Super Bowl 2011: My life with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers
Super Bowl teams provide a baby boomer with a look back at how his experiences have intersected, however briefly, with them over the years. The Steelers and Packers will meet Sunday in Super Bowl XLV.
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The team that really hooked me were the Chicago Bears, whose games were regular TV fare in Evansville, my southern Indiana hometown. This was when the Bears played at Wrigley Field, George Halas was the coach, and the broadcast team consisted of two former Bear greats, Red Grange, the man known as the Galloping Ghost, and George Connor.Skip to next paragraph
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From rooting for the Bears, I gained my first real acquaintance with the Packers, who emerged as the league’s dominant power under Vince Lombardi and served as Chicago’s perennial nemesis. The Green Bay players became household names and regular foils for the Bears in twice-a-season games.
The Steelers, on the other hand, remained a mystery to me. They played in the NFL’s East Conference, and I never once remember the Bears squaring off with them on television.
My in-person spectating of any of these teams was limited to two brief visits to the Bears’ summer training camp, then held in the sleepy town of Rensselaer, Ind. That is until 1963, when on a family vacation to Chicago, we secured tickets to the annual College All-Star Game at Soldier Field. The defending NFL champs took on the best college seniors from the previous year in the preseason event begun in 1934.
The pros almost always won, and the Packers, at the peak of their powers in 1963, seemed virtually certain to teach the college stars a few lessons. But lo and behold, in a shocking upset, a college squad led by quarterback Ron Vander Kelen, who played right under the Packers’ noses at the University of Wisconsin, toppled the two-time defending NFL champions, 20-17. It was the last time the pros ever lost in the annual showdown, which was terminated after Pittsburgh crushed the college stars, 24-0, in 1976.
Vander Kelen had also been the hero for Wisconsin in the 1963 Rose Bowl, even though the Badgers ultimately lost to Southern Cal, 42-37, after mounting the greatest comeback in the game’s history. Wisconsin scored 23 unanswered points in the fourth quarter in a first-ever bowl match-up of No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams.
Ironically, Vander Kelen had a short, undistinguished NFL career.
While the Packers emerged as a power under Lombardi, the Steelers continued to fly under the NFL radar during most of the sixties, hitting rock bottom in 1969 with a 1-13 record.
It was in the aftermath of that debacle, while reading a sports magazine at an off-campus laundromat in Bloomington, Ind., that I first learned of quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the designated savior of the woeful Steelers. With the NFL’s No. 1 overall draft pick, Pittsburgh had selected Bradshaw out of Louisiana Tech.