- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Before boarding his return flight, General Stagno telephones his wife and tells her, "It was like kissing God."
So I ask you, can you doubt the sweetness of that 40th year? Perceive it you may but, again, unless you were part or partisan of the Steelers, you cannot fully comprehend. I am 13, walking, sometimes skipping, down the hill to the foot of Bouquet Street, heading for the bowels of old Forbes Field. I pass through a narrow entrance into the vendors' hole, a dungeon furnished with two battered picnic tables and a few benches. No problem gaining entrance, for during the baseball season I had appeared regularly for the shape-up. On days when big crowds were expected and a great many vendors needed, boss Myron O'Brisky would force himself to look my way. He would sigh, distressed at having run out of strong backs, and say, "O.K., kid, soo-vaneers."
But this was football season and I had no intention of working. An iron gate separated the vendors' hole from a ramp leading into the park to keep the no-goods among us from sneaking off to spend the day as spectators. I had learned that if I arrived early enough one of the bosses going to and fro would leave the gate unlocked for a few moments. I would dash through, sprint clear to the top of the ball park in right field and hide in a rest room. It would be 2� hours till the ball park gates opened, but I passed the cold mornings memorizing the rosters I had torn from the Sunday sports section. At 11 a.m. I would be in position for a front-row space amid the standing-room crowd. The standees, who came in thick, lowing herds, seemed to outnumber the people holding tickets for seats. The reason was that they consisted of men who had walked in free or for four bits, courtesy of pals working the turnstiles. In those days, as Steeler Owner Art Rooney knew full well, Pittsburgh ticket takers had large circles of friends.
We came knowing we would suffer. Picture, if you will, a chunky man named Fran Rogel who, if given a football and told to run through a wall, would say "On what count?" It is 1955, and the Steelers have a splendid passer named Jim Finks and a limber receiver named Goose McClairen. They also have Fran Rogel at fullback and a head coach named Walt Kiesling, who in training camp a few months before cut a rookie named John Unitas. A big, narrow-eyed German, Kiesling wears the expression of a man suffering from indigestion and has the view that there is only one way to start a football game. On the first Steeler play from scrimmage, Sunday after Sunday, rain or shine, he sends Fran Rogel plowing up the middle.
The word having gotten around, the enemy is stacked in what might be called an 11-0-0 defense. From the farthest reaches of Forbes Field 25,000 voices send down a thunderous chant, hoping ridicule will dissuade Kiesling: "Hi-diddle-diddle, Rogel up the middle!"
And up the middle he goes, disappearing in a welter of opponents battling like starved wolves for a piece of his flesh.
From his seat in the press box Art Rooney—the Chief—tightens the grip on his cigar till his knuckles whiten. Never has he interfered with a coach. But he has absorbed all he can bear, so for the next game he furnishes an opening play. "Kies," he tells the coach, "we are going to have Jim Finks throw a long pass to Goose McClairen. That's an order."
McClairen breezes into the open field, there being nobody in the 11-0-0 defense remotely concerned about him, takes Finks' pass at a casual lope and trots into the end zone. The touchdown is called back. A Steeler lineman was offside. After the game Rooney confronts the offender, only to learn from the poor fellow that Kiesling ordered him to lurch offside. "If that pass play works," Kies hissed at the lineman, "that club owner will be down here every week giving us plays." A philosophical man, the Chief never again makes the attempt.
So you see, it was not that we always had the worst talent in the league. On the contrary, Jim Brown used to say, "You'll usually find a way to beat the Steelers, but on Monday you'll ache as you haven't ached all season." Heroes we always had. They thrived in the black pall that rose from the steel mills along the Monongahela; they perfected the brand of football the working people loved. After all, why was the incomparable Ernie Stautner wrapping all that tape around his fists and forearms? Could he, as some suspected, have been soaking it in cold water, so that when it dried it would set like plaster of Paris? From Johnny Blood to Bullet Bill Dudley (who as a rookie complained of being driven from the huddle by the whiskey on his teammates' breath) to Bobby Layne and John Henry Johnson, we had football players to cheer, but usually not enough of them. Even when there were, something invariably went wrong. For two years we had a great tyrant of a coach, Jock Sutherland, who was building a juggernaut. He died of a brain tumor.
Our ascent to glory began on a gray winter's afternoon 4� years ago in an upstairs suite of the Roosevelt, an aging downtown hotel where the Steelers had their headquarters. Dan Rooney, then 36, the Chief's eldest son, for several years had been easing into command of the club's day-to-day operations, and now he was presenting the Steelers' 16th head coach to the press.