The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

July 5, 2014

Coach’s passing stirs Steeler memories

— My love affair with the Pittsburgh Steelers goes back to the days when one could be fairly certain that the Black and Gold was going to lose.

The only question was, how?

Even then, predating Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers were known as a tough, rugged antagonist with the likes of Hall of Famer Ernie Staunter offering no quarter and expecting none. Until Chuck Noll came on the scene as head coach, Pittsburgh fans did not know what it felt like to be a division champion. Thirty-nine years is a long time to be wandering in the wilderness of ineptitude.

But Noll changed all of that.

Books have been written on how that happened, but Noll’s leadership with a new commitment by the Rooneys to build from within with what proved to be spectacular drafting brought amazing dividends. Like four Super Bowls in six years in the glorious ’70s.

The recent end of Noll’s long battle with the only enemy he could not defeat (Alzheimer’s disease) opened for me a lot of great memories.

Until Three Rivers Stadium became a reality, I was among those who climbed Cardiac Hill to follow in person the fortunes of the Steelers at Pitt Stadium, and before that in crusty Forbes Field, the aging baseball home of the Pirates.

Aware that NFL fans in New York and Philadelphia were traveling into New England communities to watch the games on motel television sets, I sensed correctly that Steelers tickets soon would become a coveted item once Three Rivers Stadium came on line. Season tickets was the obvious way to go.

Not wanting to attend all of the home games, I joined with Tribune-Democrat political writer Bob John in a season-ticket partnership in which we each controlled four tickets to four games. The arrangement worked well for Bob, but not me. The seats were located in a section that was moved to accommodate Pirates’ baseball games. Always preferring to view the action through field glasses, I was unhappy with excited fans jumping to their feet blocking my vision.

The following season, 1971, with a new partnership that included a couple of Johnstown High School head coaches, Paul Litwalk and Blackie Mihalic, I was in something close to Seventh Heaven.

For the next 30 years, we had third-tier, first-row box seats looking down on all the action in the end zone. Four seats soon expanded to five. They were my choice as the best seats in the house. No one disagreed.

The initial group also included Frank Flynn, Homer Rice and son Dan Siehl. Later Tom Russell and the Sholtis brothers, Dick and John, and Roy Gindlesperger filled vacancies.

For a time, Paul and I would alternate going to the opening game as well as picks on the home schedule. But later we found each group making the trip once a month more ideal.

The camaraderie as well as favorite food stops and listening to Myron Cope’s post-game review on the radio were high points even in the wake of an occasional hometown loss.

Easily the worst experience occurred when we returned to our street-parked car. It was gone. Stolen! That’s a humorous, long story, covered previously in a column. We had to travel to the Pittsburgh airport to rent a car to get home. The same car, a 1985 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale, is much loved by eBay buyers and good friends Jan and Mariette Gobbens in The Netherlands.

It is fun to look back on a Monday night game when we left a Murrysville restaurant at 6 p.m. and missed the 9 o’clock kickoff because of heavy traffic.

It was so bad that cars were passing us and with cash in their outstretched hands, buying their way back into the line.

By the ’70s, I had moved into my “life’s work,” (stretching one of many interesting quotes by Noll) – this one in reference to veteran players soon to embark on other endeavors. A sportswriter for 10 years, I was working the police and fire beat and writing features.

But that didn’t stop me from gaining access to Noll twice for interviews, once by phone and the other at the Latrobe training camp. There was a bit of a delay before Noll came to the phone, and I sensed he did not generally give telephone interviews. But he was cordial and cooperative, and even more so on our one-on-one field conversation at camp.

“Do you have enough?” he asked with a still-remembered broad smile as the interview concluded.

My favorite sports interview was with Jack Ham. Jack was coming off the field following the morning Latrobe drills. I hollered to him: “Jack! The Tribune-Democrat.” He directed me to meet him in the film room at 2 p.m.

In the process, Jack introduced me to Mike Wagner, the Steeler safety. Ham, the former Johnstown Catholic standout, Penn State All-America and NFL Hall of Fame member, couldn’t have been more obliging as we explored coach Paterno’s influence on Jack’s professional career.

I still find it difficult to believe that a Johnstown athlete could have such a vital part in the famed Steel Curtain defense. It was such a bonus. Plus being able to watch the developing Steelers at a time when home games were blacked out.

Very early in Jack’s career, Steeler linebacker Andy Russell was praising Ham as playing his position better than anyone else in the NFL at their respective position.

Recently, on “Pro Football Talk,” a daily NFL Channel feature, recognition was being given to the best players to wear a given number. Jack Ham was the pick for No. 59.

Then more icing. On a nightly televised Pittsburgh call-in show, Post-Gazette sports writer Ron Cook was asked who the greatest Steeler was.

He could have named Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Lambert, Rod, Terry, Troy or several others, but Cook startled me when he replied: “Jack Ham. He was a great technician.”

Jim Siehl of Schellsburg, formerly of Richland Township, retired in 1991 after 44 years as a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat.

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