Dad was one proud loser

K.C.'s Todd Blackledge was too hot for his father's Steelers to handle
September 09, 1984

Ron and Todd Blackledge walked slowly across the ersatz grass in Three Rivers Stadium at noon Sunday, comfortable as father and son. It was a relationship they would relinquish reluctantly over the next few hours—or would they? "I know no matter who my father's coaching, he's on my side. He loves me more than any football team or football game," said Todd, the strapping quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs. "And I told him only what I always tell him," said Ron, coach of the less-than-strap-ping offensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "You better hustle."

Todd, in his first NFL start, hustled the Chiefs to a 37-27 upset of the Steelers before 56,709 in Pittsburgh. He scored the game's first touchdown on a one-yard bootleg, then ram-spiked the ball. "I wasn't nervous. We—the Chiefs—need to taste winning," he said, his wide-set hazel eyes showing no surprise at the outcome. "I was blessed with peace this week—me, a second-year quarterback getting his first start because of an injury [Bill Kenney's fractured right thumb], coming to meet the Steelers. But I wasn't nervous. I felt...supernatural."

Chuck Noll, the Steeler coach, was in no mood to argue. "Black-ledge was outstanding," he said. "But offensively we were a disaster." While Blackledge completed 19 of 36 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown, the opposition—quarterbacks David Woodley and Mark Malone—pitched for 458 yards and three touchdowns, yet the game never seemed close. The vagaries of youth haunted Noll's Steelers (three fumbles, two interceptions and seven penalties), but the telling blow was the one Woodley took on the head early in the second half, after the ex-Dolphin had thrown for 225 yards. All eyes were on Woodley, who after negotiating a three-year, $1.35 million contract, was traded to Pittsburgh, where he won the job as Terry Bradshaw's successor. As Woodley says, "A 9-7 record is no good here."

"I haven't really talked to Terry much," Woodley said one day last week. "He came to the [May] minicamp and tried to throw, but I think he knew [that his ailing elbow couldn't get the job done anymore]. He asked if anyone wanted to buy his ranch, and then he said he hoped we had a good year." Bradshaw now spends his Sundays in a CBS-TV booth. Or so most people think. "Brad's still in Pittsburgh, even if not in person," says Cliff Stoudt, last year's Steeler quarterback who found no solace from critics after a 10-6 1983 season. "[Woodley] might not realize it, but he'll be competing against him. I just hope he's ready." Stoudt wasn't, and he left for the USFL Birmingham Stallions.

Woodley seemed primed for the Chiefs, but the Steelers' once-vaunted offensive line isn't what it used to be. Pittsburgh's run blocking was atrocious (46 rushing yards), its pass protection porous. But Woodley, heretofore an unregenerate scrambler, stayed in the pocket and ignored the ghosts of great quarterbacks past. Down 17-3 with 6:53 gone in the second quarter, he threw 55 yards to a rookie receiver, a bundle of muscles euphoniously named Louis Lipps, who turned the pass into an 80-yard TD that would've had Lynn Swann twisting with envy. Later in the period Woodley found John Stallworth three times for 65 yards, the last for a 29-yard touchdown that made it 24-17 K.C. at halftime.

But Woodley was battered on the play and felt his way to the locker room. Some players call the NFL the Not For Long, and for good reason. "It is Not For Long," Woodley had said. "Everybody is living under the gun." One of Bradshaw's qualities was durability. How many times had he been shaken up and left the field, only to come back for second-half heroics? More times than Woodley could count, especially after the concussion Woodley suffered on the first series of the second half. He had his bell rung on a blitz, and a short time later he was taken to Divine Providence Hospital. "Lazarus," Stallworth called Bradshaw. "I think [Woodley's] here to stay," he says.

As for Todd Blackledge, he could make a Wally Pipp out of Bill Kenney. "That guy Tony Dungy [the Steelers' new defensive coordinator] will be sending everybody after Todd, and it's only right that he do it," Ron Blackledge had said before the game. "It isn't easy watching Todd get hit," admitted Linda Blackledge about her only son. But at 6'3", 225 pounds, Blackledge can absorb hits. "My son is a very smart kid with a broad backside," Ron says. "Early on at Penn State he was eighth on the quarterback depth chart. But he'd snap for punts, run down on kickoff teams. He had a broken hand and would be throwing the ball into a net. Some colleges recruited him as a linebacker. I'd say my son is strong. I don't try to coach him. We'll root like hell for Todd—next week."

After Pittsburgh closed to 24-20, and while the crowd roared for his comeuppance, Blackledge completed six consecutive passes, missed two, then threw an arrow to Stephone Paige for the 22-yard, third-quarter touchdown that made it 30-20. All that remained was for Blackledge to play out the string, and he accomplished that with poise. "If he'd fallen flat on his face, I'd still be in here with him, doing the same things," said Ron, watching intently as Todd handled the postgame locker room interviews. "There's always a new day, another game." Lamar Hunt, the Chiefs' owner and one of the wealthiest men in America, went out of his way to congratulate Ron on Todd's success.

"Thank you, Mr. Hunt," said Ron. "We kind of like him, too."

PHOTOBlackledge was smart, accurate and all hustle. PHOTOWoodley tried to stand his ground but later ended up in the hospital.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)