In 1933 Art Rooney won a bundle betting on the horses and then pushed his luck by buying a professional football franchise in Pittsburgh for $2,500. If you said Rooney called his team the Steelers because they were a steal, you would be wrong. He called them the Pirates, and under that name, under that of the Steelers, under that of the Steagles (they merged with the Eagles in 1943), under that of the Card-Pitts (they merged with the Cardinals in 1944) and as the Same Old Steelers they never won so much as a division championship.
But, like most horseplayers, Rooney never lost hope, and now, 38 years later, he may finally have a winner. Last weekend the Steelers eked by San Diego 21-17 in Three Rivers Stadium. They are 2-1 in the AFC Central and if they can beat the Cleveland Browns this weekend they will be at least tied for the division lead.
In the Steelers' first two games—they were beaten by the Bears, who turned two recovered fumbles into touchdowns in the last four minutes, and beat the Bengals—their defense, particularly against the run, was outstanding. Against the Chargers it was, to be kind, horrible. The Steelers gave up 427 yards, most of them on John Hadl passes, but they held when it counted most.
Three times in the last five minutes San Diego had first and goal; three times the Steeler defense, anchored by Mean Joe Greene (see cover), stopped them.
With less than five minutes left in the game and the Steelers leading 21-17, the Chargers had a first down on the Pittsburgh seven. Hadl sent rookie Running Back Leon Burns straight ahead. He was stopped for a yard gain. Then Hadl, who completed 25 of 36 passes, threw twice incomplete into the end zone. Fourth and six. Hadl dropped back to pass, only this time the ball never got to the end zone. Greene leapt high and batted it down.
The Steeler offense could move only to its own eight, and following a punt to midfield, the Chargers came on. With a first down on the 10, Hadl again went back to pass. This time Greene hit him as he threw and the ball fluttered into the hands of rookie Linebacker Jack Ham on the one. Ham stepped back to down the ball in the end zone, mistakenly believing it would be a touchback, but his teammates managed to push him out to the four-yard line.
There was now 1:28 left and Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers' quarterback, who had scored a touchdown on a five-yard keeper and completed 15 of 24 passes for 175 yards, handed off to John (Frenchy) Fuqua. Fuqua, who had scored the other two Pittsburgh touchdowns, one following a fumble recovery by Greene, ran nine yards to the 13. On the next play Bradshaw sneaked for the first down, then unwisely struggled for meaningless additional yards and fumbled. Art Rooney must have thought how familiar it all was. First down, San Diego, on the Steeler 20 with 1:06 remaining.
Hadl got his third and last first and goal on the eight-yard line with :56 left when Cornerback Mel Blount was guilty of pass interference. Then Hadl swept to the two, where the Chargers took their last time-out. Forty-eight seconds to go. Burns went into the line. No gain. Burns again. Tackled by Greene for a yard loss. But the Pittsburgh fans were making so much noise that Hadl was given an extra time-out by the officials, allowing the Chargers a final huddle. On the next play Hadl's futile pass into the end zone was knocked down by Ham.
"This makes up for Chicago," Bradshaw said after the game. "Now we don't have to say we should have won, but we didn't. Maybe this is the kind of luck you need to win a championship."
Or as Linebacker Andy Russell put it, "I think we're growing up now."