SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
December 18, 1978
When Pittsburgh won two Super Bowls, Terry Bradshaw was praised primarily for his strong arm, but this season there's no denying his arrival as a play caller and the leader of the Steelers. Now they could win it all again
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December 18, 1978

Li'l Abner Finally Makes It Big

When Pittsburgh won two Super Bowls, Terry Bradshaw was praised primarily for his strong arm, but this season there's no denying his arrival as a play caller and the leader of the Steelers. Now they could win it all again

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Terry Bradshaw watched the dying rays of a December sun shimmer on the pond beyond the forest of hickory and pine. At his feet, the Doberman puppy, Jessie, was menacing the miniature dachshund puppy, Rowdy, snatching up the tiny sausage of a dog in his powerful jaws. "That's enough, Jessie," Bradshaw admonished. "Man, sometimes I think that big dog wants a piece of the little fellow. And Rowdy is my pal. If I had him up in Pittsburgh with his mama, Sugar, I'd never lack for amusement. But heck, there's no dog I don't like." Jessie loped off, his tiny victim yapping after him in mock pursuit. In the fading light, buff-colored cows sauntered through an open gate, nodding uncomprehendingly at their master. "They're my babies," said Bradshaw paternally as they passed. "I love 'em."

He looked out over the rolling, green, wooded hills of northern Louisiana, blue eyes squinting against the pale sunshine. He wore a fringed buckskin jacket and jeans, and a straw cowboy hat sat atop his balding pate. He was a rancher now, not a football player, and his strong resemblance to the television rancher, Chuck Connors, was more arresting than ever. "In springtime," Bradshaw said in a soft drawl, "this is the most beautiful place you've ever seen."

Time, place and circumstance collaborated to give Bradshaw this bucolic respite. The day before, he had quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers to a bruising 13-3 win over the Houston Oilers. It was a game in which seemingly everyone but the frequently injured Bradshaw had fallen in battle. The final casualty figures listed eight Oilers and four Steelers with injuries, some serious. On that bloody afternoon, the Astrodome could have passed for the Alamo. But two Roy Gerela field goals and a Bradshaw touchdown pass had enabled the Steelers to clinch their sixth AFC Central Division championship in seven years and a berth in the playoffs.

As a reward, Coach Chuck Noll had given his battered legions an unprecedented two days off, meaning they had only three days to prepare for last Saturday's game against Baltimore. (The vacation hardly harmed Bradshaw. Playing in a snowstorm, and on a frozen rug, Bradshaw embellished his Player of the Year credentials by throwing for three more touchdowns—31 yards to John Stallworth, 12 yards to Randy Grossman and 29 yards to Jim Smith—as the Steelers pelted the Colts 35-13. They now have the best record in the NFL—13-2—and will have home-field, or perhaps home-ice, advantage in the AFC playoffs.) Because Houston is only about 200 miles from his native Shreveport, La., Bradshaw capitalized on the unexpected holiday by driving with his parents, Bill and Novis, to the 400-acre cattle and horse ranch he owns south of his hometown. "The ranch is medicine to me," he says.

Bradshaw has always sought regeneration in his roots. He was born and reared in this God-fearing country. He first achieved celebrity as a star quarterback and record-setting javelin thrower at Shreveport's Woodlawn High, and he set passing records at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, 80 miles to the east. For all of his national exposure these past nine NFL seasons, the North remains a strange and hostile place to Bradshaw. Northern Louisiana is where he can kick off his boots and, within the bounds of Christian morality, "let the good times roll." This is not bayou country, with its Cajuns and its New Orleans, for that is as foreign to him as the cold, uncompromising North. This is ranching and farming and Bible-thumping country, as Southwestern in most ways as it is Southern. "All these little towns have their rodeos and such," says Bradshaw's dad, a large, pleasant, gravel-voiced man. "After all, we're only about 20 miles from Texas." Terry Bradshaw is as much cowpoke as quarterback.

When the world is too much with him, he looks homeward. After a disastrous rookie season in 1970, he pulled himself together back home, vowing to "show 'em" next time around. And when, a few years later, not only his career but also the very foundations of his life seemed to be in jeopardy, he turned once more to the fundamental beliefs of his childhood, "rededicating" himself to that oldtime religion.

For a man thought by the glib and the uninformed to be simple, Terry Bradshaw has had a rather complex life. He was the first college player selected in the 1970 NFL draft, and he became, thereby, famous overnight. Nothing in his upbringing had prepared him for such recognition, and he squirmed in the limelight, a frightened and bewildered star. His country ways caused him to be too quickly characterized as an Ozark Ike type, and his Bible Belt philosophy made him appear more foolish than sincere among the supposedly sophisticated. He tried and failed to conceal his naiveté behind unnatural bravado, exposing himself to even more ridicule.

He has been married twice, to a beauty queen and an international ice-skating star. He has acted in a Hollywood movie (Hooper) opposite Burt Reynolds, and he enjoyed a brief, not entirely unsuccessful career as a country and Western singer, a career he may well resume. Whatever he may become, now he is a football player who is having his best season, with a team-record 26 touchdown passes and 2,784 yards passing, and he is at long last earning his due as one of the game's finest quarterbacks.

Bradshaw has come some distance from a woeful beginning and a calamitous mid-career. The Steelers, who had not won any sort of championship in their previous 35 years in the NFL, had finished 1-13 in 1969, the season before Bradshaw's arrival. They had succeeded only in building a reputation as hard-drinking tough guys who could beat you up on the field but never on the scoreboard. Fans and players alike had become hardened to defeat. In Bradshaw, who had passed for more than 7,000 yards in small-college football and had received top marks from all scouts, particularly because of an arm that could throw the ball on a line for what seemed like the entire length of the field, they saw a savior.

"When he arrived we were more or less desperate for anyone to turn us around," recalls Andy Russell, the retired linebacker who is now in the investment business in Pittsburgh. "Terry was portrayed as a magician who could transform perennial losers into Super Bowl champs."

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