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LI'L ABNER FINALLY MAKES IT BIG

Dec. 18, 1978
Dec. 18, 1978

Table of Contents
Dec. 18, 1978

Davis Cup
Terry Bradshaw
Mike Rossman
Jimmy Carter
Slick Leonard
College Basketball
Fishing
Bowling
Skiing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

LI'L ABNER FINALLY MAKES IT BIG

When Pittsburgh won two Super Bowls, Terry Bradshaw was praised primarily for his strong arm, but this season there's no denying his arrival as a play caller and the leader of the Steelers. Now they could win it all again

Terry Bradshaw watched the dying rays of a December sun shimmer on the pond beyond the forest of hickory and pine. At his feet, the Doberman puppy, Jessie, was menacing the miniature dachshund puppy, Rowdy, snatching up the tiny sausage of a dog in his powerful jaws. "That's enough, Jessie," Bradshaw admonished. "Man, sometimes I think that big dog wants a piece of the little fellow. And Rowdy is my pal. If I had him up in Pittsburgh with his mama, Sugar, I'd never lack for amusement. But heck, there's no dog I don't like." Jessie loped off, his tiny victim yapping after him in mock pursuit. In the fading light, buff-colored cows sauntered through an open gate, nodding uncomprehendingly at their master. "They're my babies," said Bradshaw paternally as they passed. "I love 'em."

This is an article from the Dec. 18, 1978 issue Original Layout

He looked out over the rolling, green, wooded hills of northern Louisiana, blue eyes squinting against the pale sunshine. He wore a fringed buckskin jacket and jeans, and a straw cowboy hat sat atop his balding pate. He was a rancher now, not a football player, and his strong resemblance to the television rancher, Chuck Connors, was more arresting than ever. "In springtime," Bradshaw said in a soft drawl, "this is the most beautiful place you've ever seen."

Time, place and circumstance collaborated to give Bradshaw this bucolic respite. The day before, he had quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers to a bruising 13-3 win over the Houston Oilers. It was a game in which seemingly everyone but the frequently injured Bradshaw had fallen in battle. The final casualty figures listed eight Oilers and four Steelers with injuries, some serious. On that bloody afternoon, the Astrodome could have passed for the Alamo. But two Roy Gerela field goals and a Bradshaw touchdown pass had enabled the Steelers to clinch their sixth AFC Central Division championship in seven years and a berth in the playoffs.

As a reward, Coach Chuck Noll had given his battered legions an unprecedented two days off, meaning they had only three days to prepare for last Saturday's game against Baltimore. (The vacation hardly harmed Bradshaw. Playing in a snowstorm, and on a frozen rug, Bradshaw embellished his Player of the Year credentials by throwing for three more touchdowns—31 yards to John Stallworth, 12 yards to Randy Grossman and 29 yards to Jim Smith—as the Steelers pelted the Colts 35-13. They now have the best record in the NFL—13-2—and will have home-field, or perhaps home-ice, advantage in the AFC playoffs.) Because Houston is only about 200 miles from his native Shreveport, La., Bradshaw capitalized on the unexpected holiday by driving with his parents, Bill and Novis, to the 400-acre cattle and horse ranch he owns south of his hometown. "The ranch is medicine to me," he says.

Bradshaw has always sought regeneration in his roots. He was born and reared in this God-fearing country. He first achieved celebrity as a star quarterback and record-setting javelin thrower at Shreveport's Woodlawn High, and he set passing records at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, 80 miles to the east. For all of his national exposure these past nine NFL seasons, the North remains a strange and hostile place to Bradshaw. Northern Louisiana is where he can kick off his boots and, within the bounds of Christian morality, "let the good times roll." This is not bayou country, with its Cajuns and its New Orleans, for that is as foreign to him as the cold, uncompromising North. This is ranching and farming and Bible-thumping country, as Southwestern in most ways as it is Southern. "All these little towns have their rodeos and such," says Bradshaw's dad, a large, pleasant, gravel-voiced man. "After all, we're only about 20 miles from Texas." Terry Bradshaw is as much cowpoke as quarterback.

When the world is too much with him, he looks homeward. After a disastrous rookie season in 1970, he pulled himself together back home, vowing to "show 'em" next time around. And when, a few years later, not only his career but also the very foundations of his life seemed to be in jeopardy, he turned once more to the fundamental beliefs of his childhood, "rededicating" himself to that oldtime religion.

For a man thought by the glib and the uninformed to be simple, Terry Bradshaw has had a rather complex life. He was the first college player selected in the 1970 NFL draft, and he became, thereby, famous overnight. Nothing in his upbringing had prepared him for such recognition, and he squirmed in the limelight, a frightened and bewildered star. His country ways caused him to be too quickly characterized as an Ozark Ike type, and his Bible Belt philosophy made him appear more foolish than sincere among the supposedly sophisticated. He tried and failed to conceal his naivetè behind unnatural bravado, exposing himself to even more ridicule.

He has been married twice, to a beauty queen and an international ice-skating star. He has acted in a Hollywood movie (Hooper) opposite Burt Reynolds, and he enjoyed a brief, not entirely unsuccessful career as a country and Western singer, a career he may well resume. Whatever he may become, now he is a football player who is having his best season, with a team-record 26 touchdown passes and 2,784 yards passing, and he is at long last earning his due as one of the game's finest quarterbacks.

Bradshaw has come some distance from a woeful beginning and a calamitous mid-career. The Steelers, who had not won any sort of championship in their previous 35 years in the NFL, had finished 1-13 in 1969, the season before Bradshaw's arrival. They had succeeded only in building a reputation as hard-drinking tough guys who could beat you up on the field but never on the scoreboard. Fans and players alike had become hardened to defeat. In Bradshaw, who had passed for more than 7,000 yards in small-college football and had received top marks from all scouts, particularly because of an arm that could throw the ball on a line for what seemed like the entire length of the field, they saw a savior.

"When he arrived we were more or less desperate for anyone to turn us around," recalls Andy Russell, the retired linebacker who is now in the investment business in Pittsburgh. "Terry was portrayed as a magician who could transform perennial losers into Super Bowl champs."

To acquaint the young Mandrake with his new teammates, Russell invited Bradshaw to a team party at his house. This otherwise friendly gesture had unhappy consequences. "Here he was, a rookie from the country faced with a bunch of cynical old veterans," says Russell. "You can imagine the scrutiny he was put under. I'm not sure a quarterback can ever become one of the boys—everyone, consciously or unconsciously, thinks he gets too much credit—but Terry just wasn't one to go out and match those old Steelers beer for beer and shot for shot. He wasn't into that silly macho thing. Still, we thought he could lead us out of the woods. I remember I went once to hear him give a speech before a church group. He was what they called 'witnessing.' Well, I'd never been to anything like that, but as I listened to him I sat there wondering if he could somehow convert that religious fervor into action on the field."

Bradshaw completed only 38.1% of his 218 passes his rookie season. He threw for six touchdowns and was intercepted 24 times, hardly a magical debut. In the final game, a 30-20 loss to Philadelphia, he was sent in to punt for the injured Bobby Walden. "He was kicking from the end zone," Russell recalls, "so we suspected they'd be coming strong. They did. It was as if the flood gates had opened. They just crushed that punt. For Terry it was the final humiliation." Still, the Steelers finished with a 5-9 record, their best since 1966. It was small consolation to the shattered young quarterback.

"My rookie year was a disaster," Bradshaw can say now. "I was totally unprepared for pro ball. I'd had no schooling on reading defenses. They'd blitz me, and I'd just run away. I had never studied the game, never looked at films the way a quarterback should. I had never been benched before. I'd never even played on a team that had another quarterback besides me. I had no idea how important I was to the team. I'd never been to Pittsburgh, never even seen the Steelers play on television. We had another good quarterback in Terry Hanratty. He was an All-America from Notre Dame, and he was from Pennsylvania. He related well with the other players. He had polish. He was one of the guys. I was an outsider who didn't mingle well. There were no cowboys on the team, no one who liked to fish or do the things I liked to do. The other players looked upon me as a Bible-toting Li'l Abner."

He went home to Shreveport discouraged but not defeated. "All I could think about was, 'I'll show 'em,' " he says. "I was embarrassed. I started studying this game. By the end of that year I'd lost all my confidence, so I psyched myself into getting it back. In that off-season, I worked and worked."

Noll and the other coaches were not as discouraged as Bradshaw believed them to be. From 1-13 to 5-9 in one year represented dramatic progress to them, and as Noll has said. "Terry was always the guy with the most talent. There never was any question about that." When Bradshaw reported to training camp in 1971, he was startled to see his name first on the depth chart. He rewarded Noll's confidence by completing 203 of 373 passes for 2,259 yards and 13 touchdowns, a superb season for a second-year man. He seemed on his way. But he slipped slightly in '72, completing only 47.7% of 308 passes, and in '73 he suffered a shoulder separation and missed four games in the middle of the season.

In 1974 his troubles began anew. He was divorced from his wife of 18 months. Melissa Babish, Miss Teen Age America of 1969, and in training camp he lost his starting job to third-year man Joe Gilliam. If an athlete's career is life in capsule—youth, middle age, old age, all in a dozen years—then Bradshaw suffered a mid-life crisis at 26.

"I'm a Baptist, a Christian," he says. "I pulled away from it in that year. I felt a lot of guilt over the divorce, and I'd lost my job. I'd failed. I didn't become an alcoholic or a whoremonger, but I was moody and depressed and I drank and hustled women in bars—a total jerk having a ball. I have never enjoyed those things. I'd been a devout Christian for so long, getting away from it affected me mentally. The ton of guilt brought me to my knees. I guess you could say that God blitzed me and gave me a shot to the head, and no one threw a flag."

It was then, he said, that he looked back to what he had been—a young man who, to pursue the football metaphor, cared more about the Scriptures than the playbook. He prayed for another chance, although "I had a hard time believing God could forgive a jerk like me." Apparently, He did, for within a year Jo Jo Starbuck entered his life.

Born Alicia Jo Starbuck and reared in Downey, a Los Angeles suburb, Jo Jo was, like Bradshaw, both an athlete and a devout Christian. She had been skating since she was seven, and with her partner, Ken Shelley, had competed in two Olympics and skated professionally with the Ice Capades. Bradshaw, rededicated, saw her perform in Pittsburgh and immediately asked her out. She refused. Later, when she learned of his church-going ways, she sent him tickets to her next show in Pittsburgh. They had dinner that night. He proposed after two weeks. They became engaged a month later and were married on June 6, 1976. Though their jobs frequently separate them, they communicate regularly on the road and faithfully read the same passages of the Bible every day. "Jo Jo," says Terry, "is an angel."

Freed of his guilt and self-pity, Bradshaw regained his starting job midway through the '74 season and led the Steelers to their first NFL championship, achieved by means of a 16-6 win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IX. The next year, with Bradshaw throwing 18 regular-season touchdown passes, the Steelers repeated, defeating the Cowboys 21-17 in Super Bowl X. The decisive touchdown in that game came on a 64-yard Bradshaw-to-Lynn Swann pass, a play called at the line of scrimmage when Bradshaw correctly detected Dallas in a safety blitz. He released the ball before he was hurled to the ground by a pack of Cowboys, and Swann caught it in open space. It was the sort of play-calling one expects from intellectual quarterbacks like Tarkenton, Griese or Stabler. But Bradshaw?

Yes, he is a smart quarterback, his unfortunate image to the contrary. Although he has been picking NFL defenses to pieces all year, he remains, in the eyes of the ignorant, "dumb." Noll, who is as outwardly emotional as a throw rug, bristles at any suggestion that his quarterback reads defenses remedially. "That's ridiculous," he snaps. "People who say he's dumb should look in the mirror." Bradshaw calls all of his own plays, often brilliantly. Roger Staubach, supposedly a clever quarterback, calls almost none of his. Bradshaw knows his enemies as well as Rommel knew his. When the '49ers foolishly tried to blitz him in November, he deftly threw three touchdown passes. He engineered a masterful 11-play, 80-yard drive against Houston that transformed a bitter defensive struggle into a clear-cut Steeler victory. Bradshaw is nobody's fool.

In his own mind, his weaknesses as a quarterback are emotional, not mental. "I cannot play well unless I'm relaxed," he says, "and sometimes, when I really want to beat someone, I try too hard. I really think, maybe for that reason, I'm a notch below the top quarterbacks. I admire Bob Griese, for one. He has that consistency and poise. By the time I retire I'll probably pick up at least a half-notch." Swann suspects that Bradshaw has not successfully separated his professional life from his personal life. He is having a terrific season now because all is well at home, says Swann. And maybe this is all to the good. "He may be the healthiest of us all," Swann says, "because he is never two people."

Bradshaw is exasperated and hurt by the slurs on his intelligence. "It is a thorn in my side, and it always will be," he says. "I guess every quarterback has an image. Pat Haden is too short. Staubach is too clean. I'm too dumb. Pat could be 6'3" tomorrow and they'd still call him a shorty. I could get a doctorate in chemical engineering and they'd call me dumb. If there is one thing I've learned about an image, it is that you can never get rid of it. I just can't fight it any longer. I have to live with it."

Bradshaw suspects he got his movie role because Reynolds, now a friend, felt guilty about calling him dumb on television. In their fight scene in Hooper, which required Bradshaw to hoist the actor off his feet and snarl insults at him. Bradshaw achieved a measure of revenge by ad-libbing, "Listen here, dummy, aren't you ever going to learn?"

Bradshaw's burly physique, his open face, his Prince Myshkin innocence may all have contributed to persistent misconceptions about his mental agility. Griese, smallish and bespectacled, looks like a quarterback: Bradshaw looks as if he should be rushing one. And yet, says Russell, groping for the right word. 'He is really...uh...well, vulnerable."

Maybe that is because he is more at home on the range. He is assured enough back at the ranch as he walks bowlegged toward his quarter horse, Flying Bolo Bars, soothing the beast with a country song and some sweet nonsense. "My old faithful Bo. Remember our last rodeo? You got second. I got third." He turns to a companion. "I love football now more than I ever did," he said, "but I don't have to have it. There are other things. No one plays forever." He mounts his steed.

"You look right at home up there," he is told.

Bradshaw smiles. "It's a good place to be," he says, galloping off, by heaven, into the sunset.

PHOTOBradshaw has thrown 26 touchdown passes in leading the Steelers to a 13-2 record, best in the NFL.PHOTOBradshaw rides his quarter horse Flying Bolo Bars—alkla Bo—at his 400-acre ranch in Louisiana.PHOTOWhen separated, Bradshaw and his wife, skater Jo Jo Starbuck, read the same Bible passages.PHOTOSugar, a dachshund, keeps Bradshaw company in Pittsburgh; her son Rowdy is back on the ranch.