At what point do you begin to erase an earlier label that was given to you as a player?  Can you totally overcome a negative stigma associated with that label?  At what point does a team peak with its full talent on display??superbowlx

Just think that only a year and a half earlier, the Steelers were 3-1-1 at midseason, and mired in a quarterback controversy between “Jefferson St” Joe Gilliam and Terry Bradshaw. Pittsburgh won with defense and a running attack in spite of the quarterback. After alternating between the ineffective Gilliam and Bradshaw, Noll finally gave the nod to Bradshaw.

Many speculated Pittsburgh wasn’t ready for a black quarterback. Did you know the 1974 Steelers were the only Super Bowl champion that completed less than 50% of their passes?? Gilliam went 4-1-1 in his starts completing 45.3% of his passes (96 of 212) for 1,242 yards 4TDs and 8 interceptions. Bradshaw finished completing 45.3% of his throws (67 of 148) for 785 yards 7 TDs with 8 interceptions. Terry, having gone 5-2, was sacked more and threw interceptions at a higher rate than Gilliam. So he really never beat him out.

superbowlxblack2After an upset victory in Super Bowl IX established them as league champion, the confident Steelers rolled through the next year with Terry Bradshaw at the helm. The Steelers were led by their famous front four known as the “Steel Curtain”, their powerful running game, and Bradshaw received some credit for being the quarterback of the champs.  Yet the respect afforded the Steelers QB was begrudging and not to the level of previous winners like Unitas, Staubach, Greise, Dawson, Starr, or even Fran Tarkenton who hadn’t won one yet appeared in Super Bowls twice.

The 1975 season began with a first time champion who was one of the youngest teams in football.  They were just developing as a team having come through the ’74 season with 8 rookies on the roster.  They hadn’t hit their peak as a team. Even Bradshaw was just shaking off the bad play that had him labeled as “Lil Abner” and a “dumb” quarterback.

He hadn’t lived up to his billing as the number 1 player in the 1970 draft until now, but with a pair of second year receivers in Swann and Stallworth, they were developing to complement the running game.  The strength of this team was its defense and running game.  Franco Harris again rushed for 1000 yards and the Steelers went 12-2 in the regular season. The Steelers were beginning to become bigger than life with Joe Greene, LC Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, Jack Lambert and company.

The patch worn by each team in Super Bowl X.

The patch worn by each team in Super Bowl X.

Bradshaw had improved as a quarterback in 1975 as he emerged as a leader. He completed 57.7% (165 of 286) for 2,055 yards 18 TDs to just 9 picks. Yet his moment finally came in a Super Bowl performance that put him on the level of the quarterbacks who were treated with more acclaim. His stats were good but it was the way he stood strong in the pocket to deliver the game clinching 64 yard touchdown to Lynn Swann while being knocked out.

You could see he knew was going to get clocked as he side stepped Cowboy linebacker DD Lewis and gathered himself to throw deep. Much like present Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is thought of now. He was carried to his first Super Bowl by his teammates. In his second, he validated himself among the great quarterbacks by making the play to win the game.

super-bowl-logo-1975Super Bowl X validated the career of Terry Bradshaw and he didn’t have to look over his shoulder the rest of his career. Two more championship triumphs were to follow and this ring commemorated the Steelers becoming a dynasty. Bradshaw would go on to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, however the contributions of “Jefferson St” Joe Gilliam shouldn’t be forgotten.

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This article is dedicated in the memory of Joe Giliam.


The first NFL championship in 42 years where the game ball was given to Steeler patriarch, the late Art Rooney. It had been a long time coming for all the decades of despair this team had been through. From the war time merging with the Philadelphia Eagles to form the “Steagles”. To the failed ability to recognize quarterback talent by cutting future Hall of Famers Len Dawson and Johnny Unitas. Nothing good had happened for this organization for decades.

Enter Chuck Noll.

superbowlixNoll was hired to be the Head Coach after serving under Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts regime in 1969. His last game with the organization was the loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. By then Noll was defensive coordinator after serving for years as a defensive line coach, most notably with the early 60’s San Diego Chargers in the AFL.

They say the player is the father to the coach a man becomes and Noll had been a lineman in his playing days. So instead of building his team first with a quarterback or featured runner, he drafted defensive tackle Joe Greene. He would build his defensive masterpiece from the ground up. A point often forgotten is the selection of LC Greenwood in the 10th round that same year.

A closer look at the front of the ring.

A closer look at the front of the ring.

In 1970, quarterback Terry Bradshaw was selected as the #1 overall pick. They finally had their quarterback of the future but the chief building block was Noll’s defense and in particular his defensive line. Five years later they were the best in pro football and came to be known as “The Steel Curtain”

Of course the Steelers had the great class of 1974 to put the finishing touch on what would become a football dynasty. However a look back and you can truly see how Pittsburgh’s first NFL championship had AFL roots.

If the AFL hadn’t been around to offer Chuck Noll his first coaching job at the professional level in 1960, would he have been in place to take the Steelers job in 1969?? Also look at the make up of the Steeler team from a draft and racial standpoint. Mining talent from historically black colleges and smaller schools was an AFL trait, not an NFL one. What Noll did in Pittsburgh was recreate the San Diego defensive line of the early 1960s he wasn’t allowed to in Baltimore.Steel_Curtain_Time_Magazine

  • Joe Greene – North Texas St.
  • LC Greenwood – Arkansas AM & N
  • Ernie Holmes – Texas Southern
  • Dwight White – East Texas State

So think of Joe Greene as a latter day Earl Faison or Ernie Ladd who had come from Grambling. By the time we include the late quarterback “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam from Tennessee State, Mel Blount from Southern, and John Stallworth from Alabama A&M, this team resembles the 1965 San Diego Chargers or 1969 Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL more than it did the 1968 Baltimore Colts.

super-bowl-logo-1974Many former players have talked about the racial quota that existed in the NFL back when. Well along with Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram, Chuck Noll broke that system for good and let talent flourish. First the Steelers took $1 million to move in with the AFL teams to form the AFC in 1970 with the league merger. Than Chuck Noll built the best AFL team he could through the draft

In doing so he brought Pittsburgh a championship it so desperately sought. It would not be the last.

RIP Coach Noll

RIP Coach Noll

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This bauble was what each player and coach received after their 16-6 win vs the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX.

The Immaculate Reception: Before There Were Hail Marys

Franco Harris going in for a touchdown with the Immaculate Reception

NFL Films had a video of the 100 greatest touchdowns in NFL history that came out in the 1990s which labeled Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception in the 1972 playoffs, as the greatest ever. It was a completely fair assessment.

It launched a Hall of Fame career for Franco,  launched the greatest NFL playoff rivalry of the Super Bowl era, and was the birth of one of the greatest dynasties sports has ever seen. Although the Raiders did get revenge in the 1973 playoffs, Al Davis and the Oakland faithful vehemently disagree with the referee’s ruling that day.

Coach John Madden has said on numerous occasions how he disagreed with the officials not signaling touchdown when the play was over. the refs had a conference first before ruling the touchdown stood that gave Pittsburgh a 13-6 lead with 5 seconds left. So what led to the animosity and fame of this touchdown??

Before the rule changes of 1978, a deflected forward pass could only be caught by an offensive player unless it was touched first by a defensive player. It couldn’t bounce from one offensive player to another like we have now with a Hail Mary. By the way, The Hail Mary is also a nickname for a famous last second touchdown in the 1975 playoff win by Dallas over Minnesota and not the creation of Tom Landry…yet I digress.  The Immaculate Reception had everything: drama, controversy, and extreme importance.  What started the controversy is the lingering question: Did the ball hit Oakland Raider Jack Tatum or Pittsburgh’s John “Frenchy” Fuqua before deflecting to Franco Harris?

Alright lets set it up for you: The Pittsburgh Steelers were experiencing their first real winning season in 39 years in 1972. They were powered on offense by a rookie running back from Penn St., Franco Harris. He had powered for 1,055 yards and 10 TDs to give the Steelers their first breakaway runner. He seemed to be the centerpiece for a team Chuck Noll had been building through the draft over the last 4 years. Pittsburgh had made the playoffs for the first time ever and on December 23, 1972 would host the Oakland Raiders in a AFC Divisional Playoff Game.

Meanwhile the Raiders had been mainstays in the postseason over the 6 previous seasons. They had made it to Super Bowl II before the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, and the 1968 and 1969 AFL Championship Games. After losing the first ever AFC Championship Game in 1970 to the Baltimore Colts, they were a team in transition and missed the playoffs in 1971. However with an infusion of new Raiders to put the team in the winner’s circle again, they won the AFC West and were back in ’72 and after that elusive first Super Bowl championship. First they had to go to Pittsburgh….

On a cold, dark and dreary day these two teams met and slugged it out in one of the most physical games of the era. We had two smothering defenses pounding the offenses into the ground and late in the 4th quarter the Steelers had a 6-0 lead. Desperate for some offense, John Madden inserted a young, mobile Kenny Stabler in for an anemic Darryle Lamonica which produced immediate results. On a last second desperation drive, the Raiders came scrambling downfield with their young QB in his first significant action in an NFL playoff game.

At the Steelers 30 with less than 1:30 to go, Stabler avoided the Steel Curtain, took off and scored on a 30 yard TD run to give the Raiders their first lead of the game 7-6.  “The Snake” had done it!! A hero was born!! There was bedlam on the Oakland sideline and with 1:13 to go began to make reservations for they would host the AFC Championship Game against the undefeated Miami Dolphins.

A confident Raider defense took the field expecting to thwart the Steelers final offensive attempt. After three failed passing attempts the Steelers were faced with a 4th and 10 from their own 40 yard line with :22 left in the game. The Raider defense had played a defensive masterpiece on the road. One more play and it was on to face the Dolphins. They hadn’t given up a touchdown all day…what could possibly happen?? Terry Bradshaw dropped back, this was the Steelers last chance, he scrambled to the right to avoid the rush and as two Raiders converged…Bradshaw stood his ground and heaved one down the middle to an open “Frenchy” Fuqua. However the late Jack Tatum was closing on the spot where Frenchy reached up to make the catch and….

A bloody playoff rivalry was born and from 1972-1976 these teams met every year in the playoffs. The Raiders gained some revenge in 1973 with a 33-14 thrashing. Then Pittsburgh turned the tables winning the 1974 and ’75 AFC Championships over Oakland before winning Super Bowls IX and X. Then when the Steelers were going for a three-peat, ran into a 13-1 Oakland team that defeated them 24-7, on their way to their first Super Bowl win in the 11th edition over the Vikings. It all started with the ’72 playoffs and The Immaculate Reception.

Tatum hitting the ball and Fuqua.

Tatum hitting the ball and Fuqua.

In Columbus Ohio in Winter 1991, I had the good fortune of running into Franco Harris and James Lofton who were there for the Archie Griffin Tennis Classic I believe. Anyway, sitting at the bar and prying him with beer I could not get Franco to admit the ball had bounced off Frenchy Fuqua and therefore should have been incomplete. “Come on, its just us sitting in a bar. Who would know?” I kept prodding him. Lofton was just laughing his ass off because Franco would just grin and shake his head every time I asked him.

Franco grabbing the ball just inches from the turf a second later.

Franco grabbing the ball just inches from the turf a second later.

It was cool talking football with him and for the record… I believe the ball bounced off of the back of Fuqua’s helmet.  Follow the replay and you’ll see Fuqua flash in front of Tatum who the ball was headed for. If Tatum was in front of Fuqua, he would have put out his hands to knock the ball down, not brace for impact.  When was the last time you saw a football hit someone on the shoulder pads and bounce 15 yards (45 feet) away??  Lets have it ….What say you?? Did the ball bounce off of Frenchy Fuqua or Jack Tatum??

Epilogue: My initial thought of the ball bouncing off Fuqua, maintained for decades, I have changed my mind. After blowing it up and slowing the footage down, you can see the ball move past Fuqua and hit somewhere on Jack Tatum’s right shoulder / chest. I magnified the footage and slowed it frame by frame. It’s still the greatest play in the history of the NFL and I know the debate will rage on.

frenchyThanks for reading and please share the article.