REVIEW: Gary Pomerantz’s “Their Life’s Work”

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The oft-told story that Steelers founder Art Rooney, whose grandson now runs the team, won the iconic Pittsburgh football club in a poker game is a myth. But in 1933 “the Chief,” who made his fortune mostly by betting on horses, did pay just $2,500 (about $40,000 in today’s money) to found the team, which has won more Super Bowls than any other and is now valued at over $1 billion. The Steelers, initially called the Pirates, were the laughingstock of Pittsburgh, and the NFL, for 40 seasons before the “Immaculate Reception” (the miraculous game-winning score that sealed the Steelers’ first-ever playoff win) brought the Steelers credibility, and a subsequent four-Super-Bowls-in-six-seasons run, still unmatched in NFL history, brought the ’70s Steelers immortality.

Gary M. Pomerantz’s new book Their Life’s Work, its title a reference to longtime Steelers coach Chuck Noll’s famous plea for his players to keep an eye on life after football, is unprecedented in its focus not on the fascinating history of the Steelers (a team perhaps more connected to its home city than any in American sports) but on the captivating/gripping personal stories of, and exceptional connections between, those mighty ’70s Steelers.

The 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers draft class – which included four future Hall of Famers, more Hall members than numerous NFL teams have total – might be as impressive an accomplishment as any of the four Super Bowls the ’70s Steelers won. But the detail from Their Life’s Work I found most illuminating was that the 1979 Steelers, who won the fourth of the franchise’s ’70s Super Bowls, did not include even one man who had ever played for another professional team. That’s an accomplishment that will probably never be repeated in modern sports, and a big reason why Their Life’s Work is a must read – the ’70s Steelers were truly a family, and their personal stories are inspirational: the Steelers-to-Vietnam-and-back courage of Rocky Bleier; the post-football business success of John Stallworth; the crippling/distancing depression of Terry Bradshaw; the loneliness of Chuck Noll, who could never connect personally with the men whose careers he was so instrumental in building; the in-fighting among the Rooney brothers as they took over their father’s long-laughable franchise; the intriguing kindness and morality of thoughtful Franco Harris; the sheer regality of Joe Greene (the dynasty’s keystone and arguably the second greatest NFL player of all time behind Jim Brown); and the plights of the lovable but intensely tragic (and now deceased) Mike Webster, Joe Gilliam and Ernie Holmes. 

Pomerantz’s research took him all over the country, even taking him to Frenchy Fuqua’s man cave in Detroit, where the colorful former running back (who may or may not have deflected Bradshaw’s pass to Harris during the Immaculate Reception) spends countless hours alone drinking Jack Daniel’s while talking to posters of his old Steelers teammates. He’s uncovered absolutely stirring tales, from Gilliam – the trailblazing black quarterback who started over Bradshaw for much of the Steelers’ first Super Bowl season – playing in a game while on heroin to Webster’s son finding the Hall of Fame center living nearly naked in the woods (during winter, no less) after retirement because of brain damage caused by an amazing career that landed him on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team. Love or hate the Pittsburgh Steelers, Their Life’s Work is something you simply cannot go without reading if you are a football fan; the ’70s Steelers were the most dominant, not to mention the most compelling, team in the history of our country’s most popular sport, and Pomerantz’s careful research and beautifully crafted writing brings this football family’s story alive.

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