Mark Mravic, Author, “Pittsburgh Steelers: Pride in Black and Gold”
First, can you let readers know how and why you decided to write “Pittsburgh Steelers: Pride in Black and Gold’ and how you started doing so?
With this being the 80th season of Steelers football, we thought it would be a good time to look back at the history of the franchise, what it’s meant to the city and the NFL, and the great personalities and games for which it’s known.
What makes the book unique in its coverage of the Steelers?
What we’ve done is separate the book into three sections: The Pride, Players and the Prize. The first examines the team’s unique bond with the city, from the early struggles through the great Super Bowl teams, embodied in the continuous ownership by the Rooney family and the smart choices the team has made to maintain stability, beginning with the hiring of Chuck Noll. We went back and found relevant stories from the pages of SI, and here we reprinted Myron Cope’s great history of the Terrible Towel to accompany some historical photographs.
Then we grouped together some of the great players who’ve worn the Steelers uniform through the years, from Ernie Stautner and Jack Butler through the Steel Curtain teams to the Tomlin and Roethlisberger years, with accompanying text and excerpted stories on each one.
The third section reprints each of Sports Illustrated’s game stories from the six Super Bowl victories.
The real distinction of the book, apart from revisited some of SI’s great sportswriting on the Steelers, is that we went deep into the photo archives for a lot of pictures that have never before been published, and many that haven’t even been seen by anyone in decades. There’s a great untapped store of sports photography there—when SI shoots a football game, maybe a half-dozen or so shots end up in the magazine that week. But the photographers have shot literally hundreds of pictures (and with digital cameras now, thousands). When we are putting the weekly magazine together, that number gets winnowed by the photo editors to maybe 100 that the editors then sort through to make their selection based on the subject of that week’s story. The rest get stored away.
So going back through all of that stuff, from old pictures of the Steel Curtain defense to outtakes from those Super Bowls, was just a phenomenal experience.
How can readers purchase the book?
There are actually two versions: a large hardcover coffee table book and a smaller-format softcover. The former can be ordered online through Barnes & Noble’s website and Amazon.com. The latter are on newsstands and in some Pittsburgh-area supermarkets like Giant Eagle and other stores.
How did your role as the Assistant Managing Editor at Sports Illustrated make your job easier or harder as you researched and wrote the book?
Well, I’m AME but also oversee the NFL beat, so I’m very familiar with our Steelers coverage through the years. As AME I also had the authority to make the final call on the format, the particular story selections and picture choices.
As a Pittsburgh native/Steelers fan, how difficult was it for you to stay unbiased in our coverage?
It’s not particularly difficult—I think I’m able to compartmentalize my fandom and guide our football coverage objectively based on what I think the Sports Illustrated reader would like. I won’t deny that I get a special thrill working on Steelers stories (and this book was a kid-in-the-candy store experience), but professionally I’ve treated the Steelers like any other NFL team. (Everyone at Sports Illustrated grew up a fan of some team; you wouldn’t be in the business if you didn’t have that background.)
The Steelers have been good for so long that we do cover them more than some other teams, but when it’s time to be critical we have not pulled any punches. Our cover story on the Roethlisberger scandal from a few years back was very harsh but authoritative—we went after that story with all of our resources and no hesitation.
What surprised you most as you researched and wrote the book – and why?
Outside of discovering that treasure trove of photography, I did learn about players I was not familiar with from the pre-Super Bowl days, particularly Jack Butler and Elbie Nickel. It was great to learn more about the history of those old teams and those great players.
Concussions and head trauma and the issues many former players deal with as a result of those injuries are a big topic today. How do you find the players you speak with to be on those issues. Angry at the NFL, accepting of them as a game risk…?
It’s really a mix. A lot of old players accept the physical toll—the bad knees, bad backs, etc., as something they were prepared to deal with. But we’re learning more about the potential psychological toll—depression, memory loss, dementia—and there is a lot of unhappiness and fear. You’ve got nearly 3,000 former players suing the league. It’s a huge issue.
And now I think some active players are beginning to think seriously about the repurcussions of their profession. They’re less willing to just “shake it off and get back in” when they’ve suffered a head injury, and more generally you’re beginning to hear some players say they would be concerned to let their children play football.
The Steelers have always embodied that physical nature of the sport. How in your opinion does/can the NFL successfully manage the need to keep a certain level of “old school” physicality in the game while better protecting players today?
The various rules changes and punishments the league is instituting have made a difference (it’s one reason why offenses are so much more prolific these days). Hard hits are always going to be part of the game, though, and even clean hits can cause serious injury (as when a player’s head slams the turf when he’s tackled). Players have been brought up in a culture that rewards and celebrates those hard hits, and I don’t really see that changing.
What needs to happen, as much as possible, is for coaches at all levels, beginning in peewee football, to teach proper tackling and blocking fundamentals and downplay the macho celebration of that physicality.
Who were some of the biggest characters on the Steelers teams and what made them so? Any examples?
So many of those guys from the ’70s era were characters, from Bradshaw and Harris and Lambert to Ernie Holmes and Frenchy Fuqua. They were also so much more approachable that today’s player—there weren’t 10 layers of PR between the media, the fans and the teams, or a uniform image that the league was trying to project. You still get that occasionally with players—Hines Ward comes to mind as a guy who was very up front with the media and always willing to speak his mind.
In your discussions with players over the years, how much did they discuss the difficulties players have on adjusting to post-NFL life, and what do you find separates those that struggled to do so from those that did not?
You just never know who may or may not struggle post-career. Some players are very smart with their money and in their personal lives others are not; that’s a big factor obviously in the adjustment to a career beyond football. But in terms of the physical struggle, it’s very hard to explain why a guy like former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon is apparently suffering the effects of the hits he took as a player while Terry Bradshaw, who took plenty of knocks of his own and has admitted to suffering multiple concussions, seems pretty much unaffected.
Most people are familiar with the unusual number of untimely deaths among former Steelers players, from Mike Webster to Justin Strzelczyk to Terry Long. Those old Steelers teams have been linked to steroid use—Steve Courson was the first really outspoken anti-steroid crusader—and while as far as I know there’s not a clear scientific link between steroid use and emotional or psychological difficulty, it’s hard not to think that the way some guys push their bodies, either within the rules or outside of them, can have a serious effect on their overall emotional health.
Without revealing too much, what players and stories were the most powerful, from your perspective. And why?
I really enjoyed revisiting all six of those Super Bowl stories—the first four because I was a young fan during at the time and remember eagerly awaiting my SI to read about the victories, and the last two because I personally edited those stories and had the strange experience of having my fandom and my professional life come together so perfectly. And I thought about the new generation of Steelers fans who may be experiencing what I felt as a kid back in the ’70s. In seventh grade I made a poster in art class of the SI cover with Swann’s amazing diving catch from Super Bowl X.
Now I’m working for that very magazine, hopefully making some other young fan happy about his team and his heroes in the same way.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I hope everyone enjoys the book. It was a real pleasure to work on, and hope some of that comes through.