THE EARLY YEARS: PITT STADIUM DAYS
A lifelong addiction was born on September 19, 1965. Was a lad of 10 for my first trip, taken with my 19-year-old brother Tony on the morning of September 19, 1965. It cost $4 to sit in the lower end-zone. I remember the cigar smells, the signs around the 10 yard line that said “Paydirt” with an arrow pointing toward the goal line, the band playing “Fight On.” There were no terrible towels, no Steeler Fight Song.
That September day, the Steelers, ahead 9-7 at the half, went down to the eventual NFL Champion Packers, 41-9. Tony, always one to enjoy his walks convinced me to walk home, Oakland to Swissvale, quite the hike, in exchange for his buying me a Steeler pennant. My favorite player, John Henry Johnson was injured on the Steelers opening possession, and would never again set foot on an NFL field as a player. I met John Henry in October of that year at an autograph session at the East Hills McDonald’s. Dad said to John Henry, about me, “He thinks you’re better than Jim Taylor,” to which John Henry replied, “Man….that’s sayin’ somethin’.”
My next trip back was on Halloween, Steelers versus Dallas Cowboys. Steelers had won their first game a week earlier, behind Jim Bradshaw’s 3 picks, after 5 consecutive losses to start the season. The most painful of these losses was a loss to the Browns at Cleveland in the final 2 minutes on the Saturday night of World Series weekend, a Steelers-Browns tradition.
This was my first experience with a wonderful Steelers practice of the times….”Youth Day.” It’s funny following ticket sales now on E-Bay. Steelers would regularly draw less than 20,000 fans in the mid-60s. Youth days were offered about 4 times a year, where fans aged 16 & under, could buy a ticket for one dollar at the Steelers downtown ticket office during the week. These tickets were in the North EZ, and sold full price for $3, less than the South EZ, as it required the fan to traverse the full length of Cardiac Hill. What a walk!! My dad dropped my 10-year-old ass off oat the foot of Oakland’s DeSoto Street….and I though I’d never make it up the hill. For future games, I convinced Dad to drop me off at the top of the stadium. . Last game of the year, I’d give Dad two bucks for gas, felt like a big shot. Of course, 2 bucks then filled the tank halfway. Stop…and think about this. Ten years old…by himself at an NFL game!! I was rewarded that day with the Steelers 2nd straight victory…it would be their final win of the season. They almost made it 3 in a row the following week, but lost a lead over the Cardinals in the final two minutes on a long-TD to Billy Gambrell. This was the game where Larry Wilson, playing with a pair of broken hands, picked a pass & took it in for a TD.
I went back again with Tony a few weeks later to see the Steelers battle the Washington Redskins. It wasn’t much of a battle; Redskins won 31-3 in a driving rainstorm. Tony sat faithfully in our upper EZ seats, not leaving until 9 seconds remained. My brand new coat shrank. Mom gave Tony hell.
My final Pitt Stadium trip of the season was for the finale against the Eagles. Highlight of a 47-13 loss was Marv Woodson taking a pick back for a TD for the Steelers. We saw a record setting performance that day, as Tommy Wade threw 7 interceptions for the black & gold. He was yanked, and Bill Nelson threw another pair.
The ’66 season opened to a promising start under new coach Bill Austin. Steelers lead the Giants by 11 in the 4th quarter, but then Homer Jones caught a 98-yard TD and did something novel…he spiked the ball, the first practitioner of this act! Steelers trailed by 3 late, but got a FG to salvage a tie. After a win the following week, Steelers were undefeated after 2 games!! Five straight losses followed. The ’66 season was my first of 3 straight seasons of attending all 7 games, usually by myself as Tony was off studying at Penn State. With the 4 youth days, it cost me all of $13 .from my paper route. That’s $13….total!! After 5 straight losses, I attended my first Steelers-Browns game… Busloads of Cleveland drunks rambling up Cardiac Hill, hanging out the windows, screaming unintelligible phrases….big, red bulbous noses. I experienced the fights in the bleachers, the fires. Lou (The Toe) Groza missed an extra point, Paul Martha made a late pick in the red zone, Steelers won, 16-6. Dock Ellis and Willie Stargell sat among the populace in the cheap seats, wearing fur coats and swilling shots from a common bottle of whisky. Steelers upset the Browns, 16-6, that day. Lou Groza missed an extra point; I held a sign saying “Bomb the Browns.” I was back the following week carrying a “Cut the Cards” placard and the Steelers beat St. Louis. Steelers concluded a 5-8-1 campaign with two road wins, scoring 104 points. Roy Jefferson caught 4 TDs in the season finale against the expansion Falcons.
Gayle Sayers took the opening kickoff of the ’67 season back for a TD, but the Steelers crushed the Bears, 41-13 that day, holding the Kansas Comet to 2 yards rushing on 7 carries. The following week though, I saw Jim Bakken kick an NFL record 7 FGs in the Cards 28-14 win over the Steelers.,the first of 5 straight Steeler losses (5-game losing streaks were popular in those days for the “Rooneymen”…as dubbed by the Pittsburgh Press). I made my way down to the field in a rainstorm at the conclusion of the season finale, a loss to the Redskins. I said “Good game, Sonny,” to Mr. Jurgensen, to which he replied with a snort. The following week, the Steelers concluded the season with a win over the champion Packers, the last team to beat a Lombardi-coached Packers team. Steelers finished 4-9-1.
The ’68 season opened with 6 straight losses. Steelers faced the Eagles in the “O.J. Simpson Bowl.” The Battle of the Titans was tied, 3-3 at the 2-minute warning, with the Iggles facing a 4th & 1 at their own 10 yard line. The Eagles called in a running play, attempting to pick up the first down. The Steeler defense rose up and stopped them, and a few plays later called in Booth Lusteg, known for practicing by kicking paper cups on the sideline, to kick the game winner. In retrospect, was this really such a bad move by the Eagles? Had they punted, with no overtime provision, there would be no way that this hapless bunch could secure a victory. More likely, the Steelers would gain possession in Eagles territory, and be in position to drive but a few yards (goalposts were on the goal line), and then kick the game winner. Go for it, pick up the yard, and maybe the Eagles put together a winning drive. At any rate, neither the Steelers or the Eagles produced the worst record. The Eagles drafted Purdue star Leroy Keyes with the 3rd pick, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, after winning a second game, and tying another, held the 4th pick, and selected relatively unknown defensive tackle Joe Greene from North Texas State. “Joe Who,” proclaimed the Pittsburgh dailies.
Of course, Bill Austin had been dispatched into the Pittsburgh night by that time, and Mean Joe was the first selection of new coach Charles Henry Noll, participating in the NFL Draft the day after his hiring. These were the days of course, prior to ESPN, and the proliferation of sports, and related events on TV, that the draft was held on a Tuesday, and followed by a few fans via radio reports from Steeler headquarters. These were all the days where a teenager from Swissvale became a seer of early Steeler picks for a few years. Tony & I had an annual tradition of making our respective calls for the Steelers first pick. In ’69, I made the call of Mean Joe Greene. In ’70, along with every other football fan in the free world, I correctly chose Terry Bradshaw, QB of Louisiana Tech. It was in 1971, on Draft Eve, that I cemented my stellar rep, however. I followed my selection of Frank Lewis, WR of Grambling, by stating, again on Draft Eve, that in the second round, the Steelers would select Johnstown linebacker Jack Ham, of Penn State. Bingo!! I made the call of Franco Harris, RB of Penn State in ’72, whereupon my draft prowess met its kryptonite.
The Press switched from Rooneymen to Nollmen for the ’69 season. The new coach had a celebrated beginning with an opening day victory over the Lions, Warren Bankston breaking several tackles with his 13 yard sprint around left end for the winning TD. There would be no more celebrations that season, as the Nollmen ( a term coined by Pat Livingston of the Press) proceeded to lose 13 straight games. Celebrated though, was the play of the rookie DT. Ejected from more than one game his rookie year, Mean Joe was a pleasure to watch, soon becoming everybody’s hero.
I was now a high school sophomore, trying to model my play after the rookie tackle, Mean Joe Greene. I did get my ass kicked out of a game that year against Duquesne, something Mean Joe did several times during his initial campaign. My attendance record was broken that year. Tony ( now a college graduate) & I made a decision to attend the Steel Bowl basketball tournament, held every December at the Civic Arena with Pitt , Duquesne and two other foes, and skipped the season finale, a loss to the Giants.
Pitt Stadium memories concluded as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers were involved. Some college football memories were concurrent and subsequent.
I fondly remember a number of Pitt-Penn State battles….seemed like they played every year at Pitt Stadium for awhile. Being a Penn State fan, I spotted a friend Pitt & 44 points for a mid-1960s bet…and won….as PSU trounced the Panthers, 65-9. I remember Joe Paterno berating backup QB Mike Cooper for throwing a TD pass when he was under orders not to throw. I remember the PSU contingent chanting, “Shitt on Pitt.” I remember the Franco Harris-Lydell Mitchell duo beating Pitt 28-7 in 1971. I remember watching Tony Dorsett of the National Champion Panthers keying 2 close victories against Syracuse & West Virginia in ’76. I remember, my lime green Plymouth losing its transmission fluid in the middle of Oakland just before one of those games. I remember making it to the game; I don’t remember what happened to the car. I remember watching Notre Dame beat Pitt on a hot-as-hell day to open the ’77 season. Finally, for me, was a Penn State upset of Pitt, 15-13 in ’78 as Pitt failed on a late 2-pt. conversion try. Wasn’t there for this one, but who could forget Penn State falling behind a heavily favored Dan Marino-led Pitt team in ’81, then storming back for a 48-14 shellacking!!
Pitt Stadium….splinters in the ass, spit on the ground, fires in the bleachers….a few memorable wins….quite the place for a 10-year old!!