With the Steelers about to embark on their seventy-eighth NFL season with their game against the hated Baltimore Ravens this coming Sunday, it is time to wax nostalgic. Allow me to step in my “Wayback Machine” and ponder just how my devotion to Blitzburgh came to pass.
I think I was about to celebrate my tenth birthday when I became a Steelers fan. Like the baseball Pirates, I more or less inherited this status from my dad. It was easier rooting for the Battlin’ Bucs in those days since they had won the World Series in ’60, and fielded a pretty competitive team in the following decade with the likes of Clemente, Stargell, and Mazeroski on the roster.
But the Steelers….hoo -boy…that was another matter.
Because the men in Black and Gold have consistently been a winner over the past thirty-nine years, most people don’t remember that they were the laughing stock of the NFL for their first thirty nine years of existence. And I decided I was going to start supporting them at the depth of their fourth consecutive shameful decade.
It was 1965, and the Steelers were p-a-thetic. A final record of 2-12, scoring only 202 points and allowing 397. Starting quarterback Bill Nelson threw just 44% completions, including just eight for touchdowns and more than twice as many interceptions. In their more recent history, the Steelers are known for the Hall of Fame linebackers. But in ’65, the middle of the defense was led by the likes of Myron Pottios, Johnny Campbell, and Gene Breen. Their names even sound wimpy in retrospect.
But I was loyal. That’s something Pops always modeled with me. And maybe it was the uniforms that fed my true-heartedness. This was the era when they started wearing the black helmets with the U.S. Steel logo on just one side, and the same gold, black, and white color schemes of my beloved Bucs in baseball. Of course, since we had a black and white TV, I had to imagine what the gold looked like, and the occasional visit to my Aunt Reba in Cincinnati, who owned a color TV, would allow me to see them in all their glory. Or at least until they started getting the ever-lovin’ stuffin’ beaten out of them on the field.
As the 60s progressed into the early 70s and my fandom became more sophisticated, I began to realize what a bunch of losers the Steelers had been since their beginnings. Living in central Ohio at the time, I was surrounded by Cleveland Browns fans, and they were merciless in their taunting, just as their team was in thrashing the black and gold into a muddy paste twice a year. From the time the Browns came into the league in 1950 until 1971, they had a record of 33-11 over the hapless boys from the Steel City. But I gritted my young teeth and that ridicule only deepened my resolve to pull for my guys.
Those were oft-dark autumn Sundays as I assessed my plight. Entering the fledgling National Football League in 1933 (originally with the same moniker as the baseball club), owner Art Rooney consistently fielded the worst team. Most football fans shake their head in amazement when they realize that from ’33 to ’71, the Steelers were 173-284-16, for a winning percentage of just 37%. In those thirty-nine years, only seven of them were winning seasons. They made a whopping TWO playoff appearances (going 0-2). But it wasn’t that they just lost, they normally were near the bottom of every statistical category you could summon. Ten of those seasons they won two games or less. Eighteen seasons were four wins or less. In 174 of those games they scored ten or fewer points (shut out thirty-five times), and in 111 of those games they gave up thirty or more points.
It was tough watching Frank Gifford on the CBS broadcasts of NFL Today give the grim results, and even worse highlights (more like lowlights) each Sunday, or listening to Howard Cosell berate and bemoan the “utter ineptitude of those bumblers from the ‘Burgh.” There was no getting around it…they were an embarrassment. And Art Rooney was considered the worst owner in all of professional sports.
Even after bringing in one of the youngest coaches in NFL history, Chuck Noll (at age thirty-nine), following a 2-11-1 season in ’68, they proceeded to go 1-13 in ’69. But I liked his theory of building the team through the draft. Over the next two seasons they averaged five wins each, but transformed the lovable loser mentality to one of youth, grit, and competiveness. There were fewer blowouts, and they were usually within striking distance in the fourth quarter.
By 1972, the core of youngsters was gelling. Future household names like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Roy Gerela, Jon Kolb, and Ray Mansfield led the offense. And the infamous “Steel Curtain” defense began shutting opponents down when the likes of “Mean” Joe Green, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Mel Blount, and Mike Wagner started putting the hurt on teams that used to take Pittsburgh for granted.
That year, the Steelers went a remarkable 11-3, making the post-season for the first time in a quarter of a century. They defeated the Oakland Raiders on the infamous “Immaculate Reception” touchdown to Franco Harris with timing running out on the clock for their first playoff victory EVER.
Thirty-nine humiliating seasons were washed away. The euphoria in Pittsburgh and amongst what few fans they had scattered around the country was immeasurable. And that is when the “Steeler Nation” had its first stirrings.
Those of us who had been rooting for them when they were hapless could not believe it during the next seven seasons the Men in Black and Gold went to the AFC Championship Game five times, advanced to the Super Bowl in four of them, and won all four. I don’t think a more unlikely script could’ve ever been written.
And somehow, Art Rooney was transformed in the media and amongst the faithful from the despised, dim-witted old man to the beloved patriarch of pro football. Funny how championships change things.
And the winning tradition has maintained since then. Just as the Steelers were the joke of the NFL for the first half of their history, they have become the standard-bearer of excellence since then. From ’72 to 2011, their record has been 372-230-2 for a winning percentage of 62%. They have had a winning record thirty of those years, with twenty-five playoff appearances, going 33-19 in the post season, with two more world championship trophies in their case. That total of six Super Bowl victories and is unmatched by any other team.
And the Steelers have become much more than just a strong presence in Western Pennsylvania (although it is amazing to walk around that part of the state in the fall and see 40 to 50% of every man, woman, and child wearing Steelers colors at just about every turn). They have become arguably the most popular team in the NFL, and yearly merchandise sales worldwide back that up. Often times when the Steelers play at other teams’ stadia, the gold colors and Steeler chants overwhelm the local faithful.
As for the Cleveland Browns…well, the Steelers are 49-23 against them since ’72, and the Browns have never made it to a Super Bowl. All those kids who heckled me back in ‘the 60’s can sit on it and take a spin. As they say in football, revenge is best served on the cold gridiron.
So I come by my Steeler fandom the hard way: I didn’t jump on some bandwagon in the mid-70s when the Super Bowl wins were piling up. And that is what has made it all the sweeter. It has been an amazing ride. But should they go in the tank--just like my beloved baseball Pirates have for the past nineteen straight losing seasons--I will remain allegiant. I suspect I’ll be waiving a dark yellow Terrible Towel until they rip it from my clenched, arthritic, dead fingers.
Here we go Steelers, here we go!