A final hurrah for Three Rivers Stadium
The foundation of the Pittsburgh Steelers' dynasty of the 1970s was laid in 1969-first when they drafted Mean Joe Greene and next when they poured the concrete for Three Rivers Stadium. The bases for the Steel Curtain defense and the venue that would be home to four Super Bowl championship teams were solidly in place.
After 31 seasons filled with some of the greatest moments and teams in National Football League history-including its greatest single play-Three Rivers Stadium will play host to its final football game on Saturday when the Washington Redskins meet the Steelers in a matchup of teams with little or no hope of making the playoffs.
The stadium - not the teams - will be in the spotlight on this day. And deservedly so.
As Greene says, "Through it all, Three Rivers ended up being a very, very good home for the Pittsburgh Steelers."
The circular, concrete, multi-purpose stadium, which opened in 1970, will come tumbling down when it is imploded in February and the Steelers move into their new football stadium next door. But the old girl won't be forgotten.
"It's beyond belief they're tearing down the stadium thirty years later, and the Coliseum in Rome is still standing," says Andy Russell, a seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker who played for the Steelers from 1963-1976.
Three Rivers' days may be numbered, but the memories of the teams and men who played there will live on.
"What a place it was," team owner Dan Rooney says.
The Steelers went from pro football laughingstocks-a franchise that had never won a playoff game-to champions at Three Rivers. They also went from a team that bounced between Pitt Stadium and Forbes Field to one with a stadium that was considered a palace in its day.
Three Rivers played host to seven AFC Championship Games, four of which were won by the home club. Players such as Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, and Mike Webster punched their Pro Football Hall of Fame cards there, as did head coach Chuck Noll and two owners - the father-son team of Art and Dan Rooney.
The stadium will be remembered forever, though, for the Immaculate Reception, which has been judged the most memorable play in NFL history.
"It's beyond belief that they're tearing down the stadium 30 years later and the Coliseum in Rome is still standing."
-- Linebacker Andy Russell, 1963-1976
In a 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff game against Oakland, Bradshaw threw a desperation, fourth-down pass over the middle, where Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum and Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua collided, causing the ball to ricochet backward. Harris, following the play, picked it off his shoetops and ran 42 yards to compete a 60-yard touchdown play with seconds remaining that gave the Steelers a miraculous 13-7 victory.
It was more than a big play. It gave the Steelers their first playoff victory and was the launching pad for their dynasty of the 1970s, when they won four Super Bowls in six years.
"I think that put us on a different plane," Dan Rooney says. "It just brought together the fans when they had all those groups like Franco's Italian Army."
The Steelers did it to the Raiders again-a little less dramatically but not without some controversy-on January 4, 1976 in the second AFC Championship Game played in Three Rivers.
On the eve of the game, a tarp on the artificial turf ripped in the wind and ice formed along the sidelines in the bitter cold. Before the game, Raiders head coach John Madden saw members of the grounds crew pouring water on the field, trying to melt the ice.
"I said, 'Hey, it's so cold it's going to MAKE MORE ICE!' " Madden said.
The Steelers beat the Raiders 16-10 and went on to win their second consecutive Super Bowl. Pittsburgh also beat Houston 34-5 and 27-13 in consecutive AFC Championship Games at Three Rivers to send them to victories in Super Bowls XIII and XIV and complete their magnificent title run.
After a tough stretch in the 1980s, Pittsburgh returned to prominence in the 1990s, and Three Rivers hosted three more AFC Championship Games in four seasons. The Steelers claimed just one victory in those games-in 1995-but it became memorable as well. On the final play, Indianapolis quarterback Jim Harbaugh's Hail Mary pass for wide receiver Aaron Bailey was deflected away-barely-by Randy Fuller to preserve a 20-16 Pittsburgh victory.
As great as some of those Steelers' clubs were, Noll said he does not believe his team would have been as successful without the atmosphere that was created in Three Rivers Stadium, where loud, raucous crowds gave them an even greater home-field advantage. For sure, the Pittsburgh sporting scene won't be the same without the place.
"That stadium," Russell says, "was a spectacular place."