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For Steelers, epic game vs. Raiders in 1972 regular season

| Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw scores on a 21-yard quarterback against Oakland on Sept. 20, 1972. (AP file)

Forty years ago, during the 40th season for a franchise that was championship-free and victory-deprived, the Steelers came of age against the Oakland Raiders.

The Steelers were three years removed from a one-win season and nine years past their last winning season. Yet they physically manhandled the Raiders, who were polishing their playing-on-the-edge reputation for nastiness under coach John Madden.

Joe Greene and an under-construction Steelers defense (Jack Ham, Mel Blount and Dwight White were all in place) shoved around a Raiders team that went 10-3-1, punished them, made them change quarterbacks not once but twice.

It was the day the Steelers grew up, shed all the laughable-loser labels of the previous four decades and never looked back.

It was the day their reputation as the NFL's version of the Washington Generals disappeared. The day that the rest of the league realized what Chuck Noll and his staff, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley were molding in Pittsburgh — Pittsburgh! — might be something special, something formidable, something to be reckoned with.

But it wasn't that day in 1972.

Those old enough to remember the year the Steelers turned the corner recall the wonderment and improbability of them beating the Raiders, 13-7, in the Immaculate Reception playoff game. To this day, Franco Harris' gift-from-the-heavens touchdown is widely recognized as the most implausible game-winning play of all time in any sport.

But what is largely forgotten is that the Steelers beat the Raiders twice that season, including their turn-the-corner 34-28 win before a sellout crowd (rare for the time) of 50,141 at Three Rivers Stadium on Sept. 17, 1972. It was 40 years ago this week, if you'll recall.

Even if many who were there don't.

“I didn't remember that,” said Haley, the Steelers' player personnel director at the time and father of current offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

This upset win wasn't a Harris production, either. In his first NFL game, the rookie whose 1,055-yard season is widely credited for transforming the Steelers from mediocre (5-9 in 1970, 6-8 in 1971) to magical (11-3 in 1972) was held to 28 yards on 10 carries.

Terry Bradshaw, still two years away from winning the quarterback's job full time, was 7 of 17 for 124 yards and three interceptions, yet the Steelers opened a 27-7 lead partly because he ran for two touchdowns.

“I played stupid football at times,” Bradshaw said afterward.

No, this was about a developmental-stage defense that chased Ken Stabler (5 of 12, 54 yards, three interceptions) and ageless wonder George Blanda, who turned 45 that day and went 4 of 11 for 64 yards and a touchdown before being yanked for Daryle Lamonica.

Madden, asked afterward about his quarterback rotation, said, “The second guessers can go (expletive) themselves.”

Lamonica threw two touchdowns to rookie Mike Siani and was 8 of 10 for 172 yards in barely a quarter, but he ran out of time on the day it finally became the Steelers' time. They had been waiting only since 1933.

“This is the way the defense can win games, playing together,” said Chuck Beatty, a college teammate of Greene's at North Texas State who had two interceptions, one for a touchdown. Henry Davis blocked a punt for another score.

Beatty had no idea how prophetic he would be.

That win put the Steelers on a path to a 7-0 home-field record in 1972.

Count Steelers safety Ryan Clark among those who wish they had been there.

“It was a different game then,” Clark said. “(Cornerback) Mel Blount would probably play rush linebacker now. It was a physical game; it was what it was predicted on. That's why you had a name like the Steel Curtain.”

Only then, the defense had yet to gain its famous nickname. This was also before Franco's Italian Army, the Terrible Towel, a single playoff game or even the thought of one Super Bowl, much less four in six seasons.

But a dynasty was born 40 years ago this week, against the very team — the Raiders — the Steelers will play Sunday.

Even if many have forgotten this epic Raiders-Steelers game. Even if many don't realize this was the day — not Dec. 23, 1972, the date of the Immaculate Reception — that the Steelers became the Steelers.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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