Chapter 1: Getting There
It all began with Bradshaw, at least chronologically. But there was one problem. He wasn't a machine. He was a workaholic, a worrywart, a Bible student and at times a stand-up comic. But he was not an immediate success. He drove himself nuts as a rookie trying to figure out the pro game, and along the way in that 1970 season, he threw six touchdown passes and 24 interceptions.
A few weeks ago Bradshaw, now a broadcaster for CBS Sports, explained how hard it was for him at the beginning. "By the middle of my first year I was a wreck," he said with real misery in his voice. "God, I was awful. And I didn't know how to handle it. I was giving the sportswriters what they wanted, or what I thought they wanted, off the field. What'll it be this week? You want the L'il Abner act? Or Billy Graham? Or Hee Haw? I could do 'em all. I was so screwed up."
Pause. Bradshaw was feeling it all again.
"The worst thing was, I lost my confidence," he said. "Totally. What's the worst thing that can happen to a writer? He gets a mental block. What's the worst thing that can happen to a quarterback? He loses his confidence. That's what happened to me. I lived in a little apartment out near the airport that first year and, God, it was horrible. What a nerd I was! I should have been out on the town, living the good life, but I couldn't. I would go home every night, and it was me and Johnny Carson. Pathetic. I'd think so much about it I'd start to cry. My confidence got so bad, I called my college coach and asked him to send me up some reels from my senior year, so I could try to get it back. He'd send me film after film, and I'd see myself snapping off beautiful throws. Then I'd go out and I just couldn't snap it off the same way anymore. I was trying to be Joe Namath, or anybody, instead of myself. To this day, my biggest regret is I never threw the ball as well in the NFL as I did in college."
While Bradshaw groped, the Steelers built. And they built so well that he didn't have to be great in a hurry. In fact he didn't become the focal point of the Pittsburgh offense until after the Steelers had won two Super Bowls. No, at the beginning the scouts were the key to Pittsburgh's rise.
In many organizations, then and now, scouts write their reports, answer questions if asked and then watch as the front-office people or the coaches make the personnel decisions. That wasn't the case with the Steelers. Noll had the final word on draft picks, but Art Jr. and the scouts could change his mind. "Chuck cared about what we thought," says Bill Nunn, a former football and basketball player for West Virginia State who was only the league's sixth full-time black scout when the Steelers hired him in 1969. "I remember talking to him that first year, and he told me, 'You were an athlete. I want you to go out and find me athletes.' "
Since 1950, Nunn had picked the nationally respected black-college all-star team for the Pittsburgh Courier, so he knew the black colleges intimately. "It was like an open market," Nunn says of the black schools. "Some teams did a little bit of scouting, but I always felt this was an untapped source, almost like Branch Rickey going into black baseball and finding all those players. The talent was sitting there." Other teams were tapping it, too; the Miami Dolphins, for example, drafted 10 black-college players from '69 to '71. The Steelers just tapped it better. Pittsburgh took 11 black-college draftees in Noll's first three years; it had taken none in the previous two years. In '68, Nunn went to Arkansas AM&N in Pine Bluff and saw a tall, quick, elastic band of a pass rusher, L.C. Greenwood. The Steelers took him in Round 10 of the '69 draft. In the fall of '70, Nunn went to Texas Southern in Houston and saw one of the meanest players he'd ever seen, defensive tackle Ernie Holmes. The Steelers picked him in Round 8. In the fall of '73, Nunn went to Alabama A&M in Huntsville and saw a graceful, if slightly slow, wide receiver, John Stallworth. The Steelers got him in Round 4.
The Stallworth selection illustrates a big reason why the Steelers became so successful: They weren't slaves to size and speed. And they were lucky. Of course, it wasn't so much raw luck as it was educated good fortune, and that good fortune characterized their drafts for five years running, from that coin flip in '70 through Pittsburgh's remarkable class of'74.
In 1971, the Steelers took wideout Frank Lewis of Grambling in Round 1. Although Art Jr. also liked Penn State linebacker Jack Ham, he figured they could get Ham in Round 2. But as the second round began, a couple of defensive coaches started promoting another linebacker who was still available, Phil Villapiano from Bowling Green. Art Jr. was insistent. On the draft-room blackboard, where he would write the names of each player Pittsburgh was considering, he wrote under Round 2: "Jack Ham." One of the coaches walked to the board and wrote, "Phil Villa-piano." "Hey, no one writes on this damn blackboard but me!" Rooney yelled. "I don't go in and tell you guys what plays to call. You don't tell me what to put on the blackboard." The Steelers picked Ham, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in '88.