Starkey: Bradshaw-Noll a complicated combo
It was a classic love-loathe relationship. It was explosive. It was historically productive, too, culminating in four Super Bowl wins.
And like so many famous coach-quarterback combinations, Chuck Noll-Terry Bradshaw never failed to fascinate, even to the aftermath of Noll's passing June 13.
One of the stories that emerged in subsequent days was that Bradshaw, despite being in town last Saturday, chose not to attend any Noll-related events. Those included viewings Sunday and Monday and the funeral Mass on Tuesday.
Bradshaw did release a statement, through the Steelers, in which he expressed sorrow for Noll's widow, Marianne, and son, Chris. Part of Bradshaw's statement read, “I'm proud to have played for (Noll). It was a great honor. My relationship wasn't good, as you well know, but he made me understand my job responsibilities, because I had to grow up.”
Why are Bradshaw's actions news? Because he's Terry Bradshaw, that's why. Because this involves Bradshaw, Noll and the '70s Steelers. It was major news, too, when Bradshaw skipped franchise founder Art Rooney's funeral in 1988 and later expressed deep regret.
To some close to Noll, Bradshaw's words — speaking in recent years of how much Noll meant to him — did not match his actions of the past week.
“He's the most insincere person I've ever known,” said long-time Steelers publicist Joe Gordon, one of Noll's pallbearers.
Bradshaw did not return my phone call seeking comment. Radio and television reporters looking to speak with him at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino eight nights ago were escorted off the property.
At the beginning of Bradshaw's one-man show that night — titled “America's Favorite Dumb Blonde” — he paid tribute to Noll, whose passing seemed to provide one more open door for Bradshaw to walk through and perhaps heal some old wounds. That he let it shut seems sad and in a way wrong, but that's a hard call.
My initial stance on the matter was harsh. I've softened.
Who can say what's happening on a man's insides? Goodness knows, Bradshaw has his demons.
Miller Williams, in his poem “Compassion,” wrote, “What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
Everybody reacts differently in these situations. You admire those who make the effort. Gordon said 40 ex-players and nine former assistant coaches showed for Noll's funeral (including the likes of former offensive lineman Gordon Gravelle, who took a red-eye from San Francisco). Others either attended a viewing or found a way to make personal contact with Noll's family. Even the famously reclusive Jack Lambert got involved.
Lambert arranged, through Gordon, to meet with Marianne Noll for 20 minutes before the 2 p.m. viewing Monday. The meeting was set for 1:30. Gordon said that when he arrived at the funeral home at 1, Lambert was waiting in the parking lot in his truck.
As for the complicated Noll-Bradshaw relationship, we can only be sure of this much: Noll was the perfect coach for Bradshaw. They were not only the greatest coach-quarterback combo of the Super Bowl era (four Super Bowl wins ends the argument) but also ultimate proof that liking someone is not a prerequisite to succeeding in professional sports.
Rocky Bleier, in a first-person piece for the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, likened the Noll-Bradshaw dynamic to a father dealing with his rebel son. Bradshaw put his feelings on the record in his 1989 book, “Looking Deep.” I ran across a copy of it last week.
Chapter 2 is simply titled, “Chuck,” and does not pull punches.
“It's tragic that Chuck and I had such a stormy relationship,” Bradshaw wrote. “Sometimes I wonder if he really ever wanted to draft me.”
And this, on Bradshaw's ugly parting from the team: “It's too bad that Chuck and I became estranged. We spent so much time together as quarterback and coach and I took that to mean that we were friends, yet the friendship ended when I was no longer of use to Chuck. Or at least that's how it seemed.”
If Noll was harsh at times, his methods worked. He was one of the first to hire a quarterbacks coach. That man, Babe Parilli, helped him mold Bradshaw. And when new rules advanced the passing game in the late '70s, Noll gave more freedom to a matured Bradshaw, who morphed into maybe the best big-game, long-ball passer of all-time.
When the millennium turned, Noll and Bradshaw crossed paths at a few public events and interacted playfully. At one of those, about a decade ago, Gordon said Bradshaw told Noll he'd call him to play golf sometime.
“They never spoke again,” Gordon said.
The whole thing feels sad and messy. Kind of like a lot of relationships. Kind of like life.
Who knows what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone?
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.