With the Super Bowl coming up tomorrow, the time is right to share these two artifacts from my younger days — a colored-pencil illustration and a printed letter to former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. If you watch Fox NFL Sunday, then you are likely familiar with Bradshaw’s unique mix of humor and insight.
Growing up in the 1970s and early 80s in Pittsburgh, PA, my brother and I quickly became fans of the hometown Steelers and their roster of now-legendary players including wide receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene, linebacker Jack Lambert, fullback Franco Harris, and center Mike Webster. Please see the end of this blog post for critical health information about Webster, who tragically died at the age of 50.
These men that we cheered on felt less like all-stars and more like the tough blue-collar laborers who spent their days in front of blast furnaces in Pittsburgh’s steel mills. The members of our football team were symbolic neighbors. Here is an example of those everyday heroes. These are the members of the formidable defensive line known as the Steel Curtain: Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, and Ernie Holmes.
Although I never played even one season of touch football as a kid, cheering on the black and gold was almost a cultural requirement if you lived in Pittsburgh at that time. After all, under the watchful gaze of coach Chuck Noll, the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 1975, 1976, 1979, and 1980. They were the first NFL team to win four championships.
It must have been close to 1980 when I created the illustration pictured above — and the letter seen below. Despite the time and effort that were invested in these two pieces, I never mailed them to their intended recipient. Sorry, Terry. I hope you can forgive me.
The sheer number of spelling errors is laughable given the fact that I became a high-school teacher and earned a master’s degree in English literature and composition. But at least you can see that even as an elementary school student I was dutifully editing my initial draft. The erasures are evident, but my “corrections” may be just as bad as — if not worse than — the mistakes that came before them. I was really trying hard, though.
What I find especially charming is the question that concludes the letter:
“isn’t it niec Terry _____?”
The superscript yes no and accompanying arrow bring to mind the stereotypical folded paper note passed to a love interest across the classroom. Such missives often seek an answer to this question: “Do you like me? Yes or No.”
I’ll never know if Mr. Bradshaw would have found value in my artwork or composition skills, but as a man in his forties I take pride in the fact that I created these offerings — and that I was thoughtful enough to keep them as part of my small collection of childhood memorabilia. I still enjoy expressing my creativity, and I love to explore the possibilities of the written word. Those two interests have only grown.
This Sunday the venerable Tom Brady (age 41) and the much younger Jared Goff (age 24) will take the field at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta with their teams, the Patriots and Rams. Although I may watch part of Super Bowl LIII, I’ll still be rooting for the Terry Bradshaw and Pittsburgh Steelers of my youth. The game seemed much simpler then, more like a true athletic contest than a media-saturated “event.”
But I recognize that somewhere in New England and Los Angeles there are young boys — and girls! — excitedly drawing pictures of their gridiron heroes and penning sincere letters of admiration. I hope that the parents of those children encourage them, and that they search out stamps, envelopes, and mailing addresses. But before you send off their illustrations and fan mail, please take pictures of their finished work. Years from now, you’ll be grateful that you did.
The Brothers Bishop (1980) — Pittsburgh, PA
The importance of Mike Webster (1952-2002):
If you have seen the 2015 film Concussion, which stars Will Smith as the real physician Dr. Bennett Omalu, then you are likely aware of Mike Webster’s name. In that sobering movie, Webster is played by actor David Morse; his portrayal of the declining physical and mental health of the former Pittsburgh player is haunting. If you enjoy football, I strongly encourage you to watch this film.
Mike Webster, who was a Hall of Fame athlete and recipient of four Super Bowl championship rings, played for the Steelers from 1974 to 1988. But the man known as “Iron Mike” eventually suffered unbelievable horrors because of the game he loved. As a center, Webster’s body — including his head — was hit repeatedly by opponents. The innumerable collisions caused what is now recognized as CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The condition, which forensic pathologist Dr. Omalu was instrumental in identifying, is unforgiving in the way that it destroys the brain.
After his career ended in 1990, Mike Webster’s life began to unravel. The best description of what occurred to him can be found in his New York Times obituary. In that article, Webster’s downward spiral into homelessness, addiction, and psychological trauma is described. Mike Webster went from an on-field superstar to a divorced, confused, shame-filled, and broken man in less than ten years. He died at the age of 50 of a heart attack.
The damage from concussions is very real. And those injuries harm not only the physical body, but the mind.
Please investigate the topic of CTE, and please use good judgement when deciding how you, your friends, and/or your children play sports that can result in repeated blows to the head. Short-term success is no replacement for long-term suffering.
Note — The photograph of the players who formed the Steel Curtain was obtained from the Heinz History Center. The photographs of Terry Bradshaw and Mike Webster were borrowed from the website of Behind the Steel Curtain. The publicity image for the Super Bowl was found on the website of the Tampa Bay Times.