It was raining and blustery before the Chiefs-Steelers Monday-night game a few weeks ago, and the great white tarps on the Heinz Field turf were billowing and swallowing groundskeepers who were struggling to roll them up. From the press box, a vivid tableau. But impersonal. Thirty-nine years ago I knew the head groundskeeper, Steve (Dirt) Dinardo, who once, while the players were getting their keys at a hotel in San Diego, came up behind Mean Joe Greene and told him, in drastically impolitic terms, that he would have to stay in Tijuana. This was when Greene was as forbidding a presence as his nickname implied. He whirled, saw it was Dirt and just laughed.
You had to know Dirt. He liked to drive his Zamboni over loose balls on the field, pooping them around to the exasperation of Jackie Hart, the field manager. Hart himself once slugged Art Rooney Jr., a son of the owner and then the Steelers' head of scouting. Jackie's employment status was unaffected. Artie did throw him into a laundry hamper.
Aw, I'm waxing nostalgic already—and those tarps brought to mind two other stories I heard while hanging around the Steelers in the 1970s. Once, when the Rooneys' friend Squawker Mullen was getting the worst of it from a carnival boxer, various family members engaged the boxer and his carny friends in a "Hey, Rube" that brought down the tent and raged on lumpily under folds of canvas. Then there was the game in Green Bay in which Andy Russell, the Steelers linebacker, saw a fired-up Ray Nitschke dive, miss a tackle and skid headfirst under a sideline tarp. You could see big bulges, Andy said, where the Packers linebacker was kicking and heaving.
Why was I at the Chiefs-Steelers game? Well, Immaculate Reception Day is just around the corner. Usually I observe the anniversary of Franco Harris's game-ending 60-yard deflected-pass touchdown casually, by watching it six or eight times on YouTube while listening to "Pittsburgh Steelers Polka" by Jimmy Psihoulis. But this Dec. 23 is the 40th anniversary of that great turning point in Steelers history. Sure, there's a statue in Pittsburgh International Airport of Franco snagging the ball, and surveyors have determined the exact spot on the site of the old Three Rivers Stadium where he snagged it. (There will be a marker, and a ceremony.) But something more was called for. So my son, Kirven, and I made a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh. He flew in for the Chiefs and Ravens games, and I stayed through the intervening week to see if I could get back in touch with the Steelers.
December 10, 2012
The Immaculate Reception—which NFL Films and SI have deemed the greatest play of all time—gave the Steelers the first playoff victory in their history. It also began Kirven's and my 40-year adherence to, and through, the Steelers. He was four back in 1972, and I was 31. We were watching on TV. When Harris beat the last Oakland defender, cornerback Jimmy Warren, into the end zone, I tossed Kirven into the air. No question now, this was the team to be embedded with.
I was a staff writer at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Andre Laguerre, the managing editor, had got the notion that I should hang out with an NFL team for the 1973 season, from training camp through the following year's draft. The Immaculate Reception confirmed my choice of the Steelers. They hadn't been overexposed. They looked to be on the way up. Their town was rich (little did I know) in lore.
And I was divorced. My kids were living mostly with their mother because I traveled so much already. Kirven might have grown up hating the Steelers because of the year his father spent so much more time with them than with him. But he visited me in Pittsburgh. He attended Saturday practice, which was open to relatives and guests back then, and although he was annoyed, at age five, that no one in uniform would chase him, he became a fierce, lifelong Steelers fan. That's one reason I've continued to love the team for all these years.
The Steelers' '73 season ended in the first round of the playoffs. I wrote a book on that team, About Three Bricks Shy of a Load. The next year the Steelers won the Super Bowl. They won three more in the next five seasons. I kept going back to cover them and eventually to update the book through the 1980s. Kirven, who after '73 lived with me half the time or more, often came along. Late one night when he was maybe seven, we were at the house of Steelers center Ray Mansfield. I'd heard that somebody had just been traded to the Bengals, but I was fuzzy on who it was. So was Ray. Not even looking up from the Mansfield family dog, on whom I had thought he was asleep, Kirven said, "Coy Bacon." Already he was not only a much better athlete than I but also a more serious football fan.
And a truer Steelers fan. "My love of the Steelers might be the purest thing in my life, just because it's always been there and it's so unquestioned," says Kirven, who develops reality shows in New York City and used to edit video for the NFL Network. "I love the Steelers like a golden retriever loves a tennis ball."
Except that the retriever is not bound by the heartstrings to any particular ball. When a tennis ball goes bad, as the Steelers do from time to time, the retriever doesn't howl, "We suck!"
They're not making fans with quite Kirven's pedigree anymore, because out-of-town media, a status to which I am reduced, are now barred from all Steelers practices. In '73 I was welcomed to everything but team meetings, and one player offered to tape those for me surreptitiously. I declined; I knew if anything interesting went on, someone would fill me in.
Here are some of the rules for people covering the Steelers today:
Media members are prohibited at any time from reporting which players take repetitions with the first, second or third team, etc., as well as how many repetitions players take during practice.
Media members are prohibited from blogging or tweeting during practice.
Media members are prohibited from socializing with players or coaches at any time during practice.
At no time will media be permitted to interview members of the Steelers' organization in the lobby or parking lots without prior consent from Steelers p.r.
On the other hand, Media does have the right to report what they are told by coaches or players.
Whoop-de-doo. Maybe I'm too sensitive, but these rules chill my ardor to talk to current Steelers. It's like being told you have only certain very limited access to the girls' dorm. I want to say, Hey, I'm a gentleman. And anyway these girls are way too young for me.
Actually, the current Steelers I talk to strike me as too mature. Ryan Clark, the defensive back, is so grown up about having to wear a big, uncool-looking special helmet after suffering two concussions in three games. "I'm not afraid of getting hurt," he says. He just doesn't want to miss playing time under the league's concussion rules. "It's a precaution put in place to protect tough people from themselves—take it out of the hands of the players, who would play through anything."
Sensible. Commendably uncrazy. But ... one time Joe Greene got so fed up with being held in a game against the Eagles that he grabbed the ball away from the Philadelphia center and flung it into the stands. And walked off. "We watched the ball spiral into the seats," recalled Andy Russell. "It seemed like it took forever. There we were: We didn't have a ball, we didn't have a left tackle. It was like he was saying, O.K., if you won't play right, we won't play at all."
I give today's Steelers credit: They speak of the old ones as if they were gods. "Hanging out with Mr. [Mel] Blount, seeing Mr. Greene, doing signings with them," says Clark, "I actually become starstruck."
"They repeated in the Super Bowl," says tight end Heath Miller. Repeated twice, I told him. "They did it twice? I can attest to how hard that is—we haven't fared well the years after our Super Bowls."
Defensive end Brett Keisel, he of the big bushy beard: "It's awesome to be around them and to know that we share the same helmet."
I kept wanting a current Steeler to say of the old ones, "We could take 'em." Not that they could.
After the Steelers lost to the Ravens on Nov. 18, Keisel politely told reporters, "It is what it is. They're a good team. We fought hard ... and it just didn't work out the way we wanted it."
I don't know. Maybe Steelers could be that trite in my day. But not to me. I will still root for today's Steelers. I will still shout, "HEEEATH!" when that excellent performer catches a pass. And I will concede this much: If the Steelers' first Super Bowl team were to come back at playing age today, five current Steelers could hold on to their starting jobs: Miller, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, linebacker James Harrison (since they're using four now), safety Troy Polamalu and kicker Shaun Suisham.
The head coach? Before I went to Pittsburgh and watched Mike Tomlin with the media, I would have taken him over Chuck Noll. On TV I've seen Tomlin and Roethlisberger with their arms around each other's shoulders on the sideline, following the game together, even when they're down a few points—a much better-looking relationship than Noll's with Terry Bradshaw. But in Pittsburgh I watched Tomlin with the guys who cover the team regularly.
"Are you confident Ben will play again this year?" a local reporter asked. Here is how Noll might have responded, with asperity: "I'm confident that question will be asked again before it is answerable."
Here is how Tomlin answered it, in a downright contemptuous tone: "Next question."
I'm thinking that if Mike is as cool as he seems to be, he should be able to play with reporters a little. Reporters are going to ask annoying questions, like kids on a car trip: "Are we there yet? When will we be there?" That's their job. Those are the questions their readers are asking.
In '73 Ed Kiely was head of public relations. He suggested to a couple of players that they take me to their after-practice bar, the Nineteenth Hole, and the rest is literature. Now Kiely is 94. Three days a week he goes into the Steelers' complex and rides the exercise bike. "Coaches would always be yelling about the press to me," he says, "and I'd say, 'Hey, if you come in here someday and they're not here, get scared, 'cause they're as much of this almost as you are.'"
You'd want to play for Tomlin, though, I guess. As media folk, Kirven and I are allowed to stand on the Steelers' sideline during the last two minutes of the Chiefs game, so that after the final whistle we can get quickly to the entrance to the dressing room. So there we are as the clock ticks down in regulation: Steelers tied with a bad team, and Big Ben is hurt. But you wouldn't know how dull the game has been from the dazzling lights on the sideline. You know the last scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Bright like that. "It was like a dream," Kirven says. "I was fairly dispirited going into overtime, but then I'm watching Tomlin stalking to the bench and saying, 'Let's just get this done and we can go home,' and I'm loving him for it."
Linebacker Lawrence Timmons intercepts a pass right in front of us. Steelers win.
"Words can't describe that," Timmons says after the game. "I got butterflies."
"I was shivering," says Kirven, "and I wasn't sure if it was the cold or the thrill."
So, O.K. But nine of Noll's 22 starters are in the Hall of Fame. They were bodacious, and acted that way. "We had gizzards," defensive end Dwight White (now deceased) told me after he retired. In the current Steelers' grown-up blandness with the press, I kept picking up just a hint of Eddie Haskell.
Maybe I overreacted to all those prohibitions. Prohibitions? How can you hang around a football team and give in to a raft of prohibitions? I know I had special dispensation in '73, but, hey, I wanted to know what was going on. I would put on Steelers sweats and mess around on the field during practice, catch an occasional pass. I hung with the original Art Rooney and with current offensive coordinator Todd Haley's father, Dick, who was personnel director. I knew that Babe Parilli, the quarterbacks coach, was going to "resign" before he knew. Rocky Bleier told me what he said to God when he was lying bleeding from multiple shrapnel wounds in Vietnam: "'I'm not going to promise to be a priest. I'm just going to put my life in Your hands, to do whatever You want with it.' I knew at the time that was a pretty chickens--- move. I mean, I could do anything and say, Well, that's what God must want me to do."
Media cannot be prohibited from reminiscing.
After the Kansas City game I visited Dan Rooney in his office. Lucky to catch him, because he's the U.S. ambassador to Ireland now, spends most of his time over there. At 80 he's stooped but still flashes the Rooney twinkle. He's talking about the Immaculate Reception. "Everybody in Pittsburgh is sure they were there for it," says Dan, who was running the team at the time. "They probably saw it on TV"—in fact they couldn't even have done that if they were in Pittsburgh, because before 1973 all home games were blacked out—"but they're sure they saw it here. Even if they weren't alive."
Interesting word choice, here. The Immaculate Reception occurred nowhere near Dan's current office but more than four miles away, in old Three Rivers Stadium. That's where, until 2001, the Steelers played and practiced and dressed and lifted weights and watched film and had offices and ate soup and sandwiches in a little kitchen. I don't remember any windows in the Three Rivers offices. The premises had a noir quality, leavened by a great deal of laughter. (Come to think of it, that might describe the Steelers' history before the Immaculate Reception.) Dan's office now is almost as bright as the Monday-night sideline.
Today the Steelers play at taxpayer-owned Heinz Field, near where Three Rivers used to be (on the Northside, where Art Rooney Sr. lived his whole life and where his sons grew up), but they do all that other stuff (only with a big cafeteria replacing the little kitchen) on the Southside, over the Hot Metal Bridge across the Monongahela, at a lavish training facility with myriad flat full-length fields that they lease from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which operates a research and rehabilitation facility next door. Once steel mills belched smoke and glowed blast-furnace blood-orange. Now the Steelers share an athletic-medical complex with leading experts on concussions and damaged limbs. The Steel City's economy depends much more on health care than on steel. The tallest skyscraper is called the U.S. Steel Tower, but its biggest tenant will soon be the UPMC. If the Steelers were named for the hot action in town today, they'd be the Pittsburgh Healers.
In fact, there is a kind of continuum to the Steelers-UPMC complex. Smashmouth football feeds research, and vice versa. It's a little bit like the veterinarian and the taxidermist who went into business together. Their motto: Either way, you get your dog back.
The Three Rivers offices were "homier," Dan concedes. "I could walk there from home." And they had Art Sr., the Chief, who died in 1988. He was a man who, once he made your acquaintance, looked almost comically happy to see you again, and his acquaintance was extraordinarily wide. The first thing that struck me about the current offices was, no cigars. The Chief was always smoking one cigar and distributing others. Art Rooney II, Dan's son, who is now team president, says, "I remember when the team plane would land after a victory. Whoever opened the door would be overwhelmed by cigar smoke. When we built Three Rivers, each locker had an ashtray beside it."
Back then, in or around the Chief's office (even in the lobby, without p.r. approval), I was introduced to everyone from Billy Conn, the old light heavyweight champion, to Horse Czarnecki, the groundskeeper at Pitt, and Jack Warner, of Warner Brothers. But all a student of Pittsburgh human interest needed was Art's brother Uncle Jim Rooney, who had known many wonderful Pittsburghers.
"She was as fine a lady as I ever knew," Jim recalled one day in the lobby, referring to a local barkeep. "And she ran a tough joint, and nobody ever got out of line. Big, fine woman. Johnny Brown of New Orleens played piano in her place. He was a wonderful man. Sold his body for $120. To the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. All in ones. Came into the place countin' em out. Johnny Brown of New Orleens. Weighed 120 pounds. Dollar a pound. They brought in one of those pianos that play themselves. It put Johnny out of work. He didn't have nothing to do. He got a rock and came in and put it through the piano. Johnny Brown of New Orleens."
"Where is he now?" I asked.
Uncle Jim spread his arms and looked upward. "The University of Pennsylvania Medical School."
Maybe that's where I should be. Eddie Haskell? Where do I get off saying that? Did Eddie Haskell ever catch a pass over the middle? Did he ever have a big bushy beard?
Maybe I come off as Ward Cleaver. Or Ward's dad. In the 1943 English movie The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Clive Wynne-Candy is a fat old blowhard, a veteran of World War I who has been relegated during World War II to a Home Guard command. Having decreed that mock-battle exercises will begin at midnight, he is relaxing in a Turkish bath at 6 p.m. when an impudent young lieutenant bursts in, declares that up-to-date warfare doesn't go by rules, tells Clive that he's fat and has a silly mustache and takes him captive. Clive is outraged. "You have no idea," he sputters before wrestling the lieutenant into the pool, "what kind of fellow I am!" Or was.
Who reminds us of who we are? People who knew us when. I went to see L.C. Greenwood, the former defensive end. L.C. is the one Steeler not in the Hall of Fame who most should be. (No. 2: Donnie Shell.) In the first Steelers Super Bowl he blocked three of Fran Tarkenton's passes, and in the second one he was even better. He had more career sacks than Joe Greene. I wrote in my book that L.C. might leave practice wearing a blue pullover sleeveless suit, brown pantyhose, a shoulder bag and a necklace a lady had given him that said TFTEISYF, which stood, of course, for "The first time ever I saw your face."
L.C.'s various business interests (coal and natural gas marketing, corrugated packaging and fulfillment, etc.) keep him checking computer monitors at his office in nearby Carnegie, Pa., several hours a day; then he plays golf. How does it feel to watch the Steelers now? "I try to be in the gym on Sunday afternoon, so I can watch while I'm working out," he says. "I'm all tensed up. Since I stopped playing, I've never been able to figure this out: the idea that there's nothing I can do about it. This player I'm watching is such a great player, what is he thinking? I coulda...." So he sweats it out.
L.C. at 6'6½" is 15 or 20 pounds up from his playing weight, which ranged from 225 to 233. He says, "These kids are too big! I looked at one of them, 350 pounds. That's too big to be an athlete. They just walk into the weight room, and walk out on the field. How the hell are you going to bend over?"
Yeah! Giants walked the earth in my day, and they could also run the earth. Case in point, the Immaculate Receptor himself. When Franco Harris was 32 and still carrying a football for a living, he told me, "The hole is never where it's supposed to be." Now at 62 he tells me, "I loved playing football. Now I love business. The competition changes all the time—where's the opening?" Franco's bakery business sells nutrition-laden, trans-fat-free doughnuts to public schools and retail outlets. In another venture he markets workout towels and, for the military, socks made of bamboo viscose and silver nanoparticles, which you can use for 60 days before they smell bad. And he chairs the board of directors of the Pittsburgh Promise, which provides (with seed money from the UPMC) college scholarships of up to $10,000 a year to all students at Pittsburgh public schools who achieve a 2.5 average and a 90% attendance record.
Franco studied food science at Penn State. "Twelve years ago," he says, "I knew I was going to have trouble with inflammation and trouble with my brain," so he became a vegetarian. Now he'll eat a little chicken or fish. And every morning, for 12 years, he has eaten blueberries. His joints and his brain are O.K. so far.
Maybe I should write this whole story as an apology to you, because the current Steelers aren't what they were in my day," I told Kirven. "Not that I'm trying to compete, I'm just being—"
"Passive-aggressive," said Kirven. For the first 58 minutes of the Ravens game we sat in the stands, way up above the end zone, with other fans. In my day Steelers fans were just beginning to sense that their team could actually win, and they were beside themselves. They organized their own subgroups: Gerela's Gorillas (led by a man in a gorilla suit) for the kicker, Roy Gerela; Dobre Shunka, said to be Polish for good ham, for Jack Ham; and Franco's Italian Army, once blessed in person by Frank Sinatra. Now what Steelers fans do is wear Steelers stuff. In fact, I did not see on the streets of Pittsburgh, in the course of a week, six or eight people go by before at least one appeared wearing a Steelers jersey or shirt or hat. And on game days ... how shall I describe it? Once I was on a clothing-optional beach in France. You would see a naked person changing a tire, a naked person wiping a baby's nose, a naked person shaking her finger at a misbehaving dog. So it was in Pittsburgh on game day, only instead of naked people, it was Troy Polamalus. Here a Polamalu bonking into a revolving door, there three Polamalus throwing a Frisbee. "Nice dog," you say to a Polamalu walking a hassling pug.
"You should see him in his Polamalu sweater," the walker replies.
Polamalus everywhere but on the field. The electrifying safety is injured; Roethlisberger is injured; so many wide receivers have been injured that the team will resort to signing 35-year-old former Steeler Plaxico Burress. This has had an effect on the Steelers' play. Wave our Terrible Towels as we might, as the Huge Electronic Screen commands us to GET ENERGIZED, eventually somebody is going to spill his beer on himself so he has to stop yelling "Get funky!" and go get two more beers just in case. In his absence we notice that the Huge Electronic Screen is yelling DEE-FENSE! louder than the crowd is.
And the Steelers lose to Baltimore 13--10. Playoff chances fading. Kirven and I are in the locker room. Reporters surround backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, who stepped up for the injured Roethlisberger but failed, after a great start, to carry the day. Off to the side, an insecure rookie receiver, David Gilreath (whom the Steelers will cut in a week), is trying to reach around reporters to get at his locker.
Kirven: "I asked him about Leftwich's feeble pass to him when he was wide open, and how he slipped trying to come back for it. He said in college he would have come back more aggressively, but he trusted Byron's arm. Neither of us knew that Byron had broken ribs at the time—he was with the throng of reporters, admirably refusing to use those ribs as an excuse. You remember, when he was asked if he surprised himself running for a touchdown, he said, 'I'm not a slow quarterback. I'm just the slowest black quarterback.' And Gilreath asked me, 'Do you think I should have caught it?' in such a tender way that I assured him he couldn't have." That's my boy. Human interest.
Here's one last nostalgia-cutter: Joe Gordon was Ed Kiely's No. 2 in the old days. "The most important game after the Immaculate Reception," Joe says, "was the Steelers beating Oakland out there in '74. John Madden had said the Super Bowl had already been played the week before when [the Raiders] beat Miami."
Oh, I remember. We kicked Raiders butt 24--13 to win the AFC title, and when we flew back into the Pittsburgh airport, wow, it was full of Steelers fans. It was like being welcomed into Heaven. It doesn't get any better than that, right? Well, but here's Gordon:
"Twenty years later, I tried to find a tape of that game. Finally a guy in the Greensburg area said he had one. I bought four copies from him. You could not believe how slow it was. We're always in standard formations, occasionally a fifth back. And the speed of it compared to today—it was like slow motion! I only watched 10 minutes of it, and I haven't looked at it since. Better off reading about it."
USUALLY I OBSERVE THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE CATCH BY WATCHING IT SIX OR EIGHT TIMES ON YOUTUBE WHILE LISTENING TO "PITTSBURGH STEELERS POLKA."
"MY LOVE OF THE STEELERS MIGHT BE THE PUREST THING IN MY LIFE," KIRVEN SAYS. "I LOVE THE STEELERS LIKE A GOLDEN RETRIEVER LOVES A TENNIS BALL."
NINE OF NOLL'S 22 STARTERS ARE IN THE HALL OF FAME. THEY WERE BODACIOUS, AND ACTED THAT WAY. "WE HAD GIZZARDS," WHITE TOLD ME AFTER HE RETIRED.
FRANCO HARRIS STUDIED FOOD SCIENCE AT PENN STATE. EVERY MORNING FOR 12 YEARS HE HAS EATEN BLUEBERRIES. HIS JOINTS AND HIS BRAIN ARE O.K.
IN PITTSBURGH ON GAME DAY, ALL YOU SEE IS POLAMALUS. HERE A POLAMALU BONKING INTO A REVOLVING DOOR, THERE THREE POLAMALUS THROWING A FRISBEE.
A PROUD HISTORY
For more on the 80 years of pro football in the Steel City, buy Pittsburgh Steelers: Pride in Black and Gold (Sports Illustrated Books, $34.95), which includes photos from SI's archives and excerpts from stories by Roy Blount Jr. and other noted SI writers. At SI.com/steelersbook