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Old 01-27-2011, 10:42 AM   #1
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Default Skeletons in the Steelers' closet

Two years ago the Pittsburgh Steelers were on their way to an unprecedented sixth Lombardi trophy and, after a brief encounter with Dan Rooney, the team's humble and magnanimous owner, I wondered, in this very space, if the Steelers were, in fact, the greatest franchise in sports.



Purchased by Art Rooney Sr. in 1933 with $2,500 he supposedly won at the track, the Steelers initially struggled for decades. But since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 no team has been better. Maybe not in any sport. In those 41 seasons the Steelers have been in 22 Divisional playoffs and 15 conference championships, including eight in the past 14 seasons.



They've been to eight Super Bowls and won six -- with a shot at No. 7 next week in Dallas.





With 20 Hall of Famers and a rabid, world-wide fan base, the Steelers logo has become one of the most recognized and respected icons in the entire sports world. The Steelers have a scouting department, a coaching legacy and a front office that's the envy of the entire league, as well as a remarkable, tireless connection to dozens of local and national charities. And so, with apologies to the Montreal Canadiens, the Yankees and the Celtics, after factoring the parity and popularity of the NFL, as well as the social impact of the Rooney Rule, I'd still give the nod to the Steelers.



The Pittsburgh Steelers are the greatest franchise in sports.



But you know what I've learned while covering this team, extensively, during the last 15 years?



They also might be one of the dirtiest.



It's something we all might want to consider over the next 10 days as a nation of pundits blather on about the wholesome, blue-collar, old-fashioned, long-lost American goodness that the Steelers (or any other sports team) represents.



Now, I'm not just talking about the well documented, but unproven, accusations of sexual assault against Ben Roethlisberger that earned the Steelers QB a four-game suspension this season; the $125,000 the league has fined linebacker James Harrison for illegal hits this season; the blocks by Hines Ward that earned him the rep as one of the game's dirtiest players and inspired the creation of the "Hines Ward Rule" against blindside blocks; or, even, the 13 arrests the Steelers have logged since the team's last Super Bowl (compared to, say, the Packers who have had five players arrested during the same time frame) according to a database run by The San Diego Union-Tribune.



This is just the latest example of a sinister side to the Steelers that has run parallel to the team's phenomenal success during the last 41 years. To be sure, this isn't ticky-tack stuff like parking tickets and training camp curfew violations. This is shooting at cops, assaults against women, drugs, deadly high-speed car chases, suicides, and repeated questions about performance enhancing drugs.



None of it, a secret.



Yet the bigger question, at least to me, is that through it all our love and admiration for the Steelers has only continued to grow.



Why is that?



Even diehard Steelers fans who are, no doubt, turning apoplectic at this point, have to admit it's a remarkable paradox -- our best, most beloved team is also one of the dirtiest? It offers a fascinating glimpse into the soul of this sport and those who love it.



Part of the problem is that to justify the time and energy we all spend on sports we try to attribute some grand, mythical moral undertones to events like the Super Bowl when, the truth of the matter is, off-the-field character in the NFL has little or no effect on on-field performance. Heck, it might even be a detriment. As one respected NFL veteran told me, "you can't win in this league with 53 choirboys." That's never been the Steelers problem. They work the margins and push the envelope and walk the line as well as any team. And in a violent, uber competitive league like the NFL, that's a virtue, not an indictment. The last time I checked they weren't holding parades for 2-14 teams full of Boy Scouts.



"It's not all roses with this team but there's just something about the Steelers uniform that deflects the negative,"says Chad Millman, a colleague of mine at ESPN The Magazine and the co-author of The Ones Who Hit The Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight for America's Soul. "They've always walked that fine line. It might be cheap or dirty but with the Steelers it's always framed as a virtue done in the name of winning. There's just so much iconic, mythical, blue-collar character associated with this team that it's hard for people to see the negative."



That doesn't mean it's not there, though.



In fact, Millman's book traces the Pittsburgh Paradox back to its exact origin: Defensive end Ernie Holmes. "I think he wanted to beat people to death -- within the rules of the game," former Steelers safety Mike Wagner says of Holmes in the book.



Somewhere, I bet, a sweet little old granny in Pittsburgh is stitching that motto onto the back of her Terrible Towel.



In March 1973 Holmes, who was later diagnosed as suffering from acute paranoid psychosis, pulled a shotgun from his truck while driving on the Ohio turnpike and began shooting out the tires of passing trucks. This led to a high-speed chase, a shootout and a standoff with state police that ended in a nearby forest with Holmes shooting an officer in the ankle.



Two days later, a lawyer paid for by the Rooneys bailed Holmes out of jail using $45,000 supplied by the Rooneys. He was then taken to a psychiatric hospital (also paid for by the Rooneys) where he stayed for two months. When he got out Holmes pled guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and, somehow, was given five years probation. (Just trying to imagine how something like this would playout in 2011 is mind-blowing, isn't it?) A few months later, though, Holmes was back at training camp and in the starting lineup where he helped the Steelers win their first two Super Bowls.



Art Rooney Jr. said Holmes needed "mercy."



Of course, the Steel Curtain also needed a defensive end.



Either way, the lines had officially been blurred and the Pittsburgh Paradox had begun.



Pittsburgh, of course, went on to win four Super Bowls in the 1970s. It was a dynasty like no other that included some of the greatest, baddest football teams ever assembled. Pictures from this era dot the inner hallways of the team's practice facility and, if you're not careful you will get lost while gazing at floor-to-ceiling photos that feature Jack Lambert growling above a prostrate Fran Tarkenton.



The end of the Steelers amazing run in the 1970s came a full decade before the NFL banned steroids. Nevertheless, there has been wide-spread speculation that the first part of the Steelers dynasty is tainted in some way by the fact that it helped popularize steroid use in the NFL. In the 1991 book "False Glory: The Steve Courson Story" the former Steelers offensive lineman wrote that 75% of the offensive linemen on the Steelers Super Bowl teams in the late 1970s had used steroids.



Steroid use was, after all, not banned by the league at the time and I wonder if the spotlight has fallen on the Steelers largely because they were so damn good. Not everyone agrees, though. "It started, really, in Pittsburgh," Jim Haslett said in 2005 while coaching the New Orleans Saints. "They got an advantage on a lot of football teams. They were so much stronger (in the) '70s, late '70s, early '80s. They're the ones who kind of started it."



The Steelers challenged this statement, of course, but the ramifications -- and suspicions -- linger. A 2009 investigation by ESPN into the Steelers history with performance-enhancing drugs found an alarming number of former players suffering from heart ailments. "Even if there is no pattern or clue linking the deaths to steroids," wrote the article's author Mike Fish, "since 2000, 17 former Steelers have died before they reached the age of 59."



Seventeen men. Dead.



Still think this is all sensationalist anti-Steelers crap?



That list includes former Steelers guard Terry Long who tried to kill himself with rat poison after testing positive for steroids in 1991. He died in 2005 after drinking antifreeze. A year before Long died Steelers offensive linemen Justin Strzelczyk was killed in a fiery head-on collision with a tanker truck after leading New York state troopers on a 40-mile chase. Hall of Fame center Mike Webster died from heart failure in 2002 at the age of 50, tormented by years of dementia, drug use and homelessness.



Are their troubled souls and tragic accidents on every NFL team? Yes. Do most great teams have a dark side? Uh, look at the Dallas Cowboys. Yikes. I've probably done 50 stories on this team in the last 15 years. I've traveled in Switzerland with Roethlisberger, hung out in Alabama with Kevin Greene, played golf with Dermontti Dawson, even had a civilized conversation with Greg Lloyd. My personal experience has been unequivocal: this is a class organization from top to bottom.



But in the next two weeks the Steelers could become the most accomplished and important franchise in sports.



And, like it or not, this is all part of their remarkable story.



At the heart of Fish's 2009 investigation was the revelation in 2007 that Dr. Richard Rydze, a longtime member of the Steelers medical staff, had been questioned by federal authorities after supposedly using a personal credit card to purchase six-figures worth of human growth hormone. According to published reports Rydze said that he purchased the HGH for his elderly patients. His ties to the team were cut four months after his name was identified in news reports. There was no proof that Rydze ever provided the drug to players.



This incident was followed by off-the-field problems involving, among others, Santonio Holmes, Jeff Reed and Roethlisberger. Holmes was traded to the Jets before the season and Reed was cut in November. Among the many admirable qualities of the Steelers, and, especially the Rooney family, is the club's habit of cutting loose troublemakers in a league normally governed by a sliding scale of morality.



This one trait might also get to the root of why we are so eager to look the other way when it comes to the Pittsburgh Paradox.



Winning cures everything, no doubt. Especially in the NFL. It's also because the face and the heart of this franchise will always belong to people like Mike Tomlin, Jerome Bettis, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Jack Ham. In the final analysis the good in Pittsburgh outweighs the bad. And that has a lot to do with the men and the family that have run the team since it's inception: the Rooneys.



"It's easy to hate Jerry Jones, it's easy to hate Al Davis, it's easy to hate Dan Snyder," says Millman. "But the Rooneys are so decent and they have built up so much goodwill it's hard not to root for them and hard for fans not to believe they're not trying to hurt anyone or do anything wrong -- they're just trying to win Super Bowls."



Which, I suspect, is exactly what's going to happen again next Sunday.



Good thing, too.



If you're trying to draw attention away from your dark side, seven shiny Lombardi trophies will probably do the trick.



Editor's note: Looking for Flem's top five, his music riffs and weekly reader e-mail WHYLO (who helped you log on?) awards? Check 'em out on Facebook and on Twitter at @daveflemingespn.



David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."

http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2...7&sportCat=nfl
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Old 01-27-2011, 10:51 AM   #2
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Default Re: Skeletons in the Steelers' closet

How many of the arrests were related to Holmes and Reed?
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Old 01-27-2011, 11:02 AM   #3
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Default Re: Skeletons in the Steelers' closet

Good article. If anything, I learned that this a lot of crap comes with this business and the Rooneys have done well to stay above the crap.
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Old 01-27-2011, 11:02 AM   #4
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Default Re: Skeletons in the Steelers' closet

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Old 01-27-2011, 11:13 AM   #5
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Default Re: Skeletons in the Steelers' closet

very good article, that every steelefan should read.

there was a stretch there a few years back where it seemed like we were losing two steelers from the 70's every single year.
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Old 01-27-2011, 11:20 AM   #6
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Default Re: Skeletons in the Steelers' closet

Rise above the crowd in this society and someone will take a shot at you

Emerging theme running up to February 6 will be sportswriters/sports talk radio looking for a bright shiny new thing to cheer (Packers/Rodgers) and growing tired of & tearing down a subject they are tired of covering (Steelers success/Ben)

Steelers will be wearing the black hat even though they will be wearing the white raod unis

That will not change whether the Steelers win or lose so they might as well win and offer the sports media a steaming cup of STFU

And with regard to Fleming's article he might want to get a fact checker to support his rumors (e.g. - Fats Holmes played DT not DE)
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Old 01-27-2011, 11:26 AM   #7
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Default Re: Skeletons in the Steelers' closet

Quote:
Originally Posted by tony hipchest View Post
very good article, that every steelefan should read.

there was a stretch there a few years back where it seemed like we were losing two steelers from the 70's every single year.
its piss poor journalism if you ask me . the whole track winnings myth was debunked decades ago by the rooney's themselves . the facts are only a simple google search away.
Quote:
Purchased by Art Rooney Sr. in 1933 with $2,500 he supposedly won at the track,
Quote:
The Steelers were already four years old by the time of Rooney’s famous Saratoga winnings, and the book details all of it.

However, in a review of “Rooney” in the PG on April 21, Allen Barra wrote, “In 1933, he paid a $2,500 entrance fee for a National Football League team with money he had won in a parlay of long-shot winners at the Saratoga Race Course. (That is merely one of the many seemingly mythical stories about Mr. Rooney that, happily, turn out to be true.)”

NO IT’S NOT! And the book’s authors meticulously point that out, yet somehow the reviewer wrote it anyway. Saratoga is not even mentioned in the book until the chapter “Rooney’s Ride, 1937.’’

For whatever reason, even with the facts staring them straight in the face, some people continue to repeat the myth that Art Rooney bought his team with his big winnings at Saratoga. Forget that those winnings came four years after he paid the fee to enter his team into the NFL, as Dan Rooney told me, he did not need to win money to come up with the $2,500 entry fee.

Myths, though, can be true. This is not such a myth as it is a fairytale.
http://plus.sites.post-gazette.com/i...ses-myth-again
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Old 01-27-2011, 11:34 AM   #8
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Default Re: Skeletons in the Steelers' closet

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its piss poor journalism if you ask me . the whole track winnings myth was debunked decades ago by the rooney's themselves . the facts are only a simple google search away.
Yep - cut & paste job

Pre-internet writers had some editing concerns since folks had to be willing to pay to read what you published - now it gets churned out & given away, with most of the online chum being worth no more than what it costs to be able to read it
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Old 01-27-2011, 11:36 AM   #9
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Default Re: Skeletons in the Steelers' closet

yeah, some of the minor details are off (haslett was talking out his ass, and the chargers were the flagship steroid team in the nfl) but i think the crux of the entire article is still valid.

im sometimes irritated with steelerfans who act like the steelers are wholesome choirboys (even though for the most part they are running a very tight ship- especially nowadays).
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Old 01-27-2011, 11:40 AM   #10
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Default Re: Skeletons in the Steelers' closet

Quote:
Originally Posted by MasterOfPuppets View Post
its piss poor journalism if you ask me . the whole track winnings myth was debunked decades ago by the rooney's themselves . the facts are only a simple google search away.
While Art was big on horses (and was known for even taking players to the track with him), after watching The Chief movie last night, you kind of get a better picture of how the team was bought.

I know in the play/movie, it's not actually Art speaking (duh), but it's retold from firsthand interviews with him.

In it, he tells the story of how he ended up with the team (an interesting story as well...all of them were). Art was being approached about starting a team in Pittsburgh to make a natural rivalry with the team that had just been formed in Philly. But he didn't have the funds or players to start anything up. One of his brothers, however (who owed him $5k), was running a semi-pro team in Johnstown and so that team and entrance fee was sent to Art to pay off the debt.

That's not to say Art did have some shady dealings...but we're talking about a different time (Depression era) and he wasn't the only one doing what he had to do to make ends meet. If you watch the movie, one of the best stories is about how he went to the track one day, placed his bets (with some insider information..wink, wink) and also had a couple of "associates" placing bets for him as well. He won $380k that day, and was able to keep the team afloat.

Art was not a very good business man (most of the time). But he knew how to find ways to make things work for him, his family and his team.

One of the best part of the stories is him talking about some of the original owners (himself, Mara, Bidwell, Halas) and how none of them could compare as businessmen to any of their sons. They were more rag tag in the early days of the NFL.
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