Though the overcast sky threatened rain, the unseasonably warm temperature at Heinz Field buoyed everybody’s spirits along the sidelines during the pre-game ramp up. The Steelers were celebrating the 40th anniversary of Super Bowl 9 and the surviving team members were in attendance, and while conversing with a bunch of them it became readily apparent, from the first to last, that they all seemed to enjoy reminiscing amongst themselves just as much as anything else.
* I could see John Stallworth watching Antonio Brown going through his pre-game paces with an intense look of evaluation and concentration etched on his face. Franco Harris and Jon Kolb, Gordon Gravelle, Gerry “Moon” Mullins, linebacker Loren Toews, upon whom I remember Mike Webster throwing a cut block in training camp after Chuck Noll got on his case. That, of course, honked off Loren, which then lead to more mayhem. There was offensive line coach Dan “Bad Rad” Radakovich, the most feared of the assistant coaches because of his infinite drills that would leave you exhausted, and here was defensive line coach George Perles, who once convinced me that I was doing a great job in pass-rush drills even though I was getting killed by his experimental pass-rushing concepts.
* Joe Greene, Lynne Swann, Rocky Bleier, and Larry “Boss” Brown, about whom it was said had arms so huge his triceps entered the room five minutes after his biceps did. The “Human Torpedo” Donnie Shell, who, along with Andy Russell (also in attendance), should be in Canton, no questions asked.
* There was the great Mel Blount, Mike Wagner and DT Charles Davis.
* J.T. Thomas was there. He once, very astutely, told me that he sat in the back of the plane when we traveled because, “I never heard of a plane backing into a mountain.” Randy Grossman, who used to pedal his bike to and from practice; how he had the energy to power up a hill after the wicked practices we had, I’ll never know. Others from that great team were on hand as well and it was a joy to greet them all.
* Franco really captured the essence of this team and those to follow in the '70s when he said that, “We won two Super Bowls and then they changed the rules on us and we won two more with the same people.”
* In the first quarter, the New Orleans Saints began a drive and on a Drew Brees pass in which James Harrison got his pass rush on. Going against a very athletic 6-5, 304 pound tackle in Terron Armstead, James went to his go move, the “Just rip, no dip,” which he can do because he's so short, compared to the redwoods he faces week in and week out. And he is so strong. When Deebo throws that uppercut without even bending, he is in a power position already because of his upright posture. The larger OTs have to bend to get down to James’ level, and because so many of them are waist-benders instead of knee-benders they are overextended and off-balance. When James turns the corner, they either have to grab jersey or end up with their forearm around Harrison’s neck in a virtual chokehold. So it was with Terron, who was flagged for a Mata Leo, or in Portuguese, “Choking the lion.”
* It’s first-and-10 from the 50. Le'Veon Bell takes a handoff and bounces to the outside behind a pulling David DeCastro and rips off a beautiful 18-yard run, running through, around, and by guys along the way. From where I am, I can see Franco standing on the sideline with a huge smile. Franco's applauding the effort and yelling for Bell. I had to smile to myself, because 30-something years ago, that was me and him on a Flow-36 getting it done. Oh, when we were kings.
* All right, so maybe I exaggerated a little and Franco was king and I was a pauper. But that was still the two of us back in the day!
* Ben Roethlisberger just got his hand whacked while throwing the ball downfield. After the play was over, I could see him shaking his hand out and I figured he just stung it. But on the next few plays, I could see that it was bothering him enough to force him to hand the ball off with his left hand rather than his right. Ben then came to the sideline to throw a ball to backup QB Bruce Gradkowski to see if he had enough juice in his hand to grip and rip on a pass. He did, and after mouthing “I’m alright,” Ben went back to work. Crisis averted.
* Talk about getting old, there's DE Cameron Jordan, the son of Minnesota Vikings TE Steve Jordan, an old teammate of mine when I finished up in Minnesota. He just slapped hands (or at least appeared to) with Ben and got Ben’s hand a-tingling there. QBs are so vulnerable to getting hand injuries from helmets and shoulder pads which they can hit on their followthroughs. Shouldn’t be too long before the guys at 1600 Park Avenue write another 47 rule changes to protect the QB’s thumb.
* As the halftime festivities wound down, the familiar sound of the fight song from days gone by kicked up and began to play loudly over the PA system at Heinz Field. Ah, yes, the ever popular “Pittsburgh Polka” blared loudly with the verses reflecting the '70s guys. As the Steelers of this year began to take the field, I happened past OT Kelvin Beachum, who looked at me with raised eyebrows, obviously commenting on the Polka now rocking the house. I looked at Beach and said, “You better believe this is head banging music brother! If this can’t get you up for the second half, nothing will!”
* Jordan just pulled off an amazing double: Great bull rush with a timely leap to block Ben’s pass up into the air. Jordan then had the presence of mind and athleticism to track the ball and use the good hands he inherited from his 6-time Pro Bowl TE dad to catch it and run. Mike Adams has made great strides this year, and if it was last year’s Mike Adams then you would have seen a meltdown similar to London when Jared Allen took him to the woodshed. Mike battled Cam all day, and though he was bested by Cam on this play, Mike again played with great heart and stayed in the fight. This, even in defeat, showed me that Mike Adams is on the right track to becoming the player that the Steelers envisioned him to be. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, getting your butt whooped is part of the process of becoming a complete player. If you haven’t had your butt whooped, you haven’t played much.
* Speaking of Beachum, he was a little slow to his feet after throwing a block on Bell’s TD run. Sometimes in the midst of the battle you get may-tagged so bad, it’s like being in the spin cycle of a washing machine. The crashing forces of players all around you reminded me how it felt the time I went body surfing while out in the Pacific Ocean after getting some work done in San Diego. I face-planted so hard I’ll bet my face imprint is still there. Ouch.
* I just watched the bearded one, Brett Keisel, walk off the field clutching his arm while doubled up in pain. Brett is one of my all-time favorite players to come from this generation and I can see by the way he ripped his doo-rag off and flung it to the ground, he ain’t coming back. From my vantage point I could see he was clutching his triceps area on the back of his arm and I was suspicious that it may have been the same injury that felled his running mate a few years ago, Aaron Smith. Catching cars rolling downhill (locking out on run blocks) takes its toll no matter how super of a superman you are. And Brett has spent many a Sunday emerging from phone booths all across the country in different stadiums as Superman for his teammates.
* After the disappointment of the loss to New Orleans, I somberly headed back to the homestead and immediately broke out my Brett Keisel “Fear Da Beard” T-shirt in honor of Brett. I sat there and reflected on a guy whom I’ve had the privilege of watching from when he was drafted, through his formative years early on. I even remember watching him sprinting down under kickoffs and blowing people up. Brett is another John Mitchell protégé and he will be remembered alongside the best of the best to wear Black and Gold. I don’t know what the future may hold for Brett, but for sure I know Brett will always be remembered as a Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl Champ, and a first class man.