The Sports Bookie: An unvarnished look at the 1970s Steelers

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So much has been written about the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, that it almost seems impossible for a writer to come up with a fresh angle.

If you’re a fan of NFL history, you’ve read and heard all the angles and recall the personalities. Four Super Bowl titles. The Steel Curtain. Mean Joe Greene. The Immaculate Reception. Bradshaw to Swann or Stallworth. Franco Harris. Team owner Art “The Chief” Rooney. All set to the deep, resonant baritone of NFL Films narrator John Facenda, the “Voice of God” (“With seconds to play in the Steelers’ season, it was fourth-and-hopeless — or so it appeared.”).

Author Gary M. Pomerantz finds a way to give the Steelers dynasty a new voice with a book that is “a hybrid of history and journalism.” It also could be called the NFL’s version of “The Boys of Summer,” since Pomerantz takes a now-and-then approach that is powerful and effective.

The result is a fascinating, well-researched book, “Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now” (Simon & Schuster, $28 hardback, 466 pages). Pomerantz conducted more than 200 interviews over the past three years, talking with Pittsburgh’s stars and journeymen (23 members from the 1970s teams), and also with six members of the Rooney family. The book’s title is a catch phrase coined by Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll, who reminded his players that there was life after pro football. An NFL player’s shelf life was limited, he’d say, so players needed to prepare for “your life’s work.”

Pomerantz’s descriptions of Noll are right on the money. He wasn’t a holler guy like Oakland’s John Madden or a complete autocrat like Miami’s Don Shula. He was more like Dallas coach Tom Landry — whose Cowboys lost two memorable Super Bowls to Pittsburgh — taciturn and mostly silent, like “a frozen lake in winter.”

Noll’s “door was always open, but his personality was closed,” Pomerantz writes.

“He could question your parenthood just by looking at you,” former player J.T. Thomas told Pomerantz.

As great as the Steelers were as a team, there was plenty of tension. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s relationship with Noll was strained at best, and during the 1974 season he temporarily lost his starting job to Joe Gilliam. Bradshaw opens up to Pomerantz and discusses his disconnect with the city of Pittsburgh and his former teammates. Bradshaw “felt like an animal in a zoo, caged and observed, people talking about him, and at him, as if he couldn’t hear or understand them,” Pomerantz writes.

Conversely, Pomerantz documents how running back Franco Harris embraced his fame and spearheaded charitable events in Pittsburgh through the years. He also writes of the decline of Gilliam, who became hooked on heroin, and recounts the sad story of center Mike Webster, who suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy and was living in his pickup truck toward the end of his life, his health and family life in shambles.

What makes this book so readable is the time Pomerantz clearly spent with his subjects. In the case of L.C. Greenwood, who died last month, Pomerantz sat in a golf cart and interviewed the former Steel Curtain star in between shots at a charity tournament. He spent several hours with Greene, in one instance gauging his impressions as they watched a film of Super Bowl IX. That game was not only the Steelers’ first NFL championship game victory, but also a game that Greene dominated along with the rest of the Steel Curtain.

And yet, it was the 1974 AFC title game against the Raiders that Greene cherished the most, saying that Pittsburgh’s defense had been “in the zone” and could do no wrong during the Steelers’ 24-13 win.

Pomerantz dusts off several legendary Steelers stories, but it’s the little things that make this book so endearing. For example, he writes about the sauna in the Steelers’ locker room, “the players’ postgame sanctuary and decompression chamber.” It was a place where the players bonded together, and sometimes even invited opposing players to join them as they drank beer and dissected that day’s game. Foes like Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson and Kansas City center Jack Rudnay were among those who let off steam with the Steelers.

And so did the mother of Gary Dunn, who asked her son if she could sit and have a beer in the sauna with the players, since she had to wait anyway. Jack Lambert and Bradshaw “naturally” consented, and Dunn’s mother never forgot the experience or the kindness displayed by the Steelers’ stars.

“It was our escape, and nobody could get to us,” Bradshaw tells Pomerantz. “That was the most fun we ever had.”

There was a reason that Art Rooney Sr. commanded so much love and respect from his players. Rooney was an owner with a common touch, a man who, with his ever-present cigar, walked the streets of his Pittsburgh neighborhood and mingled with the fans. It was not unusual for Steelers players to have dinner with the Chief, who built the franchise from its infancy and weathered many years of disappointment before the Steelers reached the playoffs.

Pomerantz also delves into the complicated and strained relationship between two of the Chief’s sons, Dan and Art Rooney Jr.

“Their Life’s Work” is more than a book about a dynastic football team. It’s certainly a story about a group of men who meshed as a team, but it’s also an unvarnished, powerful look at life after football. Pomerantz’s writing is strong, straightforward, funny, sentimental and blunt. It’s as working class and gritty as the men he writes about.

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