybe even Noll, and so journalistically and personally did I, the detached scribe, who had thrown my arm around Russell's shoulder pads on the sidelines as defeat loomed, and so did the fan back home in Pittsburgh who wrote:
I like your team. I watched all of your games, pittsBurgh when you lost to Oklalang I think it was are right and Because you Bet them 3 times so what well pittsBurgh I am very glad that I am a fan of your team well pittsBurgh I am glad I wrote this letter well I guess Id, Better go well Bye. Bye.
Love your fan
(PS) I love your team.
"It's some game," Russell said. "It's a great game. It's not like going to play a game of squash."