Rowdy and rough

NFL legends of the 1970s recall a gritty, reckless era

Originally Published: August 13, 2012
By Kevin Cook

Excerpted from Kevin Cook's "The Last Headbangers," to be published by W.W. Norton & Company in September.

[+] EnlargeThe Last Headbangers
W. W. Norton & Company
Phil Villapiano's helmet didn't fit. The Oakland Raiders' lantern-jawed linebacker stuck his head inside, gave the helmet a whack, and felt it rattle around his ears. Plastic piece of junk! How's he supposed to stop Franco and Bradshaw with his helmet bobbing around on his head?

The visitors' locker room at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium smelled of Brut and Right Guard and Hai Karate, liniment, and nervous sweat. The players -- big men but not giants, averaging six-two and 219 pounds -- adjusted their pads, guzzled water from squirt bottles, spat on the floor. Fred Biletnikoff, a scrawny receiver with thinning blond hair and a wispy mustache, stopped chain-smoking long enough to trudge to the can and loudly puke. His teammates mumbled what might have been prayers in another locker room, but not a room full of Raiders.

The Raiders were pro football's Hells Angels, and their mumbles were mostly curses. Safety George Atkinson stood in a corner, scratching the tight, shiny coils of his beard. Then Atkinson sprang forward, throwing a forearm shiver at a phantom opponent. Biletnikoff, returning from the can, sat on a wooden stool and tied the laces of his cleats. Tied and retied them. Ten times. Eleven times. They still didn't feel right. He retied them again, looking around to see if anybody was going to give him crap about it. No, the others were deep in their own routines, pounding each other's pads, grinding their teeth, making their own toilet trips in the minutes before they took the field for their American Football Conference divisional playoff against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Raiders were 4-point underdogs. Winner goes to the 1972 AFC title game, one step from the Super Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJohn Madden
AP PhotoJohn Madden's unconventional coaching had his Raiders on the cusp of greatness.
John Madden ran a beefy pink hand through his hair. Madden stood six-four, weighed 270, and sweated like the offensive tackle he used to be. His black polo shirt clung to an ample belly over polyester Sansabelt slacks. The youngest head coach in the league at 36, he wasn't the rah-rah type. Madden had one rule: Show up on time and play hard on Sunday. Pacing a locker room littered with socks and towels, Ace bandages, paper cups, and squirt bottles, studying his players' faces, Madden thought his team looked ready.

Villapiano, for sure. As Madden watched, the linebacker yanked the silver helmet off his head. He took a breath, then reared back and smacked his forehead into the cement-block wall. Bam. Bam bam. Now he paused as if waiting for the wall to crumble. But that wasn't it -- he was waiting for something else.

A moment later, Villapiano pulled his helmet back on. There, better. Knocking his forehead against the wall had made his head swell a little. Now the helmet fit.

A few yards away in the stadium's lower concourse, the Steelers sweated in their more spacious home locker room. They were less growly than the Raiders, more like a construction crew than a biker gang. Veterans Ray Mansfield and Andy Russell, who were among the better-paid Steelers, making $22,000 a year, carpooled to the stadium to save on gas that cost fifty-five cents a gallon. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw sold used cars during the offseason. Fullback Franco Harris, a rookie with Fred Astaire feet and the chiseled features of Hercules, sometimes hitchhiked to home games. Now Harris sat with his hands folded, staring at the green linoleum floor. A few feet away Roy Gerela, alone as usual, as a kicker was supposed to be, picked at the extralong sleeves of his jersey. Defensive end L. C. Greenwood stubbed out a pregame cigarette.

John "Frenchy" Fuqua picked his helmet off a hook beside his cubicle. Off the field, Fuqua sported a feathered Three Musketeers hat, a cape, and a gold cane. His platform shoes featured hard-plastic heels with live goldfish swimming around inside. Claiming to be a French count "turned black" by fallout from a nuclear test, he warned opponents that he would deliver "the coop de grah on 'em." Steelers coach Chuck Noll nodded to Fuqua, who was checking his helmet for smudges and his uniform for lint, tapping his toes to some internal music. That was Frenchy, off in his own world.

[+] EnlargeChuck Noll
AP PhotoThe stoic Chuck Noll had little to say to his team before taking on the Raiders.
Noll, 40, was even less rah-rah than Madden. On the first day of training camp he'd told the Steelers, "If I have to motivate you, I'll get rid of you." Noll and Madden were part of coaching's younger generation, men who rejected the old-fashioned image of the NFL coach as a World War II general throwing fits and barking orders. They were space-age coaches who saw their jobs as similar to that of the lead engineer on a NASA mission: Manage your personnel, draw up a game plan, anticipate surprises, and create multiple responses to possible setbacks, including last-ditch options. When the game starts, let your men execute the mission.

Noll scanned the room. This was the time when old-school coaches delivered rousing pregame speeches.

Terry Bradshaw could have used a little rousing. The Steelers' third-year quarterback was this crew's gawky country boy, a Bible-reading Forrest Gump with a secret. Despite his rifle arm and aw-shucks manner, Bradshaw suffered moods as black as his helmet. He wanted approval, even love, from a coach who saw open emotion as a sign of weakness. (Later, when Marianne Noll ran to hug her husband after a Super Bowl victory, Noll shook her hand.) Alone with his worries, Bradshaw sat at his cubicle clenching and unclenching his throwing hand.

The coach cleared his throat. A few players looked up. Noll spoke without raising his voice, almost as if he were talking to himself.

"Play the way you've been taught," he said.

That was all. It was time to line up in the tunnel that led to the field.

The stadium's five decks shuddered with the thudding feet of fifty thousand fans hungry for a win. "Here we go Stilll-ers, here we go!" (Stomp, stomp!)

Battle of attrition

The halftime score was nothing to nothing. Gerela kicked a third-quarter field goal that brought his fans, Gerela's Gorillas, to their feet, hooting as they tried to see the field through the eyeholes in their Planet of the Apes monkey masks. Madden kicked a water bottle. Noll, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and an early Motorola headset -- clamps and wires connecting hard-plastic earpieces -- stood by the Steelers bench with his arms crossed. Noll liked a 3-0 score. This was the run-first, block-hard, chew-dirt football he championed: "Before you can win the game you have to not lose it."

In the fourth quarter, another Gerela field goal made it 6-0. Madden pulled Daryle Lamonica aside. "I'm sending Stabler in," he told his quarterback. Lamonica, who liked to throw deep, would have no chance to pull out a miracle win against the Steelers' prevent defense. His backup, Ken "the Snake" Stabler, who owed his nickname to his slithery scrambles, could sneak inside passes and short runs under the defense. Lamonica was a clean-cut '60s pocket passer; Stabler with his shaggy locks and rock-star mustache looked like the counterculture in shoulder pads, a hell-for-leather gambler.

"I was scared," recalls Stabler. "I felt like I was gonna throw up. But I was ready, too. In those times when the moment's right there in front of you ... you gotta grab it."

[+] EnlargeJohn Madden and Ken Stabler
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesJohn Madden and Ken Stabler projected cool later in their careers, but they were tense in Pittsburgh.
The Raiders lined up at Pittsburgh's 30-yard line with 1:13 on the clock. At the snap, Stabler scrambled left. He pump-faked, and then ducked to the outside. Weaving like a drunk in an earthquake, the Raider quarterback snaked 40 yards to gain 30 and dived into the end zone. Raiders 7, Steelers 6.

"We outplayed them all day. Then we screwed up one play," recalls Pittsburgh linebacker Russell, who'd chased Stabler in vain.

Bradshaw couldn't move the Steelers. Stalled at their own 40, they were down to their last snap. In the second-deck red seats, Pittsburgh baker Tony Stagno, wearing a combat helmet festooned with an Italian flag, pulled an inch-tall ivory figure of a man, a voodoo fetish, from a little wooden box. Stagno was a cofounder of Franco's Italian Army, fullback Harris's fan club. According to Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope, "Stagno ... extracted from a small case an ivory fetish and fixed the Oakland Raiders defense with the Italian evil eye."

In the Steelers' huddle, Bradshaw called, "Sixty-six circle option." A pass to rookie Barry Pearson, with halfback Fuqua as a safety valve.

"Aw, not that play," said Harris. His role was to block. Coming out of the huddle he was thinking, Okay, it's been a great year. This is probably the last play, so play it hard to the end.

Here's the radio call by Jack Fleming: Hold on to your hats, here come the Steelers out of the huddle. It's down to one play ... Terry Bradshaw at the controls. Twenty-two seconds remaining, and the crowd is standing.

Bradshaw took the snap from center Mansfield. Otis Sistrunk and Art Thoms led Oakland's charging front four, while the corners and safeties stayed back. Safety Jack Tatum, aka the Assassin, played deepest; he was Oakland's last line of defense. Linebackers Gerald Irons and Villapiano keyed on Pittsburgh's running backs, with Irons responsible for Fuqua, Villapiano on Harris.

Bradshaw backpedaled six steps. Then hell broke loose: "Raiders to the left of me, Raiders to the right."

"I was chasing Bradshaw," says Sistrunk. "Almost had him -- I got a hand on his arm."

Bradshaw leaned to his right, peering downfield, dodging Sistrunk and Thoms, who slipped past, grabbing air. "I shoved another Raider away with my left hand. Another came flying at me; I ducked."

Bradshaw running out of the pocket, looking for somebody to throw to ...

[+] EnlargeTerry Bradshaw
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireTerry Bradshaw didn't find much passing room against Oakland, but fate was on his side in the end.
Twenty yards downfield, Frenchy Fuqua peeked over his shoulder. "I was open," Fuqua remembers. "I'm thinking, 'Bradshaw, throw it!'"

The clock ticked to 00:16. Franco Harris saw his quarterback scrambling. Abandoning his blocking assignment, Harris turned downfield to give Bradshaw another target. "I wasn't supposed to be out there," he said after the game. "I saw Terry in trouble. But then he threw deep."

...He fires it downfield!

Bradshaw gunned the ball toward Fuqua. Harris took a step in the same direction, as players are trained to do -- to make a tackle if the ball's intercepted or maybe grab a deflection. Flashing back to his college days at Penn State, Harris remembered what Joe Paterno told players to do on busted plays. Four words: Go to the ball.

Tatum, the safety, closed in on receiver Fuqua.

"I swear I could hear Tatum breathing," Fuqua would say. "I'm hauling ass to get to a point, he's coming to destroy whatever's at the same point."

Tatum wanted to deal a punishing blow, separating Fuqua from ball, helmet, consciousness. Closing fast, he drove his shoulder into Fuqua, who flew two yards sideways.

The football caromed upfield. Bradshaw, tackled, banged his hands on his helmet, thinking the pass was broken up, game lost, season over. But the ball was still in the air. Only a few players knew it, but the game wasn't over yet. One of those players, Harris, moved toward the Fuqua-Tatum collision without breaking stride. Another, Raiders linebacker Villapiano, looked up in time to see the ball.

"Franco's my man on the play!" Villapiano recalled almost 40 years later. "I left him and went toward contact when Bradshaw threw the ball. Next thing I know the ball's flying over my head, going end over end, and I might be on the wrong (expletive) side of football history."

Franco Harris gathered the ball off his shoetops at the Oakland 43. Raiders linebacker Villapiano gave chase, only to fall short when the Steelers' John McMakin, trailing the play, dove into the backs of his legs, a blatant clip that would have canceled the play if any of six officials had seen it.

Fleming shouted on the radio, It's caught out of the air! The ball picked up by Franco Harris. . . . Franco Harris pulled in the football. I don't even know where it came from. Fuqua was in a collision! There are people in the end zone. Where did it come from?

Raider cornerback Jimmy Warren had a last shot at Harris. Warren's fingers scratched the 32 on Harris's right-shoulder pad as Harris dipped his shoulder, escaping, and loped down the sideline without breaking stride.

Bradshaw, face-down on the artificial turf, thought he heard cheering. Or maybe he was just concussed.

Raiders safety Tatum, his right shoulder ringing from the hit he'd put on Frenchy Fuqua, saw Harris nearing the end zone. "I didn't know he had the ball. I thought, 'He's sure in a hurry to get to the locker room.'"

Madden's assistant Tom Flores, sitting in a coaches' booth upstairs, blinked. "It's one of those times when you're not sure what you're looking at," Flores recalls. "Madden's going crazy, chasing officials around. The Pittsburgh crowd's going crazy. We're all thinking, What the hell was that?"

It wasn't a touchdown. Not yet. Back judge Adrian Burk signaled touchdown, but referee Fred Swearingen could overrule him. Swearingen huddled with Burk and the other officials. As he recalled it later, they gave him "four 'I don't knows' and two 'I thinks.'"

Swearingen jogged to the dugout at the edge of the stands. Someone handed him a telephone, the same phone Pirates manager Bill Virdon used to call his bullpen during baseball season. The ref put the receiver to his ear. He covered his other ear and heard a scratchy voice in the phone.

"Who's this?" the voice barked.

"Swearingen."

"McNally here." It was NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally, sitting in the press box upstairs. McNally had seen the instant replay. There was no precedent for replay reviews; the officials were on their own. McNally chose not to reveal what he'd seen on the monitor. He asked, "How do you rule?"

"Touchdown," Swearingen said.

McNally let out his breath. "That's right."

On the field, Tatum charged Fuqua again. "Tell them you touched it!" Tatum knew the rule: If two offensive players in a row touch the ball, it's no catch. No touchdown; Raiders win.

Referee Swearingen jogged back to the field. He raised his arms: touchdown.

In the Steelers' locker room, Fuqua told a hometown reporter, "The guy hit me and the ball bounced off my chest." Linebacker Russell spun Fuqua around. "No," he said. "What you mean is, the ball hit Tatum."

Fuqua nodded. "Oh, yeah. That's right," he told the Pittsburgh writer, who never reported Fuqua's first quote. "That's right, Tatum hit the ball."

Maybe. Or maybe Fuqua, slightly concussed, wasn't sure.

When Pittsburgh fans recall their team's glory years, they usually start with the Immaculate Reception in 1972. But memory can play tricks. The Steelers didn't win the Super Bowl that year, or the year after that. They had to wait two more years for the "Steeler Decade" to begin, two years in which Franco Harris's touchdown was often called the Miracle Catch.

Hours after the play, a Steelers fan named Sharon Levosky phoned WTAE-TV, Pittsburgh's ABC affiliate. Sportscaster Myron Cope had a minute to spare before he went on the air. He reached for the ringing phone.

"Myron," Levosky said, "I've got a friend who's calling it the Immaculate Reception. Isn't that perfect?"

Cope used the term on the air that night, but it didn't catch on right away. At first Harris's catch was still the Miracle Catch, or occasionally the Miraculous Reception. Only over time, like the shift from beatification to sainthood, did the Miracle become Immaculate.

Enduring Memories

Immaculate ReceptionMalcolm Emmons/US PresswireFans congratulated Franco Harris immediately after the catch, and haven't stopped since.

Today, Franco Harris runs a Pittsburgh bakery -- the Super Bakery, which makes doughnuts, muffins, cupcakes, and cinnamon buns fortified with his "MVP formula" (minerals, vitamins, protein) for schools and hospitals throughout Pennsylvania and much of the Northeast. Harris is bulkier than he used to be, his beard showing flecks of gray, his belly overshadowing his belt. But his legs work almost as well as in his playing days -- a happy consequence, perhaps, of avoiding unnecessary contact.

"I've held up pretty well," he says. "I loved the art of running, not running into. For me it was about vision, anticipation, being one thought ahead of the defense." Former wild man Phil Villapiano somehow survived a bar fight with the Hells Angels and a decade of headbanging hits with his mind and body intact. "Franco kept his brains by avoiding contact. I just had a thick skull," he says.

"Phil! How you doing?" Franco said when they visited Heinz Field for the first time. It was September 15, 2002, a year after Three Rivers was blown up to make room for the new stadium.

Villapiano introduced his son. "Franco, this is my boy, Mike."

"Hi, Mike. How old are you?"

"Eight," the boy said.

Harris walked them around Heinz Field, with its JumboTron flanked by mammoth Heinz ketchup bottles that pour red rivers when the Steelers drive into the "Heinz Red Zone."

"What's your favorite team, Mike?"

"Raiders!"

"C'mon, let me show you something." Harris led peewee leaguer Mike down a ramp. They were gone for fifteen minutes. Villapiano wandered the grounds, gawking at the perfect turf, the luxury boxes, and the spotless concession stands selling garlic fries, Cajun peanuts, and craft beers.

Finally he saw Harris waving at him with a big, cheesy smile, Franco pushing Mike toward him. Mike had a Steelers hat on. A Steelers jersey, number 32, hung from his shoulders to his ankles. His black-and-gold Steelers gloves clutched a Terrible Towel inscribed in black Sharpie: To Mike, Remember the Immaculate Reception, 12/23/72.

"Dad, check it out," the boy said. "Go, Steelers!" Franco was standing behind him, grinning.

[+] EnlargeHarris
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliA statue in the Pittsburgh airport reminds travelers of the town's football lore.
Today there's a statue at Pittsburgh International Airport, a life-size black-and-gold figure bending to make a shoestring catch. "As you can see, I was a lot thinner then," Franco Harris said not long ago.

Harris, sixty-one, and Phil Villapiano, sixty-two, were talking football. They mentioned the current Steelers and Raiders -- advantage Harris -- and the NFL veterans their age who are sick or dying. "That head-injury stuff," Harris said. "Phil, we've all got it." "Maybe. What are you gonna do? Keep going."

Soon they were ribbing each other about the Immaculate Reception -- the busted play as well as the statue. "We're coming up on forty years," Harris said. "That's a long time to be thinking about one play."

"Yeah, but we keep it alive. You know, if you'd been running hard, you wouldn't have been where the ball bounced to."

"Look at the tape. We left the backfield side by side. If I was loafing, how'd I get to the ball first?"

"Let me tell you something about that statue," Villapiano said. "One of these days you're going to go to the airport and that Franco Harris statue won't be standing there. Because I tackled it."

Excerpted from THE LAST HEADBANGERS: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless '70's, the Era that Created Modern Sports by Kevin Cook. Copyright (c) 2012 by Kevin Cook. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. The book can be purchased here