THEIR LIFE’S WORK: The Brotherhood of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now. By Gary M. Pomerantz. Simon & Schuster. 465 pages. $32.
The vintage Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s are low-hanging literary fruit. Iconic personalities abound: Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris, plus Mean Joe Greene and meaner Jack Lambert. The Hall of Fame list also includes Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Ham, Mel Blount and Mike Webster.
Four Super Bowl victories, plus “The Immaculate Reception” and colorful characters, including Fats Holmes and Frenchy Fuqua, challenge the storyteller to pick not mine. Pomerantz goes the extra yards from concept (subtitle: “The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now”) to birth of a dynasty to funerals.
It’s a remarkable tale of extraordinary men, definitively captured in their prime and, with precious present narrative, as autumn lions almost in winter.
This reads like several excellent mini-books in one. To name a few: The Rooney family, owners as gritty and loyal as Pittsburgh itself (“Hell with the lid taken off,” is how writer James Parton described the city in the 1860s); the revenge of a frequently maligned quarterback (“Is Bradshaw ‘Too Dumb’ to be Super?” screamed a New York Times headline); Mean Joe, 65, looking back from his Dallas family room.
A book is good when you think you know the subject but discover an unsung star. Bill Nunn Jr. was a well-established columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, a famed black newspaper, when the Steelers convinced him to join the team as a scout specializing in the South’s historically black colleges. Nunn not only led the Steelers to draft more black players, he had a knack for outsmarting other teams. Nunn gets credit for turning the Rooneys on to Stallworth, Holmes, Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Donnie Shell (S.C. State), Joe Gilliam and Frank Lewis.
Pomerantz is a veteran author and journalist (Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution) now serving as a guest lecturer at Stanford. He clearly grasps the Steelers’ lunch pail appeal, not only in the mills, streets and valleys of western Pennsylvania but nationally; these Steelers built a wide following that sticks today. Picky stuff: “The 1974 Draft” chapter about one of the greatest talent hauls in NFL history is only nine pages, too short and missing a simple round-by-round list of acquisitions that included Swann, Lambert, Stallworth and Webster (not bad considering Pittsburgh didn’t have a third-round pick).
Pomerantz is at his bittersweet best in a deeply moving chapter on Webster, the nutty but steady center who was too tough for his own good. Webster ends up demented, addicted to pain killers, arrested for forging a Ritalin prescription and living out of his car. He died in 2002 of a heart attack at 50.
Most of the Steelers gathered for Webster’s 2002 funeral. It was a reunion full of give and take, reflective of the wide range in a book that provides insight to glory, the heavy price some players paid and a brotherhood that beats on.
Reviewer Gene Sapakoff is a Post and Courier sports columnist.