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Friday, October 24, 2003
Even without Shakespeare, Steelers play No. 1,000


PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have been around so long, their first draft pick was William Shakespeare.

OK, so the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon wasn't their top selection in 1936 -- it was the back from South Bend. Still, the Steelers were nothing to write home about -- or to write soliloquies about, either -- and the Notre Dame running back who preferred to call himself Bill Shakespeare declined to play for them.

Now, 70 years after Art Rooney Sr. plopped down a few thousand dollars to bring an NFL team to Pittsburgh in 1933, the Steelers will play the 1,000th game in franchise history Sunday against the St. Louis Rams.

The NFL's fifth-oldest team, the Steelers will become the seventh to play 1,000 games (counting the postseason) -- joining the Cardinals, Bears, Lions, Packers, Giants and Redskins. They are the first AFC team to do so.

Remarkably, they have had more home stadiums (four, Forbes Field, Pitt Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field) and names (two, Pirates and Steelers) than primary owners. They're still owned by the Rooney family, just as they have been every season except a few during World War II when Bert Bell joined Rooney as a co-owner.

Not even being rejected by Shakespeare was enough for Rooney to bail out.

"It's a storybook franchise," said coach Bill Cowher, himself a Pittsburgher. "Look at what this franchise has meant to the NFL, with one owner who has been through all the changes from year to year, where teams are moving from city to city and changing owners from year to year. This franchise has been the rock of stability."

Even if it hasn't always been a winner. The Steelers, then called the Pirates, were a ragtag lot when Rooney founded them only 13 years after the accomplished former football and baseball player was picked for the U.S. Olympic boxing team. They relied mostly on local talent, and the coaches sometimes changed not just from season to season, but week to week.

They had three coaches in 1941, including Aldo "Buff" Donelli, who resigned after five games to take his Duquesne University team to the West Coast. He spent half the season coaching both the Steelers and Dukes, but considered the college team his priority.

The Steelers drew 20,000 curious spectators for their first game in 1933, a 23-2 loss to the Giants, but only 5,000 a week later for their first win, 14-13 over the Chicago Cardinals. Rooney noted in his personal journal how tough it was to make a go of it economically during a time when baseball, boxing, horse racing and college football far eclipsed the NFL in fan interest.

The Steelers' first winning season wasn't until 1942; their first postseason game wasn't until 1947. They were the last team to switch from the ancient single wing offense to the T formation, waiting until 1952. They didn't win their first playoff game until they were 40 seasons old in 1972, and even that required a miracle -- Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" against the Raiders.

Of course, what could be expected of a franchise that once drafted James Traficant, the former Ohio congressman who's now in a federal prison, but cut Johnny Unitas?

Despite their spotty play during their first four decades, the Steelers helped pioneer one aspect of pro sports that lives today: the big-money free agent. They signed Colorado star and Rhodes scholar Byron "Whizzer" White to a then unheard-of $15,000 contract in 1938, only five years after Rooney bought the team for a fraction of that amount. White led the NFL in rushing for the Steelers and Lions, but was far better known for becoming a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Who has seen the most Steelers games? No doubt it is team chairman Dan Rooney, who was born a year before his father founded the team and has seen all but about 50 games. Both Rooneys are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

No one comes close to participating in as many games as Dick Hoak, a standout running back in the 1960s who has been with the team for 42 years, the last 32 as an assistant coach. Sunday's game will be his 685th as a player or coach.

And how did they get the name Steelers? Joe Santoni, a restaurant owner, submitted it during a contest in 1942. Santoni died this month.

The Steelers were the first team to win four Super Bowls and they own the NFL's third-best regular season record since Cowher's hiring in 1992. But their current three-game losing streak dropped their overall record below .500: 488-490-21.