"THE WAY I SEE IT, WE'VE GOT TO WIN TWO OF THE first four to have a chance," Dan Rooney said in the summer of '72. A young team needing time to congeal, the Steelers faced a difficult first month—their opener against the strong Oakland Raiders, then three straight road games. But they pulled it off by winning two of the four, whereupon the first sign of euphoria appeared. It was a banner that hung from the bottom deck of the south end zone, and it said, GERELA'S GORILLAS. In a city that would soon embrace the mad notion that it could win a title, what could be more appropriately senseless than the emergence of the team's first fan club as a claque for, of all people, placekicker Roy Gerela.
Victories accumulated—three in a row—and suddenly, on my morning radio show, I found myself hollering, "Attention, Gerela's Gorillas!" Cincinnati kicker Horst Muhlmann was coming to town only two weeks after blowing three crucial field goals in a game in Los Angeles. "Hang out an end-zone banner that says, HEY, HORST! REMEMBER L.A.!" Next, Kansas City's Jan Stenerud was heading our way. Had he not cost the Chiefs a possible trip to the Super Bowl by blowing a field goal against Miami in the 1971 playoffs? "Attention, Gerela's Gorillas! The banner for this week is, HEY, STENERUD! REMEMBER THE MIAMI PLAYOFF!" Next, Minnesota's Fred Cox presented an emotional problem: local boy from nearby Mon City, ex-University of Pittsburgh halfback, highly popular in Pittsburgh. O.K.: MON CITY FREDDY, WE LOVE YOU. BUT CHOKE! The Gorillas, however, had no time for sentiment. Their banner simply read, MON CITY FREDDY, CHOKE! Don Cockroft was having a super season with the Browns, but it came back to me that during his horrible slump of '71 the insiders were whispering, "He thinks too much." So for Cockroft, the Gorillas' banner cried out, HEY, COCKROFT! THINK!
The Steelers tore through the Bengals, Chiefs, Vikings and Browns, and all the while the Gorillas dangled perilously over the grandstand facade, jabbing their fingers at their art as Horst, Jan, Freddy and Don ruefully looked up. Among them the kickers managed to put just two field goals between the uprights. Lord, this was more fun than the time fat old Bobby Layne led a jazz band till three in the morning, then went out on a treacherously icy field to establish a Steelers record by passing for 409 yards.
As the Italian Army general staff danced on the dugout roof, Franco Harris was running over cornerbacks, laying them as flat as so many slices of capocollo. Count Frenchy Fuqua, his natty running mate, was now wearing two watches, and defensive end L.C. Greenwood was hanging in there week after week on one healthy leg. One Sunday the congregation of St. Bernard's Roman Catholic Church arose in the middle of Mass to give a lusty cheer for linebacker Jack Ham. But it was at the Astrodome in Houston the next-to-last week of the regular season that our troops, striving to protect a one-game lead over surprising Cleveland, proved what they were made of.
Flu struck five players the morning of the game, but they played. Thirteen Steelers went down with injuries but played on till doctors forbade them. Joe Gilliam, the team's last functioning quarterback, saw his first (and last) action of the season and had his knee torn apart. "Ready to surrender?" said an Oiler, but gimpy Joe, now a black McAuliffe at Bastogne, replied, "Nuts!" The score was 3-3 when our stupendous defensive tackle, Mean Joe Greene, told himself, "I have not come this close to a title to see it slip away." Five times he single-handedly sacked the Houston quarterback; he also jarred loose the ball from an Oilers running back and recovered the fumble to set up a field goal. All told, Gerela kicked three, and amid the rubble of a 9-3 Steelers victory, passions overwhelmed their normally composed coach. "We had guys out there bleeding," Noll said. "Bleeding but simply gutting it out." His thoughts turned to Greene, and summoning the encomium he believed said it all, he declared, "That's a class football player."
How then can anyone insinuate that the Steelers were anything less than deserving of the now-famous Franco Harris miracle, the Terry Bradshaw fourth-down pass that in the first playoff game ricocheted from the shoulder of Oakland's Jack Tatum to be gobbled up on a shoestring catch by Franco? To be sure, as Harris galloped to a touchdown with just five seconds left on the clock, our team stood guilty of receiving 12th-man assistance. While Bradshaw had barked signals, General Tony Stagno had extracted from a small case an ivory fetish and fixed the Raiders' defense with the Italian evil eye. But perhaps an even higher power had ordained the astonishing play, had provided a fillip to ensure that Pittsburghers, in obedience to a decree immediately issued by a 50-yard-line fan named Sharon Levosky, forevermore shall celebrate Dec. 23 as the Feast of the Immaculate Reception.
Alas, there was to be no Super Bowl trip. So now we must try again, but our hearts are lifted by the knowledge that ours is a team that is surely meant to taste the best of life. Lest anyone doubt it, let him be told the Battle of the Soft Drink Cooler.
It is Dec. 3, 1972, and the Steelers have just broken a first-place deadlock with Cleveland by lathering the Browns 30-0—obviously an occasion for great dressing-room jubilation. At the height of it equipment manager Jack Hart, a wiry, brush-cut man, comes upon several small children. To the adult accompanying them he says, "No kids in the dressing room."
"They're O.K.," says Art Rooney Jr., the club's 37-year-old vice president in charge of personnel. "They're friends."
"No kids," reiterates Hart.