Pittsburgh in the 1970s – Terrible Times & Terrible Towels
Reposted in honor of Steeler’s fans everywhere…
It’s a terrible thing, but truth be told, I’m not much of a sports fan anymore. Haven’t been since 1980, the year I turned nineteen and left my childhood home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to join the United States Air Force. It’s not that I don’t like sports, I do. I love to play just about all of them. (I can do without ice hockey, so sue me.)
But watching them… well, it’s just never been the same as it once was, back in the days when the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated the NFL, and commanded the attention, respect and adoration of a city to such a degree that no one who was there could ever possibly forget it even for a moment. Pittsburgh was a single city, but it was still a case of the best of times, and the worst of times.
Between 1972 and 1980, the Pittsburgh Steelers, under the leadership of Coach Chuck Noll, won eight divisional championships and four, count them, four Super Bowl championships. I was eleven years old in 1972 when they won the AFC divisional playoffs for the first time ever. It was the first time I remember hearing the unforgettably nasal voice of Pittsburgh’s most famous and beloved sportscaster, Myron Cope, who passed away last year, and so didn’t live to see his team win their sixth Super Bowl championship. That was the year of the “immaculate reception,” the play that some call “the greatest play of all time”.
The year 1972 was the beginning of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynasty. Franco Harris caught the ball that bounced off of Jack Tatum, who played for the Oakland Raiders, the team we hated more than any other by far. He ran for a touchdown and Raiders fans have been whining about it ever since. Raider’s coach, John Madden has said that he’ll never get over that play. (As a Steelers fan, all I can think to say is: So?)
I was almost nineteen when, in 1980 against the Los Angeles Rams, they became the first team to win four Super Bowls and Terry Bradshaw became the first to win back-to-back MVPs since Bart Starr in Super Bowl’s I & II. The Steelers beat the L.A. Rams 31-19 that year, coming from behind twice. Bradshaw threw for over 300 yards that day, and two touchdowns. He completed 14 out of 21 passes. He was a God.
I like to tell my friends who did not grow up in Pittsburgh: “We had Super Bowl parties like you guys had Halloween.”
In the Steelers, we didn’t just have a team for which to root… we had heroes that went into battle in defense of our city on Sunday afternoons. In bitter cold and blinding snow we cheered, not just our team, but each individual player… we knew them all by name, by face, and by number. They were ours, and we were theirs.
Of course, before this year’s Steeler victory over the Arizona Cardinals (I could have sworn they were a base ball team, by the way) both Dallas and San Francisco had won the same number of Super Bowl titles, but neither record can really be compared. No team in NFL history can stand along side the Pittsburgh Steelers in terms of stability in ownership, coaching and playing style.
The Steelers didn’t have an “owner,” they belonged to the City of Pittsburgh. Instead they had a “founder,” Mr. Art Rooney, who started the team in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, and whose family still owns the team today. I hope they always will.
All told, 22 of our Steelers played in all four Super Bowls, and nine of those players were later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The first time they won was in 1975 and I was fourteen, just starting High School. That was the year that Myron Cope was asked to come up with a “gimmick”. And the “Terrible Towel” was born.
Then, the following year, when I was in tenth grade, the Steelers won again. It was 1976… the year of the country’s Bicentennial… which was nice and all, but it was no Steelers Super Bowl back-to-back victory. We poured out of our homes and into the streets toilet papering everything that didn’t move out of the way.
They didn’t win in 1977 or 1978, but we knew that at any moment they could be back on top, so every game was super to us. And then in 1979, my last year in High School, and again in 1980… our Steelers showed the world that they were as strong as the steel city ever was… and the feeling was one of indescribable elation.
The Steelers didn’t have just a defense… they had a “Steel Curtain”. And it was, in our eyes, impenetrable. When it snowed, and boy did it snow in the Pittsburgh of the 1970s… it was awe-inspiring. The Steel Curtain would line up, like warriors preparing to do battle under unbearable conditions. You could see their muscles flex and feel them ache, and you knew that no matter what, our Steelers would never give up. They were playing for us… fighting for us. And in return, we’d never turn our backs on them… we’d sit through sub-zero temperatures and frostbite inducing wind… win or lose… we’d come home proud.
And that feeling of pride was much needed in the Pittsburgh of my youth, because it was a time when so many of our city’s residents weren’t feeling very proud at all. It was the end of the American steel industry, and for the hundreds of thousands of Pittsburgh’s iron and steel workers, whose fathers and grandfathers had worked in the mills, the mines and on the barges before them, it must have felt like the world was coming to an end.
Pittsburgh’s industrial demise meant massive unemployment, and coupled with the nationwide recession of the late 1970s, the impact was nothing short of devastating to Pittsburgh’s economy. When I applied for a job at a fast food restaurant in 1978, the manager who took my application just smiled kindly as he said: “I’m sorry son, those jobs are for men with families.” And I understood.
The money problems were only part of the story. Once proud and mighty steel workers who had helped to build our nation, had been robbed of their livelihoods, but worse than that, they had been stripped of their self worth. And you could see it in their eyes as they drove the busses and cabs, took your ticket at the movies, and stood in line for day labor jobs… none of which paid half what they had earned stoking the blast furnaces of Pittsburgh’s fiery steel mills that used to run 24 hours a day, every singled day of the year… except on Christmas.
I didn’t grow up as a part of “that Pittsburgh”. I grew up in another Pittsburgh, a well-to-do, tree-lined Pittsburgh, with large, stately homes made of brick and stone that had been built by the Robber Barons of the Industrial Age. Men like Frick, Mellon and Andrew Carnegie. No, the Pittsburgh I grew up in seemed a million miles away from the mills, mines and barges. We knew “they” were there, we saw the lines cut into their weathered faces… and we were taught to respect them and feel deep compassion, but we had little in common with the lives they had known or now were forced to know starting in the 1970s.
As a kid, I couldn’t have fully understood the implications of what was really happening… Of being left behind by a society that simply no longer needs you.
Throughout the 1970s, the U.S. economy felt recessionary. But when the steel industry left our shores for Japan, it took a lot of Pittsburgh’s pride with it… and for that part of the city, it would never return. Even today, with Pittsburgh now a vibrant cultural Mecca, dominated by its universities and world famous medical centers, it still feels like a city living with a dual economy. Some of the people, those whose histories are in the mills and mines are still there… and you can seem them… walking across the bridges, staring down the rivers and dreaming of the days when they watched the men steer the barges of coal which fired the mills that made the metals that built the nation… of which we were all taught to be so proud.
As we slide towards increasingly difficult economic times, I am haunted by my memories of the Pittsburgh from my youth. A city divided by economic realities beyond anyone’s control… or comprehension. A feeling of loss that never quite went away… except, of course, on Sunday afternoons when, for a few hours anyway, the only things that were “terrible,” were the towels.
Read Along With Me, With Rhythm & Rhyme… Introducing the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Rocky Bleier, Donnie Shell, Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene, Mel Blount and Theo Bell.
Mike Wagner, Ron Johnson, John Banaszak, and Lynn Swan. Larry Anderson, John Stallworth, Craig Colquitt, and Greg Hawthorne.
Bennie Cunningham and Jim Smith, Randy Grossman, Robin Cole. Dwayne Woodruff, Dennis Winston, and Rick Moser all had soul.
Larry Anderson and Sidney Thornton could be seen around the town, and everybody cheered when they saw Larry Brown.
Anthony Anderson, Mike Kruczek and who else, well, let me see… Oh, of course, Terry Bradshaw and Matt Bahr… kicking for three!
Now watch this short segment on ABC News on the Terrible Towel’s legacy… it’s really worth it… I think.