Words like "era" and "enshrinement" were heard everywhere in Canton, Ohio last weekend, but they weren't uttered by Chuck Noll, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Noll is fond of saying, "Every year is a transition year," and he does not believe in history except as revealed in films of his next opponent.
Asking Noll how he felt about the prospect of his entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame—as Paul Warfield, Sid Gillman, Sonny Jurgensen, Bobby Bell and Bobby Mitchell did on Saturday—was like asking Mother Theresa who should portray her in a TV series. Relieved of back pain by off-season surgery, Noll has been relatively mellow in training camp. But when reporters mentioned the shrine to NFL immortality, Noll winced like W.C. Fields at a reference to water. "I don't even know who's in the Hall of Fame," he said.
When the Steelers whipped the New Orleans Saints 27-14 in Saturday's Hall of Fame exhibition game at Canton, however, they did so with reminiscent heartiness, if not players to reminisce about. Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Lynn Swann, Andy Russell, Mike Wagner, Dwight White, Rocky Bleier, Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood were in retirement. Donnie Shell and John Stallworth were holding out. Jim Smith and Ray Pinney were in the USFL. Terry Bradshaw was back in the Latrobe, Pa. training camp nursing an injured right arm. Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Mike Webster and Larry Brown made token appearances. New blood carried the day.
Instead of Bradshaw—who looks like Chuck Connors—hurling bombs to Stall-worth and Swann and Smith, here were Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone—who look like Christopher Reeve and Mark Malone—zipping quick pops to wide receivers Calvin Sweeney and Greg Hawthorne, Tight End Bennie Cunningham and to unheard-of newcomers. Instead of Harris cutting inventively through the line, here—in a jazzy new variety of sets—were Walter Abercrombie and Frank Pollard alternating with one quicksilver rookie after another. Passes were intercepted and broken up by defenders with names like Hinkle, Kohrs, Washington and Washington. The Steel Curtain has been replaced by new defensive terrorists named Gabriel Rivera, a fleet 282-pound Chicano; Keith Gary, a refugee from the Canadian League; and Lonnie Kennell, a man with alligator scars all over his body.
August 7, 1983
Whether these new Steelers will be as effective against teams other than the Saints remains, of course, to be seen. But, since the great Pittsburgh Super Bowl teams were founded on the defensive line, which was founded on Joe Greene, it is worth noting that Rivera, like Greene, is from Texas and has a strange, soft-looking body and enormous natural strength. Here are some other noteworthy facts about "Se√±or Sack":
•He was a pinch runner on his high school baseball team and a 10.3 100-yard-dash man.
•His body has been compared to Babe Ruth's—an enormous round trunk on piano legs. Steeler coaches feel that as long as he stays around 290 pounds he is not overweight.
•While on a tunafish-and-sardine diet he ate 23 cans of tuna in one day, but not the cans themselves.
•At Texas Tech, the fans had a special cheer for him:
Two bits, four bits,
Six bits, a peso.
All for Rivera,
Stand up and say so.
•When asked about his consistency, Se√±or Sack said he had to work on it. "Sometimes I feel like creaming a guy," he said, "and sometimes I just feel like torturing him."
Gary, who was the Steelers' first-round pick in 1981 but played the last two seasons with Montreal, has also been impressive in camp. Kennell, known as "Animal" or "Sweet Lonnie," wrestles alligators up to 900 pounds in the off-season. "He has a lot of tension in him," says an older Steeler.
"This is the best group of rookies we've had since I've been here," says fifth-year Cornerback Dwayne Woodruff, who, as you probably did not know, was the Steelers' MVP last year. "We definitely have another wave coming."
The last time the Steelers were talking that way in camp was in 1974, when Swann, Lambert, Stallworth and Webster joined the older immortals-to-be and helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls in six years. That era is over now, and so, apparently, is the three-year period when aging Steeler teams appeared in only one playoff game. There are 20 present Steelers who played on Super Bowl teams. Asked whether a new era may be dawning, Steeler President Dan Rooney said, "We're trying to still be in the same era." But that dynasty has moved on, probably by truck directly to the Hall of Fame.
The Steelers of the '70s could become the most enshrined NFL team ever. (Eight Green Bay Packers who strove together in the '60s, in addition to Vince Lombardi, are in the Hall.) Maybe the fact that so many Steelers will be up for consideration at the same time will work to their disadvantage. (Boyd Dowler, Max McGee and Paul Hornung of the Packers haven't made it. Kyle Rote has failed to join five of his '50s Giant teammates in enshrinement.) Russell, the only one of the likely candidates who has been retired long enough to be considered, has been eligible for two years and hasn't made it yet.
But however many Steelers eventually are selected, it should not soon be forgotten that four Super Bowls were won by an extraordinary group of inspired individualists. The still-vigorous Lambert is a good example. The bumper stickers on his truck say, CAUTION: I DON'T BRAKE FOR LIBERALS and GUNS' CAUSE CRIME LIKE FLIES CAUSE GARBAGE. And he maintains a long-term friendship with a 90-year-old monk at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
Today the younger players tell stories of "the old days," when Steelers had the feeling—and imposed it upon opponents—that Pittsburgh was represented by a looser and yet more furious type of athlete than other cities. This tradition goes way back—to the Steelers' founder, Hall of Famer Art Rooney, now 82, who has for more than 50 years been a horse-player of mythic stature. Thanks in part to this heritage, the Steelers of the '70s managed to be that rare thing, a multifariously raffish juggernaut. And they seem to be a hard act to follow. Especially since Joe Greene retired, after the '81 season. "I miss Greene!" Bradshaw exclaims. "He was like a brother. When he came to camp this year to help with the defensive line.... It'll sound crazy, but we embraced. I guess...I love him."
"I remember in the 1980 championship game against Houston," says Woodruff, who was then a rookie. "It was pretty close at the beginning, and then you could just see Joe making up his mind. He crashed through the line. He's one-on-one with Earl Campbell in the backfield. And Joe killed him!
"The crowd went crazy. And on the next play—bam! Joe did it again!
"And we thought, 'Hey, who the hell is going to beat us? We got Joe Greene doing anything he wants to.'
"We could just feel, hey, we were going to the Super Bowl. It was just laid out that way. Joe was the nucleus. The team was formed around him. And all of a sudden you've got a team, but he's gone.
"And others are, too. There used to be a lot more practical jokes. Rocky's naked, and people get him and tape him up in a laundry cart and wheel him down the hallway through the reception area and leave him outside the Rooneys' offices. He can't move. All he can do is talk.
"Rocky would put Bradshaw's toupee on and go out on the field and start throwing the football. Somebody filled Mel Blount's helmet full of baby powder, and he's sitting there talking to Chuck, and he puts his helmet on and there's baby powder all over him!
"There'd be a sign up in the locker room before Thanksgiving saying ORDER YOUR FREE TURKEY. Then, at the last practice we had before Thanksgiving.... You didn't really want to ask anybody, 'Where's my turkey?' You'd go up to other rookies and say, 'Hey, man, you get one?' 'No.' Then you realized.
"Three years in a row John Banaszak ordered a turkey. He never got one. Then, the next year, Banaszak didn't sign up. So Swann went out and bought turkeys for everybody who did. There's turkeys in front of their lockers. They're all saying to Banaszak, 'Hey, you should've signed up.'
"We haven't had much of that the last couple of years."
Linebacker Loren Toews, whose first season with the Steelers was 1973, is graying now. "I went through the lunch line the first day of camp this year," he says, "and I looked for some old guys to sit down with, and I didn't recognize a face." Since the Steelers switched to a three-lineman, four-linebacker defense last year, Toews has played the best football of his career, but he and other members of the Steeler defense who've been around for a few years say that Steeler football has become more regimented and technical. "Joe, L.C. and those guys didn't need techniques," Toews says. The regimentation has come with rules changes that keep defenders from banging on blockers and receivers. What Lambert liked most about visiting the Hall of Fame last Friday was looking at the leathery equipment players wore before his time, when football was closer to Indian fighting than to data processing.
More and more today, defensive football is a matter of several different sets of people shuttling back and forth onto the field in different permutations—"A lot of guys doing what used to be the work of eleven," Toews says.
When the Steelers concentrated more on outslicking, outwhupping and outglowering opponents man to man, their practices were more lighthearted than they are today. They were also more familial, but that has something to do with the fact that NFL players today are less tightly bound to their teams. They have another league to be wooed by, for one thing. "Players are not here who should be," Woodruff says, "and players who are here are thinking about leaving next year. You can't count on grouping together for years down the road, you just group for a year at a time."
Dynasties are more likely to develop, Bradshaw suggests, when young players accept the challenge of going where they're drafted instead of, for example, using the leverage of USFL and baseball options to avoid becoming a Colt, as John Elway did this summer. "What if I'd had the option, coming out of college, to go to Atlanta or Dallas or New Orleans, instead of Pittsburgh, where it snows, and Terry Hanratty is already at quarterback and a local hero?" Bradshaw says. He goes on to mention, however, that what with the USFL and all, the price of quarterbacks has certainly risen—and he has only one more year on his own contract. "Mm," he says.
Bradshaw says Steeler doctors told him that his arm, which pained him all last year, would mend with rest in the off-season, but his own doctor said it would never heal unless the torn part of the tendon was trimmed off and the tendon reattached to the muscle. Trying to come back too fast after the operation, Bradshaw has twice strained the arm. Meanwhile, Stoudt—who may be a crisper technician at quarterback but lacks Bradshaw's personal longing to throw deep—is making a serious run at the starting job.
The Rooneys express a determination not to meet the demands of Stallworth and Shell's agent, Howard Slusher, although Slusher negotiated big contracts in the past for Swann and other Steelers. "I like athletes," says Dan Rooney. "But I'm not in business to make them millionaires. The Steelers lost more money last year [because of the seven-game strike] than we made in the three years before that combined." The Steelers' center of gravity may be shifting away from the dynasty guys and toward more affordable young players.
"We have eleven or twelve nucleuses now," Woodruff says. "Not just one." He has been around long enough, however, to appreciate the dynasty. "I look at Bradshaw, Lambert, Blount—these are friends of mine. I look at them and it's written out: This is what you do to make the Hall of Fame.
"I'll tell you what I remember about the one Super Bowl I was here for, in 1980 against the Rams. It was after Lambert intercepted the pass there toward the end. Our offense has the ball, we score the last time, and I'm sitting a couple of yards away from Lambert, looking at the clock, twenty seconds to go, and I'm realizing, 'I'm in the Super Bowl and we're winning. When's the next time this is going to happen!' "
Who knows? Has anyone done anything about getting Se√±or Sack to sign up for his Thanksgiving turkey?