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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Before boarding his return flight, General Stagno telephones his wife and tells her, "It was like kissing God."
SO I ASK YOU, CAN YOU DOUBT THE SWEETNESS OF that 40th year? Perceive it you may, but, again, unless you were part or partisan of the Steelers, you cannot fully comprehend. I am 13, walking, sometimes skipping, down the hill to the foot of Bouquet Street, heading for the bowels of old Forbes Field. I pass through a narrow entrance into the vendors' hole. No problem gaining entrance, for during the baseball season I had appeared regularly for the shape-up.
But this was football season, and I had no intention of working. An iron gate separated the vendors' hole from a ramp leading into the park to keep the no-goods among us from sneaking off to spend the day as spectators. I had learned that if I arrived early enough, one of the bosses going to and fro would leave the gate unlocked for a few moments. I would dash through, sprint clear to the top of the ballpark in rightfield and hide in a restroom. It would be 2½ hours till the ballpark gates opened, but I passed the cold mornings memorizing the rosters I had torn from the Sunday sports section. At 11 a.m., I would be in position for a front-row space amid the standing-room crowd. The standees seemed to outnumber the people holding tickets for seats.
We came knowing we would suffer. It is 1955, and the Steelers have a splendid passer named Jim Finks and a limber receiver named Goose McClairen. They also have a chunky fullback in Fran Rogel and a coach named Walt Kiesling, who in training camp a few months before had cut a rookie named John Unitas. A big, narrow-eyed German, Kiesling wears the expression of a man suffering from indigestion and has the view that there is only one way to start a football game. On the first Steelers play from scrimmage, Sunday after Sunday, rain or shine, he sends Rogel plowing up the middle.
The word having gotten around, the enemy is stacked in what might be called an 11-0-0 defense. From the farthest reaches of Forbes Field 25,000 voices send down a thunderous chant, hoping ridicule will dissuade Kiesling: "Hi-diddle-diddle, Rogel up the middle!" And up the middle he goes, disappearing in a welter of opponents battling like starved wolves for a piece of his flesh.
From his seat in the press box Steelers owner Art Rooney—the Chief—tightens the grip on his cigar till his knuckles whiten. Never has he interfered with a coach. But he has absorbed all he can bear, so for the next game he furnishes an opening play. "Kies," he tells the coach, "we are going to have Jim Finks throw a long pass to Goose McClairen. That's an order."
McClairen breezes into the open field, there being nobody in the 11-0-0 defense remotely concerned about him, takes Finks's pass at a casual lope and trots into the end zone. The touchdown is called back. A Steelers lineman was offside. After the game Rooney confronts the offender, only to learn from the poor fellow that Kiesling ordered him to lurch offside. "If that pass play works," Kies hissed at the lineman, "that club owner will be down here every week giving us plays." A philosophical man, the Chief never again makes the attempt.
So you see, it was not that we always had the worst talent in the league. Heroes we always had. They thrived in the black pall that rose from the steel mills along the Monongahela; they perfected the brand of football that the working people loved. From Johnny Blood to "Bullet" Bill Dudley to Bobby Layne and John Henry Johnson, we had players to cheer, but usually not enough of them.
Our ascent to glory began on a gray winter's afternoon 4½ years ago in an upstairs suite of the Roosevelt, an aging downtown hotel where the Steelers had their headquarters. Dan Rooney, then 36, the Chief's eldest son, for several years had been easing into command of the club's day-to-day operations, and now he was presenting Pittsburgh's 16th head coach to the press.
Chuck Noll, 36, scarcely cut a figure to trigger excitement. Nor did his first Steelers team. The previous season Pittsburgh had won but two games; now it won but one. "The problem we had," says Noll of that first year, "was to find out about our players. And the only way was to play them."