All you need to know about the Pittsburgh Steelers comes in the form of a trivia question: Who is the only Steeler to have his jersey retired?
It’s not Terry Bradshaw. Or Joe Greene. Or Franco Harris. Or any of the dozen members of Pittsburgh’s Team of the Decade of the ’70s who’ve taken up residence in the pro football Hall of Fame.
That team won four Super Bowls in six seasons. Surely someone on that team deserved to have his jersey retired. Mel Blount? Jack Lambert? Jack Ham? Mike Webster?
Nope. None of the above.
You have to be in your fifties to remember seeing any Steeler wearing jersey number 70. The man who wore it was defensive tackle Ernie Stautner.
A native of Prinzing, Germany, Stautner played for the Steelers from 1950 through 1963. His parents immigrated to New York when he was three. He served in the Marine Corps before becoming a four-year, two-way starter at Boston College.
Taken by the Steelers with the 22nd pick in the 1950 draft, he immediately became the mainstay of the Steelers defensive line. Though only 6’1” and 230 pounds, tiny even by ’50s standards, he made All-Pro nine times, and played in nine Pro Bowls.
When he retired, he was the NFL’s career leader in safeties, with three, and was third in fumbles recovered, with 23.
But here’s what made him a true Steeler: in 14 years, he missed only six games. This despite, as it proclaims on the Pro Football Hall of Fame website, “broken ribs, shoulders, hands, and a nose broken too many times to count.”
The Steelers retired his number 70 jersey on Oct. 25, 1964 — less than a year after he played in his final game. He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969.
During his career, Stautner often faced off against the Colts’ Jim Parker, the first purely offensive lineman voted into the Hall. Parker is quoted at cmgww.com as saying of Stautner, “That man ain’t human. He is too strong to be human. He’s the toughest guy in the league to play against because he keeps coming, head first …
“That animal used to stick his head in my belly and drive me into the backfield so hard that when I picked myself up and looked around, there was a path chopped through the field like a farmer had run a plow over it!”
And Parker outweighed Stautner by 45 pounds!
Added Dick Modzelewski, an excellent defensive tackle from that era in his own right, on the same website, “‘The Horse’ was unbelievable. If you had four of him, you’d have a championship team. He could make that much of a difference.”
The Steelers problem when Stautner played? They only had one of him. It wasn’t until his ninth season that Pittsburgh fashioned a winning record (7-4-1 in 1958.) The Steelers went 6-5-1 in 1959, both years finishing well behind the Giants in the NFL’s Eastern Division.
In 1962, the Steelers astounded the world by winning a franchise-record nine games, but they finished three games behind the Giants. In Stautner’s final season, the Steelers ventured into Yankee Stadium on the season’s final Sunday needing a win over the Giants to reach their first championship game.
They lost, 33-17.
Stautner’s playing career ended with that thud. But he is forever revered in Pittsburgh despite playing for also-ran teams. Ernie Stautner established the Steeler style of football: hard-charging, hard-hitting, relentless, fierce. Nothing too fancy. Just a tough defensive team waiting to give foes its best shots.
The Steelers wouldn’t win their first championship until 11 years after Stautner retired, but they did it his way, behind the famous Steel Curtain defense.
When the Steelers beat the Vikings, 16-6, to win Super Bowl IX, they led, 2-0, at the half. They held the Vikings to nine first downs and 119 yards — an average of 2.5 yards per play. Minnesota ran the ball 21 times and gained 17 yards — that’s 29 inches per attempt! The Vikings’ Dave Osborn, no slouch as a running back, ran eight times for minus one yard.
How did the Vikings actually score? Glad you asked. Blocked punt.
Today’s Steelers still play defense with the same brutal ferocity established by Ernie Stautner. When the NFL cracked down on violent hits midway through this season, what team appeared targeted?
“It seemed like we were the focal point of the rule,” safety Ryan Clark told Sports Illustrated. That was after linebacker James Harrison racked up six figures in fines and made SI’s cover with his hit on Mo Massaquoi.
But the Steelers didn’t change their style. They kept coming, right up through two weeks ago, when they smothered the Jets with a first half that evoked memories of the old Steel Curtain. The defense even scored the final touchdown, the eventual game-winner, in putting the Steelers ahead, 24-3.
Rest assured, on Super Sunday, the Steeler defense will come to play. Just like they have since ol’ number 70 laced ’em up.