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They had every right, these young studs collected by Chuck Noll, to wonder what is it with this old man whose history of failure lies upon us like a millstone, perpetuating our ridicule. He had, in fact, been a great all-round athlete, one who knew football as well as any owner, but he had run the Steelers as a sportsman torn between two loves, the other being horse racing. More often than not he hired coaches who shared his feelings for the track, and he let them run their teams unencumbered, clear through to making all trades. "I think that was my whole mistake, letting the coaches have a free hand," he has said. "I was able. I was competent."
At Three Rivers now, his personal attentions to Noll's players, rather than causing him to appear the fumbling fool, dissolved the athletes' worldly veneer to reveal them as boys far from home. Their cynicism crumbled in his presence, for what other owner in the whole of the league knew the names of the lowliest rookies? Black Quarterback Joe Gilliam, an 11th-round draft choice who in December would save a vital win over Houston, had entered a four-way fight for three jobs, pessimistic that he would receive an impartial evaluation. Briefed, however, by his soul brothers, he said, "I'm not worried about Mr. Rooney."
"The way I see it, we've got to win two of the first four to have a chance," Dan Rooney said last summer. A young team needing time to congeal, the Steelers faced a difficult first month—their opener against the strong Oakland Raiders, then three straight road games. But they pulled it off by winning two of the four, whereupon the first sign of euphoria appeared. It was a banner that hung from the bottom deck of the south end zone and it said: " Gerela's Gorillas." In a city that would soon embrace the mad notion that the Steelers could win a title, what could be more appropriately senseless than the emergence of the team's first fan club as a claque for, of all people, Placekicker Roy Gerela.
Victories accumulated—three in a row—and suddenly, on my morning radio show, I found myself hollering, "Attention, Gerela's Gorillas!" Cincinnati Kicker Horst Muhlmann was coming to town only two weeks after blowing three crucial field goals in a game at Los Angeles. "Attention, Gerela's Gorillas! Hang out an end-zone banner that says, "Hey, Horst! Remember L.A.!' " Next, Kansas City's Jan Stenerud was heading our way. Had he not cost the Chiefs a possible trip to the Super Bowl by blowing a field goal against Miami in the 1971 playoffs? "Attention, Gerela's Gorillas! The banner for this week is 'Hey, Stenerud! Remember the Miami playoff!' " Next, Minnesota's Fred Cox presented an emotional problem: local boy from nearby Mon City, ex- University of Pittsburgh halfback, highly popular in Pittsburgh. O.K. "Mon City Freddy, we love you. But choke!" The Gorillas, however, had no time for sentiment. Their banner simply read, "Mon City Freddy, choke!" Don Cockroft was having a super season with the Browns, but it came back to me that during his horrible slump of 1971 the insiders were whispering, "He thinks too much." So for Don Cockroft, the Gorillas' banner cried out, "Hey, Cockroft! Think!"
The Steelers tore through the Bengals, Chiefs, Vikings and Browns, and all the while the Gorillas dangled perilously over the grandstand facade, jabbing their fingers at their art as Horst, Jan, Freddy and Don ruefully looked up. Among them the kickers managed to put just two field goals between the uprights, and one of those a meaningless boot by Muhlmann that came after the Steelers had a 26-point lead. Lord, this was more fun than the time fat old Bobby Layne led a jazz band till three in the morning, then went out on a treacherously icy field to establish a Steeler record by passing for 409 yards.
As the Italian Army general staff danced on the dugout roof, Franco Harris was running over cornerbacks, laying them as flat as so many slices of capocollo. Count Frenchy Fuqua, his natty running mate, was now wearing two watches (one on a gold fob across his vest), and Defensive End L. C. Greenwood was hanging in there week after week on one healthy leg. One Sunday the congregation of St. Bernard's Roman Catholic Church arose in the middle of mass to give a lusty cheer for Linebacker Jack Ham. But it was in the Astrodome at Houston the next to last week of the regular season that our troops, striving to protect a one-game lead over surprising Cleveland, proved what they were made of.
Flu struck five players the morning of the game, but they played. Thirteen Steelers went down with injuries but played on till doctors forbade them. Joe Gilliam, the team's last functioning quarterback, saw his first (and last) action of the season and had his knee torn apart. "Ready to surrender?" said an Oiler, but gimpy Joe, now a black McAuliffe at Bastogne, replied, "Nuts!" The score was tied 3-3 when our stupendous defensive tackle, Mean Joe Greene, told himself, "I have not come this close to a title to see it slip away." Five times he singlehandedly sacked the Houston quarterback; on another play he jarred loose the ball from an Oiler running back and recovered the fumble to set up a field goal. All told, Gerela kicked three and, amid the rubble of a 9-3 Steeler victory, passions overwhelmed their normally self-composed coach. "We had guys out there bleeding," Noll said. "Bleeding but simply gutting it out." His thoughts turned to Joe Greene and, summoning the encomium he believed said it all, declared, "That's a class football player."
How then can anyone insinuate that the Steelers were anything less than deserving of the now-famous Franco Harris miracle, the Terry Bradshaw fourth-down pass that in the first playoff game ricocheted from the shoulder of Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum to be gobbled up on a shoestring catch by Franco? To be sure, as Harris galloped to a touchdown with just five seconds left on the clock, our team stood guilty of receiving 12th-man assistance. While Bradshaw had barked signals, General Tony Stagno had extracted from a small case an ivory fetish and fixed the Oakland Raider defense with the Italian evil eye. But perhaps an even higher power had ordained the astonishing play, had provided a fillip to ensure that Pittsburghers, in obedience to a decree immediately issued by a 50-yard-line fan named Sharon Levosky, forever more shall celebrate Dec. 23 as the Feast of the Immaculate Reception.
Alas, there was to be no Super Bowl trip, owing to the fact that in the second playoff game, after our men had jumped off to a 7-0 lead over Miami, our peerless coach had one inspiration too many. Judging that Dolphin Punter Larry Seiple, coming off a leg injury, would kick as quickly as possible, Noll rushed only one man, peeling the others back to block. Seiple astutely perceived the goings-on; instead of punting he fell right in behind Steelers going his way, running 37 yards to set up a touchdown that brought the Dolphins to life and ultimately to victory.
So now we must try again, but our hearts are lifted by the knowledge that ours is a team that is surely meant to taste the best of life. Lest anyone doubt it, let him be told the Battle of the Soft Drink Cooler.