It was a game the Pittsburgh Steelers will cherish and remember and replay in their minds many times, that 26-20 overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Three Rivers Stadium on Sunday. And in the locker room after the game they feared that the memory might have to carry them for a while, that it would be their last remembrance of the 1982 NFL season, the last game before the gates swung shut. It was a game played under a cloud.
As the Steelers dressed, with the vision of the final play in overtime, Terry Bradshaw's two-yard touchdown pass to John Stallworth still fixed in their minds, they were clearly wondering when they'd ever see good old Three Rivers again. Tuesday morning, their regular reporting time? Next week? Next month? 1983? When?
The threat of a strike hung heavy on the afternoon. There was an almost unreal quality to the game, a spirit that carried over to the postgame locker-room quotes. Yes, yes, we know, it was inspirational—Franco Harris playing like a young colt again, and Bradshaw throwing like a dream, and a new folk hero emerging, this baby-faced, blond-haired kicker from South Africa named Gary Anderson—but really, what did it all mean?
"It means," said All-Pro Linebacker Jack Ham, "that if we strike until December we're 2-0 and we've got the home-field advantage for the playoffs."
"To me it means a win and a darn good one," Coach Chuck Noll said. "I don't even concern myself with a strike. I don't even know what you're talking about."
In the loser's locker room, Wide Receiver Cris Collinsworth said, "I just want the thing settled. I don't care if a federal mediator or an arbitrator has to step in. Do you think that down there on the field anyone was thinking of a strike during that overtime period? That was NFL football at its finest out there today."
"A tragedy," Bradshaw was saying, "to see our momentum stopped right now, and then to have to regroup—it would be a tragedy."
He reached into his locker and extracted a small envelope. From it he removed a pink dental plate with a single metal post on it. Then he held the envelope to his ear and shook it. Something rattled.
"She's still here," he said, removing a false front tooth. He fitted it onto the post, put the plate into his mouth—and the gap that had been there was gone.
Bradshaw is 34, his hair is thin on top, his face carries a few more lines and he has a front tooth that goes in and out. He's in his 13th NFL season. Some of them were stormy, and the last two were depressing, but now he's on a roll. He was terrific in the Steelers' opener, a 36-28 Monday-night win over Dallas, and almost as good against the Bengals, who shut down Pittsburgh's running game cold. He had to win it with his arm, and that's what he did, finding the second and third receivers when the first guy was covered, dumping the ball off with a deft touch when he had to, the things people said he was too stubborn to learn. He has thrown six touchdown passes in two games, and against the Bengals he was two shy of the Steeler club record with his 29 completions (out of 42 attempts). He talked Noll out of a running play, talked himself out of a field-goal call and selected the final touchdown pass to Stallworth himself. And he doesn't want to go out on strike.