The Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls during the 1970s, and the players remained close long after they left the field. Gary Pomerantz writes about those circumstances in a new book titled, Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now. Bill was joined by Pomerantz and Pro Football Hall-of-Famers “Mean Joe” Greene and Franco Harris.
Highlights from Bill’s Conversation with Gary Pomerantz, “Mean Joe” Greene, and Franco Harris
BL: Gary I want to start with the title of your book, Their Life’s Work. Chuck Noll, who coached the Steelers during the ’70s, used that phrase to remind his players that pro-football was not their life’s work. Why?
GP: Well, you know, it’s a phrase that I heard in almost every interview I conducted for this book and I conducted more than 200. It’s a phrase that Chuck Noll got from his NFL coach Paul Brown. Chuck Noll played for Paul Brown in the 1950s, and when Paul Brown was about to release a player, he would gather with that player and tell him, ‘It’s time to get on with your life’s work.’ And when Chuck Noll used this phrase some of these players took it as a threat, the death knell of their career with the Steelers or maybe in the NFL. But other players took it more constructively. They understood what Chuck Noll was saying is that football is a brutal game and retirement and the rest of your life is one play away. And then it would be time to get on with your life’s work, and those players started to plan for the rest of their lives.
BL: Joe Greene, a threat or an invitation to plan for the rest of your life?
JG: I was one of those guys in the locker room that would tease some of my teammates, ‘Maybe it’s time for you to get into your life’s work.’ I was joking, and I think we all joked a little bit about that. But he wasn’t insulting us. He wanted to let us know that football wasn’t all of our lives, part of it. Only part of it.
FH: Every player that enters the NFL knows that that day is gonna come when you have to get into your life’s work. So with that, and I hope that Gary doesn’t mind me going to another meaning of this, football is always part of our life from here on out. When we leave the game, we leave the field, but we don’t leave football. It affects so many parts of our life, so many aspects of our life. So it will be with us forever.
BL: Franco, as the years have gone by and the NFL has celebrated parity, does the achievement of those Pittsburgh teams during in the ’70s, four Super Bowl wins in the same decade, seem all the more impressive?
FH: Yes, it does. As time goes by, I guess it does get a little more important and bigger to us. But even during the ’70s, we knew that what we had here was something unique, something extraordinary, so we keep that with us. And Gary’s captured that so well in his book.
GP: Bill, let me say that this was really the greatest football team since the Earth’s crust cooled. This was the greatest accumulation of talent in one place at one time ever. And what I found remarkable, most remarkable, was this brotherhood they shared. They shared then and still today. Players today will never know this kind of closeness because of free agency. These players are like grasshoppers today. They jump from team to team for bigger contracts, and we understand that. But they don’t realize they’re paying a cost. And the cost is: they’re never going to have this kind of closeness that the Steelers had.
BL: Joe, according to Their Life’s Work, you enjoyed being turned from “Mean Joe” Greene into a lovable character by that Coca-Cola commercial where you give your jersey to that kid who has handed you a bottle of Coca-Cola. Did that commercial in fact change everything?
JG: You know, it did. It changed my personality particularly off the field. I was the guy who was unapproachable.
FH: Hey Bill, … I did not know how to handle it, Joe being nice. I was like going crazy. I’m saying, ‘Joe signed an autograph! Do you believe it?’ But Bill, I do want to say as soon as that contract was up, “Mean Joe” Greene came back.
JG: No! Oh my goodness!
FH: I tell you what. That really touched me. It really was a great commercial and to me it was vintage Joe. When he gets to know you and you’re his friend, he’d give you the shirt off his back. I mean, that captured the spirit of Joe Greene perfectly.
JG: Well, thank you, Mr. Harris.
FH: I’m being nice, Joe.
JG: Yeah, I know.
BL: In 1976 Lynn Swann of the Steelers was told by doctors that a second concussion could be dangerous. How do you feel about the NFL contending otherwise until just a few years ago?JG: Well, my opinion on that was if they had told me in 1969 when I signed the contract, I would have still signed the contract and played. But just recently I saw League of Denial and that really, really, really upset me. They knew. They knew and they should have given me, and all of us, an opportunity to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The dishonesty got underneath my skin a great deal.
GP: You know, I interviewed a couple dozen of the Steelers from the ’70s and everyone of them told me they would do it again in a second. No regrets. They said this at a time when they are in their middle 60s some of them creeping into their 70s with titanium in their knees, their hips, their shoulders. This team has suffered some early deaths, most well known of course, Mike Webster the Hall-of-Fame center who played 17 years in the NFL at a position no man should play in the NFL for 17 seasons. He was diagnosed, posthumously — the first NFL player diagnosed posthumously — with CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy — brain damage. So this team has paid its price, and yet they all say they’d do it again. The tight end Randy Grossman said, ‘The reason is this was our gift. This was what made us special. This was what separated us from the faceless crowd.’
Bill’s Thoughts on ‘Their Life’s Work’Gary Pomerantz’s book about the 1970s Steelers celebrates the NFL in general. His focus is on the team that won four Super Bowls during one decade, thereby giving that Pittsburgh team a claim in “greatest ever,” but he’s an unapologetically enthusiastic football guy.
In his postscript, after acknowledging that lots of the ’70s Steelers died young and that some of those still living are seriously impaired, he asks and answers this question: “Would we pay in lasting pain for the fame, the wealth, the feeling of teammates having our backs on a long, hard journey against sworn enemies? I suspect we would.”
How many of “us” Pomerantz is speaking for is open to debate.
Of course, even most of the young men who would happily make the deal Pomerantz describes don’t get to be as famous and wealthy as some of the ’70s Steelers have become. Almost none of them win multiple Super Bowls, let alone four championships with the same team.
That having been said, Their Life’s Work is full of entertaining stories about a group of men who seem to have had a fine time redefining NFL excellence, and who remain close to one another. It’s also full of gaudy writing, such as when Pomerantz describes a Terry Bradshaw pass as rising “on an arc that then it was as if rocket boosters kicked in, propelling it higher and deeper, across the galaxy like a shooting star.”
Somewhere John Facenda, the announcer long-known to NFL fans as “the voice of God,” is smiling at the hyperbole.