One team. Four Super Bowl championships. Twelve Hall of Famers. Two hundred interviews.
They were the best to ever play the game: the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. Three decades later their names echo in popular memory—
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Our heroes live large in our memories, no matter how long the distance between present time and former glory. But we rarely follow our heroes after the light from their brightest moments fade. Part of that is because we lose sight, lose touch, the media machine no longer giving us increasingly unfettered access to those who inspire us. But part of it, undeniably, is self-imposed: seeing our heroes after the glory days reminds us that not all stories have happy endings. That in the final analysis
Gary Pomerantz spent several years following the team I most admire (and still adore): the Pittsburgh Steelers, who loomed in my 1970s childhood much like they must have loomed in the minds of the quarterbacks who faced the Steel Curtain: huge, intimidating, and virtually indestructible. He provides portraits of many of them, gleaned from hundreds of hours of interviews and other primary and secondary sources. All with a focus on the following question: Knowing now what you didn’t know then, would you still go back and do it?
The perhaps unsurprising answer is yes, even as Franco Harris eats blueberries every day to keep at bay the brain damage that he’s convinced he and every one of his teammates carries inside them. Even as Frenchy Fuqua can’t turn doorknobs in his own home, and Reggie Harrison requires a wheelchair, and L.C. Greenwood can’t remember how many back surgeries he’s had. And even after the crushingly sad end for Mike Webster, perhaps the toughest Steeler of all, who spent a decade in pain and confusion before becoming the first diagnosed case of what would later come to be called CTE, now a household word any time football is mentioned.
Pomerantz’ book honors the franchise, and particularly the Rooney family, from the Chief to Dan, Art Jr., and the rest. It reminds fans that the Steeler franchise has always been a family, which was perhaps why the early decades were marred by losing and the derision of outsiders–because the organization was run too much like a family, and not enough like a business. It takes the reader inside the locker room of those storied 1970s teams, but concentrates more on the players and the ‘family’ rather than reliving the play-by-play from past triumphs. Why did these Steelers come together so cohesively? And are they still doing that now?
Again, the answer is largely yes, despite a few outliers. Terry Bradshaw, for example, still keeps the Steeler family at bay, still wounded at fans booing him mercilessly in his earliest years, and the tough criticism of head coach Chuck Noll. Bradshaw claims he’s moved on, but no-one who reads this will believe it. Another sad moment in the book is the discussion of the distance (and in the case of Bradshaw and Franco Harris, dislike) between Chuck Noll and the players who played for him. Noll, a disciple of the notoriously autocratic and distant Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown, never allowed himself to show emotion for his players, even after their playing days. Noll’s inability to change and embrace his players is perhaps the hardest part to read, after the tragedy of Mike Webster. But beside these moments the Steeler family still carries on, though largely through the efforts of Franco Harris, Mel Blount, and others, who admit that their time draws short and they need to meet more often in the twilight of their lives.
Towards the end of the book Pomerantz uses Mike Webster’s hellish descent into pain, disorientation and madness to bring in the current discussions about CTE, something that was first noticed in Webster’s brain at autopsy and threatens the long-term existence of the NFL. This part of the book feels somewhat tacked-on, because to tarry too long on the larger issue of concussions in football and other sports risks ruining the narrative. It is instructive, however, to realize that until the football players from the 1970s and 1980s got older and their medical situations became widely known the steep price paid by our football greats was an issue that was largely ignored, with players like Raider great Jim Otto (a man of countless knee and shoulder replacements) living out their lives in quiet agony and poverty. The day may come when we view those players as pioneers in a very real sense; that in the case of players like Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Andre Waters, they gave their very lives to ensure that others might not have to, and so they would be adequately cared for both during and after their playing days.
Their Life’s Work is more than a book about football. It’s about what you do after football, about family in whatever guise it takes, and about finding one’s true purpose. The title was a saying of Noll’s, a caution to all of his players that one day their athletic skills would desert them and that they would need to find a direction that would carry them through life. While this book is highly recommended for football fans, it’s also a book for those who enjoys stories about people–their triumphs, challenges, and struggles. At the core Their Life’s Work is a fascinating blend of glory-day remembrances and the cold reality of time passing, a bittersweet trip that loses no luster along the way.
I received this as part of a Goodreads giveaway.
I don’t read a lot of sports books. I’ve noticed that most of them fall into the ghost-written athlete autobiography category, or the 300-page Sports Illustrated article category. This book is neither of those. It’s well-researched and well-written, and the author spent a good amount of time doing personal interviews and consulting multiple sources. Essentially, this book is an all-access pass to the history of the 1970s Steelers.
The story begins w
Those 70’s Steelers …
This book was reviewed as part of Amazon’s Vine program which included a free advance copy of the book.
Looking back at my 1970’s childhood, a handful of images immediately come to mind: disco, bell-bottoms, shag carpet, etc. But, as a young boy, the NFL shines brightest to me. Sunday’s games dominated Monday morning school conversations, dog-eared the NFL merchandise in the Sears Christmas Wishbook, collected/traded Topps football cards, bought mini-helmets from gumball mach