Big Ben, The Bus, The Hair and The Chin of Steel


Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 2:52 a.m.
Their demonstrative coach, Bill Cowher, is "The Chin of Steel." Steelers of now, like Chuck Noll's great oldies, are a team befitting blue-collar Pittsburgh. More tough than fancy. More workers than slickers. More substance than mouth.
January has been a grinding, grunting and handling of man-sized challenges. Pittsburgh didn't snag its wild-card chance until the regular season's final Sunday. No home playoff games. Steeler hopes became a traveling show.
First, in Cincinnati, they crippled quarterback Carson Palmer at the outset and flattened the AFC's third-seeded Bengals. Then in Indianapolis, the Cowher roadies buried Peyton Manning and the top-seeded, heavily favored Colts. Finally in Denver, rising 21st Century Pittsburgh heroes turned Jake Plummer into an errant arm and tortured the No. 2 Broncos.
Hustling to recreate history.
Twenty-six years ago, fabled Steelers set the curve for Super Bowl hots, winning their fourth Lombardi Trophy in six years. Noll was a Hall of Fame coach, enshrined in Canton along with quarterback Terry Bradshaw, tailback Franco Harris, receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, center Mike Webster and defenders Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert.
But since, Pittsburgh has whiffed.
Cowher is the elder among current NFL coaches, in his 15th season since succeeding Noll. Owning a solid 154-91-1 record, plus eight division championships and one Super Bowl appearance ... but without pro football's ultimate jewelry, a silver Vince.
At 48, the graying dude with football's most competitive chin has scrapped his way to another Super Bowl chance. Ten years after Kid Cowher agonized through XXX and a 27-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Pittsburgh's new cast is magnetic, intriguing and on an away-from-home mega roll. It'll be a while before any of them earn comparison with Franco, Mean Joe, Terry, killer linebackers Jack and Jack or any of those heavenly Steelers of yore, but Cowher has headliners of crusty substance and considerable ability.
Ben Roethlisberger is a double-whopper-sized quarterback out of Miami (nope, not the famous Florida variety, but the Ohio collegiate brand). A bearded bloke not yet 24 who got no opportunity at Findley (Ohio) High School until becoming a senior, because in previous seasons Big Ben was No. 2 behind the son of his coach. In one year, Roethlisberger passed for 4,041 yards and 54 touchdowns.
It's spelled "n-e-p-o-t-i-s-m."
Pittsburgh's team has been in business 72 years since beloved, cigar-chomping owner Art Rooney put up $2,500 to become franchisee. A property now worth $600 million. Most famous play in Steeler history was the "Immaculate Reception," a Bradshaw pass in concluding seconds that caromed off the shoulder pad of Oakland safety Jack Tatum and was scooped ankle-high by Harris and carried for a 1972 playoff game-winning touchdown.
Roethlisberger achieved the second-most-memorable Steeler play in spectacularly unpredictable fashion. Or will it become No. 1? As the Steelers were killing the clock at the Indy 2, leading by three points, the traditionally sure-handed Jerome Bettis was smashed into fumbling. Colts defender Nick Harper picked up the bounding football and headed the other way.
It was the kind of situation that earns a 97-yard touchdown 99 percent of the time. A score that would likely have stolen the win for Indy. Harper has superior speed. Two blockers in Colts jerseys were alongside the returner. Nobody to defend but a behemoth QB. In a move for the ages, Big Ben lunged a heroic body and made a season-saving tackle. Indy wound up with a field goal try that Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate NFL kicker ever, badly missed.
Pittsburgh's roadies rolled on. Chances of winning a new-era Super Bowl stayed alive. It is so easily forgotten that those "Immaculate Reception" Steelers of '72, when the town had yet to win its first silver Vince, were eliminated 21-17 in the following week's AFC Championship game by the Miami Dolphins, who were on their way to a historic 17-0 record.
Big Ben's tackle could lead to a Lombardi.
A sized-XXXL figure - alongside the 6-foot-5, 241-pound, second-year quarterback - on today's Steeler marquee is Bettis, a wrecking ball of a 270-pound running back (even if the Steelers list him at 255) who competes despite being asthmatic. A grinning, cartoonish character out of Notre Dame nicknamed The Bus who, at almost 34, is on his last NFL wheels, ranked as the league's No. 5 all-time rusher and rolling to a Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit.
But my favorite new-era Pittsburgher is "The Hair." If you've watched these Steelers, you know who I mean. Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu, whose long, dark, flying mane gives him the look of a badgering, intercepting Tasmanian Devil.
Polamalu's skills are unique. Opponents might consider yanking Troy's exploding hair (which is not illegal) ... if they could catch the 210-pound tornado. Ham and Lambert were sensational linebackers for Noll's four-timing Steelers but this chap from Southern California - a quiet, mannerly, humble gent off the field - has the talent of those Hall of Famers. So many pluses that Cowher has Troy dabbling at four different positions, handling each spectacularly.
In a wildly unpredictable NFL season, Pittsburgh has a shot at becoming the first playoff team to go 4-0 on the way to a Super Bowl championship - without a home game.
Next port of call, Motown.
You can reach columnist Hubert Mizell by e-mail at mizell3@cox.net

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