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"When he arrived, we were more or less desperate for anyone to turn us around," recalls Andy Russell, the retired linebacker. "Terry was portrayed as a magician who could transform perennial losers into Super Bowl champs."
To acquaint the young Mandrake with his new teammates, Russell invited Bradshaw to a team party at his house. This otherwise friendly gesture had unhappy consequences. "Here he was, a rookie from the country faced with a bunch of cynical old veterans," says Russell. "You can imagine the scrutiny he was put under. I'm not sure a quarterback can ever become one of the boys—everyone, consciously or unconsciously, thinks he gets too much credit—but Terry just wasn't one to go out and match those old Steelers beer for beer and shot for shot. He wasn't into that silly macho thing. Still, we thought he could lead us out of the woods. I remember I went once to hear him give a speech before a church group. He was what they called 'witnessing.' Well, I'd never been to anything like that, but as I listened to him, I sat there wondering if he could somehow convert that religious fervor into action on the field."
Bradshaw completed only 38.1% of his 218 passes his rookie season. He threw for six touchdowns and was intercepted 24 times, hardly a magical debut. In the final game, a 30-20 loss to Philadelphia, he was sent in to punt for the injured Bobby Walden. "He was kicking from the end zone," Russell recalls, "so we suspected they'd be coming strong. They did. It was as if the floodgates had opened. They just crushed that punt. For Terry, it was the final humiliation." Still, the Steelers finished with a 5-9 record, their best since 1966. It was small consolation to the shattered young quarterback.
"My rookie year was a disaster," Bradshaw says now. "I was totally unprepared for pro ball. I'd had no schooling on reading defenses. They'd blitz me, and I'd just run away. I had never studied the game, never looked at films the way a quarterback should. I had never been benched before. I'd never even played on a team that had another quarterback besides me. I had no idea how important I was to the team. I'd never been to Pittsburgh, never even seen the Steelers play on television. We had another good quarterback in Terry Hanratty. He was an All-America from Notre Dame, and he was from Pennsylvania. He related well to the other players. He had polish. He was one of the guys. I was an outsider who didn't mingle well. There were no cowboys on the team, no one who liked to fish or do the things I liked to do. The other players looked upon me as a-Bible-toting Li'l Abner."
He went home to Shreveport discouraged but not defeated. "All I could think about was, I'll show 'em," he says. "I was embarrassed. I started studying this game. By the end of that year I'd lost all my confidence, so I psyched myself into getting it back. In that off-season, I worked and worked."
Noll and the other coaches were not as discouraged as Bradshaw believed them to be. From 1-13 to 5-9 in one year represented dramatic progress to them, and as Noll said, "Terry was always the guy with the most talent. There never was any question about that." When Bradshaw reported to training camp in 1971, he was startled to see his name first on the depth chart. He rewarded Noll's confidence by completing 203 of 373 passes for 2,259 yards and 13 touchdowns, a superb season for a second-year man. He seemed on his way. But he slipped slightly in '72, completing only 47.7% of 308 passes, and in '73 he suffered a shoulder separation and missed four games in the middle of the season.
In 1974 his troubles began anew. He was divorced from his wife of 18 months, Melissa Babish, Miss Teen Age America of 1969, and in training camp he lost his starting job to third-year man Joe Gilliam. If an athlete's career is life in a capsule—youth, middle age, old age, all in a dozen years—then Bradshaw suffered a midlife crisis at 26.
"I'm a Baptist, a Christian," he says. "I pulled away from it in that year. I felt a lot of guilt over the divorce, and I'd lost my job. I'd failed. I didn't become an alcoholic or a whoremonger, but I was moody and depressed, and I drank and hustled women in bars—a total jerk having a ball. I have never enjoyed those things. I'd been a devout Christian for so long, getting away from it affected me mentally. The ton of guilt brought me to my knees. I guess you could say that God blitzed me and gave me a shot to the head, and no one threw a flag."
It was then, he said, that he looked back to what he had been, a young man who cared more about the Scriptures than the playbook. He prayed for another chance, although "I had a hard time believing God could forgive a jerk like me." Apparently, He did, for within a year Bradshaw had his starting job back, a Super Bowl ring—and Jo Jo Starbuck had entered his life.
Born Alicia Jo Starbuck and reared in Downey, a Los Angeles suburb, Starbuck was, like Bradshaw, both an athlete and a devout Christian. She had been skating since she was seven, and with her partner, Ken Shelley, had competed in two Olympics and skated professionally with the Ice Capades. Bradshaw, rededicated, saw her perform in Pittsburgh and immediately asked her out. She refused. Later, when she learned of his churchgoing ways, she sent him tickets to her next show in Pittsburgh. They had dinner that night. He proposed after two weeks. They became engaged a month later and were married on June 6, 1976. Though their jobs frequently separate them, they communicate regularly on the road and faithfully read the same passages of the Bible every day. "Jo Jo," says Terry, "is an angel."