Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: Their Life's Work (2013)

By Gary M. Pomerantz

"Their Life's Work" is the answer to a bookstore's prayers ... at least in Pittsburgh.

There is little doubt that this particular book will be a huge seller in that part of the world. What's more, it should be. For Gary Pomerantz's work will be sought out by everyone who can recite the members of the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s - frequently called "The Steel Curtain."

Just for the record, those players are Joe Greene, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes, and they helped the Steelers win four Super Bowl titles in less than a decade. They were merely part of one of the great runs by a group of players in pro football history. The line's members were joined by such players as Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster and Jack Lambert.

Heck, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton ought to have its own wing devoted to those Pittsburgh teams. The Steelers of that era started out with a ferocious defense that intimidated opponents and had a conservative offense that stuck to the ground. By decade's end, as the rules and game changed, the Steelers could strike quickly via long-distance passes from Bradshaw to Swann and Stallworth.

Pomerantz essentially splits the story into a couple of parts. The initial sections deal with the rise of the Steelers. You could argue that they were one of the last teams to raid an undervalued talent pool in the historic black colleges, adding to some of the best drafts in football history. Four eventual Hall of Famers in one draft is tough to top. Then it was simply a matter of the pieces coming together. It took some time - the so-called "Immaculate Reception" of 1972  was a major steppingstone toward that goal - but the Steelers finally got that first Super Bowl title in January of 1975.

Happily, there are plenty of good stories about that team told along the way. Pomerantz obviously put in plenty of time through interviews and research to get as complete a story as possible. He doesn't get too bogged down in game details, sticking to personalities and anecdotes. You'll love the portion about the Steelers hanging around the Three Rivers Stadium sauna, reviewing games well into the dinner hour - even inviting the odd respected opponent once in a great while.

After a quick review of the remaining years of the dynasty, Pomerantz moves to the story of what's happened to those players and other members of the organization over the years since everyone went their separate ways. The title refers to what happens to players when they are done with football, usually at a young age.

It's fair to say some of the stories are relatively well-known - Bradshaw is best known for his work with Fox Sports before NFL games, Webster died after suffering from brain damage, etc. A surprising number of people from that team have died already, which is rather sobering. It is a little easy to wonder if some of the other, less-known players on the team had even more compelling stories, but those aren't the ones people care about.

Overseeing it all is the story of the Rooney family. Art, one of the most beloved figures in Pittsburgh history, gets plenty of coverage here as could be expected. He took a chance on pro football in the game's infancy, and it paid off in a big way. Stories about his generosity here still touch the heart. Some of his sons took over the family football business, which took a rather Shakespearean turn fairly recently.

There have been a couple of comparisons here to baseball's "The Boys of Summer," which is a terribly high standard. This isn't quite as sentimental, and therefore probably won't be quite as beloved by a mass audience.

But "Their Life's Work" certainly serves as a glowing valedictory for the most glorious era in Steelers' history. This book will be on the bookshelves of fans of those teams for years and years to come, who probably will want to give it six stars out of a possible five.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

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