This excerpt appears in the book Their Life’s Work by Gary Pomerantz. The author and NFL Hall of Famers “Mean Jo” Greene and Franco Harris spoke with Bill Littlefied on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview and read Bill’s book review.)
WE ALL PAY COSTS FOR the lives we choose. We make compromises, give up time, money, our health. We ask, Was it worth it? What about these Steelers? What would we have given to be a part of their storied magnificence? Would we pay in lasting pain for the fame, the wealth, the feeling of teammates having our backs on a long, hard journey against sworn enemies? I suspect we would.
At twenty, a kid just beginning an adult’s life in 1981, I saw the Steelers of Mean Joe Greene as armored gods. I cared about the game then. But now, past fifty, with a life’s experiences, I care about the lives. The Steelers of grandfatherly Joe Greene have become a rich and revealing expression of pro football’s gifts and costs. The gifts came in their twenties, the costs in their forties, fifties, and sixties. With the game’s violence under scrutiny, the attention now is on brain injury, surely football’s highest cost. But many former NFL players in midlife also suffer daily debilitating pain in the hips, shoulders, knees, and backs. These costs are real and lasting. Still, the 1970s Steelers were a force of nature, and even in the twilight of their lives, the memory of their sheer power shines brilliantly.
It’s that brilliance that draws me back to pro football. The spectacle is irresistible, with its sensory overload of sights and sounds, frenzied crowds, extraordinary athletes performing at the highest levels of talent and craft. But the game itself leaves me confused. More than ever, it is frighteningly physical. Today’s players are bigger and faster. In 1970 one NFL player exceeded three hundred pounds; in 2009 more than 390 players did. Watching NFL games now we see injured players carted off. We know that some play into their midthirties even after suffering six or eight concussions. I wonder how many know Mike Webster’s story. A better question: does Mike Webster’s story even matter to them?
Still, the game is more than simple violence. There is skill, camaraderie, art, strategy. Football demands talent, courage, dedication, and determination. I admire how NFL players, at their physical zenith, push the human body to its limits. The respect I had for the 1970s Steelers when I first met them in 1981 has multiplied. They chose a brutal game and played it as well as any team ever has. They also made unseen gestures that honored their opponents (Lambert inviting the Chiefs’ Rudnay into the postgame sauna, Greene advising the rookie Dunn how to sack Namath, “Just put him down. Don’t hurt him.”). They doled out punishment and absorbed it. They paid a physical price. For the most part, they endured quietly and nobly.
Their run during the seventies was historic, and they cling to every aspect of it—the intellectual, the tangible, and the emotional. Franco owns the trademark on the phrase “Franco’s Immaculate Reception.” He drove to Three Rivers Stadium just before it was demolished in 2001 and asked that the piece of turf covering the precise spot on the field where Bradshaw’s deflected pass came into his hands be cut out and saved for him, and it was. The emotional connection of these Steelers is to the men they once were, and to each other. When Tony Dungy’s eighteen-year-old son James committed suicide in 2005, his Steelers teammates of long ago reached out to him. Joe Greene, Franco, and Donnie Shell sat among
1,500 mourners at the funeral in Tampa. Shell’s knees had buckled when he first heard the news, but he believed that Dungy, coach of the Indianapolis Colts and Shell’s long-ago Steelers roommate, would emerge from the depth of his sorrow even stronger. Shell had seen Dungy rise before. In 1978, Dungy missed several weeks of training camp due to mononucleosis, and feared the Steelers would release him. Shell challenged him to put God before football, and Dungy did. He led the team in interceptions that season while clinging to the words of Matthew 16:26: “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” As Dungy spoke to Shell and other friends outside the funeral home, Shell saw his towering faith and grace. Proud to know Dungy, Shell felt as if they were teammates still.
Only now do I understand that these Steelers believe it was worth the physical price they paid. To be Franco Harris—reaching to catch Bradshaw’s deflected pass at the Raiders’ forty-two-yard line, and then scoring the touchdown that would become the identifying marker in his life— wouldn’t that be wonderful? Forty years later, because of the Immaculate Reception, Harris is a football immortal. You pay a price in pain, you’re rewarded with the romance of the game. Harris was twenty-two years old when he caught that pass, and forty years later he is a statue. What would you give to have achieved so greatly that people wanted to remember you forever? And there is this: of the more than 22,000 players in the NFL since 1920, only 247 have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame—little more than 1 percent—and the 1970s Steelers contributed nine of those players.
As Noll told his men, football was not their life’s work. The tension between football and life’s work would strain, rend, inform, and empower his 1970s Steelers. Some moved on from football and achieved success in finance, technology, entertainment, philanthropy. Thirty years later, the
1970s Steelers remain compelling and likable as interview subjects, and, more importantly, as men. Now their armor is gone. They are us.
I think of the author and rugged individualist Jack London. Just weeks before his death in 1916, London was interviewed by a San Francisco journalist, who quoted him as saying:
I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.
The 1970s Steelers players lived in a magnificent glow and used their time for rare achievement. For some, the price was higher than for others. At the time, they paid willingly, even eagerly. Now they live with it.