Super Bowl Sunday has evolved into an unofficial national holiday in the decades since Jack Ham and his Steel Curtain teammates played in Super Bowl IX.
Johnstown’s Ham sometimes is amazed at how the game has evolved into such a spectacle in which 30-second TV spots cost $4 million and legendary rockers such as Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Rolling Stones, Prince and U2 have performed lengthy halftime productions.
“The game has grown so much now,” Ham said during a visit to his hometown on Thursday. “Someone told me there was 5,000 reporters at the game for the Super Bowl. Obviously, it’s gotten bigger and bigger each year.”
At least one part of the Super Bowl experience remains the same for participants, whether they are superstars or role players.
“There is so much pressure on the players,” Ham said. “It’s not a best-of-7 like baseball or hockey, where if you have a bad game, you can make up for it. This is one game, one time. You’ve got to be at your best. It’s a lot of pressure but that’s what you play for. You always remember the winner, but not the loser.”
Ham and the Steelers were at their best in four Super Bowl appearances during a six-year span in the 1970s. Pittsburgh won all four of its title-game opportunities during Ham’s Hall of Fame career. He played in three of the games (IX, X and XIII) and was injured during the other (XIV).
The Steelers made their Super Bowl debut on Jan. 12, 1975 after decades of frustration and losing.
Just like the 49ers and Ravens in today’s Super Bowl XLVII, the Steelers played for the NFL championship in New Orleans. Pittsburgh took the first step toward becoming a dynasty by shutting down the Minnesota Vikings’ heralded running game in a 16-6 defensive struggle at Tulane Stadium.
“I think about how dominating our front four was in that game,” said Ham, still considered among the best outside linebackers to play the game. “We were playing that stunt 4-3. Minnesota came in with a pretty good running game and could not run the football an inch against us.
“I actually may have had two tackles in that whole game. It didn’t feel like I did a whole hell of a lot in that game,” Ham said, crediting the front four’s performance. “That was a defensive struggle. We won our first two Super Bowls with defense and the running game. The last two, our offense really got it cranked throwing the football and all the wide receivers we had.”
Beat the Raiders
He might have downplayed his role in Super Bowl IX, but Ham was a big reason the Steelers made it to the big show.
His two interceptions against the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship game were pivotal. He perfectly played a Ken Stabler pass and returned the pick to the Raiders 9-yard line, setting up the game-winning touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann.
The Steelers beat the Raiders 24-13 a week after Oakland had defeated two-time defending champion Miami. Raiders coach John Madden suggested that the real Super Bowl was played between Oakland and Miami, the two best teams.
Steelers coach Chuck Noll took offense and gave his legendary pep talk in which he said, “They haven’t seen the best team in the league yet, because the best team in the league is sitting right here in this room.” Those words moved future Hall of Famers such as “Mean” Joe Greene and Ham. The Raiders didn’t have a chance.
Ham visited Cambria County War Memorial Arena on Thursday night as part of Jack Ham Bobblehead Night during the Johnstown Tomahawks game against Port Huron. Ham is a minority owner of the Tomahawks and a long-time hockey fan who spent part of his youth helping to resurface the ice during Johnstown Jets games in the 1960s.
The War Memorial became a two-sport facility, hockey and football, especially during a two-hour reception held at the Stars and Stripes room before the Tomahawks game. Area high school football coaches who might otherwise never attend a hockey game were on hand to see the former Bishop McCort star and Penn State All-American.
Dozens of Tomahawks fans were there, as Ham spent time talking, posing for photos or signing autographs.
Naturally, talk of Super Bowl XLVII came up during Ham’s visit.
Ham spoke of the dilemma many diehard Pittsburgh fans face today when choosing who to root for between the Ravens – the Steelers’ despised divisional rival – or the 49ers – who would tie the Steelers’ Super Bowl-record six victories with a win.
“The 49ers can tie our record. The Ravens are hated in the Pittsburgh area,” Ham said. “We’ve got a real mental struggle in the Pittsburgh right now. I’m not sure how the fans are going to go.”
Ham said San Francisco might have the slight edge.
“The Ravens, the way they’ve done it right now, they’ve gotten better and better and are on a roll,” he said. “San Francisco, with a young quarterback, has put it together.”
No. 59 on No. 52
Ham was known as a cerebral player who combined skill, instincts and physical abilities to earn six All-Pro selections and eight-straight Pro Bowl berths during his 12 years. When he retired after the 1982 season, Ham was the NFL’s second all-time leading interceptor among linebackers with 32.
For all of his accolades, Ham wasn’t flashy or apt to take center stage. In other words, he was no Ray Lewis as far as attracting attention to himself.
Still, Ham recognizes the Ravens middle linebacker as one of the game’s all-time greats.
“Incredible,” Ham said of Lewis. “To play linebacker…Kickers don’t even play 17 years. An inside linebacker, the way he plays, to play at the highest level that he has played for so long a time, he’s truly an inspirational leader.
“Not too many players get a chance to go out like this,” Ham added. “Jerome Bettis did it, John Elway. His team kind of put it together right now so he’s got a shot at it.”
If the Ravens win, Lewis will retire as a two-time Super Bowl winner.
Ham has four rings earned during an era before ESPN, the Internet and social media changed the game.
He played before multi-million dollar contracts were the norm.
“It is different. People always say, ‘What if you played today?’” Ham said. “But you know what? I could have played 20 years earlier and made $100 a game. You play with the cards that are dealt to you. At one point, Jack Lambert was the highest paid linebacker and I was No. 2. The next contract I was No. 1 and he was No. 2. That’s what it was like.”