12 things I learned about pro football history

I thought I knew a lot about pro football but "The Ones Who Hit the Hardest" was full of surprises.

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    The Ones Who Hit the Hardest:
    The Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s, and the Fight for America's Soul
    By Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne
    Penguin
    336 pp., $26
    View Caption

In the 21st century, why would anyone want to write a book about a pro football rivalry from the 1970s? The answer is woven throughout The Ones Who Hit the Hardest, which gets more to the point with its subtitle: “The Steelers, the Cowboys, the ‘70s, and the Fight for America’s Soul.” Coauthors Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne tell the story of these colorful, influential, and distinctively different franchises as they vie for superiority during the first full decade in Super Bowl history.

The book’s climactic, final chapter recounts their clash at Super Bowl XIII on Jan. 21, 1979, when the Steelers won 35-31, in a game this writer witnessed from the auxiliary press-seating area of Miami’s Orange Bowl.

Here are 12 things I learned from this book:

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1. After a miserable 1-13 record in 1969, the Steelers wanted to hire Penn State’s Joe Paterno to coach the team but he wasn’t interested. Instead, they turned to little-known Chuck Noll, an assistant coach with the Colts and the team’s defensive mastermind. Ironically, Noll was hired after the Colts lost to Joe Namath’s New York Jets in a huge upset in Super Bowl III.

2. Tex Schramm, the president and general manager of the Cowboys, got the idea for using a computer to organize scouting information about players after seeing how effectively IBM was able to tabulate data at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif. In a technological breakthrough for football, the Cowboys had software developed that they first used during the 1964 draft, when Dallas selected three future Hall of Famers: Roger Staubach, Mel Renfro, and Bob Hayes.

3. Rookie quarterback Terry Bradshaw was supposed to be the Steelers’ savior, but in his first home game in Three Rivers Stadium, he played so poorly (4 of 16 with one interception against Houston) that he was booed, pulled from the game, and cried in his car afterward. For the season, he threw four times as many interceptions as touchdown passes.

4. The Cowboys transformed their image in a number of ways, partly by moving their offices into a fancy, upscale tower and also by uniform changes designed to project a classy, modern look. Silvery helmets and pants replaced white ones, but the home jerseys, in a departure from the league norm, were white, which projected a certain good-guy quality.

5. Dallas running back Walt Garrison, when asked if he’d ever seen stoic head coach Tom Landry, who filmed every practice to check for mistakes, smiled and replied, “Nope. But I’ve only been here nine years.”

6. Art Rooney, the longtime owner and patriarch of the Steelers, didn’t see the so-called “Immaculate Reception,” the most memorable play in team history, because he had prematurely made his way to the locker room from the owner’s box, expecting to console the Steelers after a 1972 playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders. Instead, Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris snatched a deflected pass right before it hit the ground and raced 42 yards to score the winning touchdown with five seconds left. The win was the team’s first ever in postseason play and pivotal in launching a successful new era.

7. Upon finishing his college career at Penn State, Franco Harris considered writing a letter to the Steelers urging them not to draft him because he’d seen how Pittsburgh fans pelted their own players with snowballs. His agent, however, warned that sending such a letter might cast him as a head case. Harris wound up as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 draft choice in 1972.

8. Remembering how uptight the Colts had been in losing Super Bowl III, when he had been an assistant coach, Chuck Noll made a surprising decision as Pittsburgh’s head coach in 1975, when he let his players loose in New Orleans before Super Bowl IX. He imposed no curfew or bed check and told his players to have a good time. They did and won the game, beating Minnesota, 16-6.

9. The 1974 National Football League players’ strike was a particularly challenging time for Steeler running back Rocky Bleier, who became the face of the strike in Pittsburgh as the team’s union rep. Pittsburgh was a union town, but football was not viewed as serious work in a blue-collar community, so the fans took a negative view of his leadership. Ever-understanding team owner Art Rooney, however, assuaged some of Bleier’s worries by encouraging his presence in the picket line, adding, “We’ll get things cleared up.” Bleier a Vietnam vet, went on to become a local hero, a 1,000-yard rusher in 1976, and the player who caught the go-ahead touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIII.

10. Jack Lambert, the Steelers’ unusually lightweight and gangly middle linebacker (6 ft. 4 in., 218 pounds), managed to play the position because he had flawless technique. And, of course, he was tough as nails, a fact a scout observed during a Kent State practice. Although it was supposed to be a half-speed, rainy-day workout held on black-top pavement, Lambert dove to make a tackle, then casually removed the pebbles embedded in his arm.

11. The Cowboys moved to Irving in 1971 after Dallas said it would only renovate an aging Cotton Bowl and not build a new stadium. The move led to the construction of a trendsetting football-only stadium with luxury boxes that were marketed as “similar to a second residence, like a lake home or ranch.”

12. The Steelers’ offensive linemen, at the insistence of an assistant coach, began wearing $100 padded gloves like those boxers use while training. The idea was to protect bare hands in making the initial blocking thrust against defensive players. Such gloves are standard in today’s game.

Ross Atkin is a Monitor staff editor.

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