When Christmas Came Every Friday: Missing the Days of Steelers Digest

A new entry from the Mexican WhatsApp Mesa de Acero feed made my phone buzz at 2:47 pm, local time in Buenos Aires on Thursday afternoon. I glanced down. Instantly the image of the latest Steelers Digest issue transported me back 35 years and 6000 miles away.Steelers Digest, Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Darth Vader

It was the summer of 1989 and I was in the magazine aisle at Superfresh (aka A&P) in Aspen Hill’s Northgate Shopping Center. There I rummaged through preseason football magazines, searching for my fix on Steeler news. In Street & Smith’s, opposite an article on the Steelers, I saw it – an advertisement for something called Steelers Digest.

  • I didn’t subscribe to Steelers Digest that year, and it’s a decision I still regret.

(If you know the 1989 Steelers story, you’ll understand.) I don’t remember why. I probably didn’t have enough money on me to buy Street and Smiths and maybe it was gone by the time I could get back.

But I made sure to subscribe to the Steelers Digest for the next season and remained a subscriber until 2012 or 2013.

  • In those days before the internet, Steelers Digest was a lifeline.

Although I was fortunate enough to live in places that had solid sports pages, Steelers Digest offered the lone source of Black and Gold centric-coverage.

The Digest typically arrived on Fridays, following a familiar format. Bob Labriola led with a full page column. A summary of the past week’s game followed along with statics. Then came interviews with players. Each week had at least one feature story tied to the season. Myron Cope had a half page column titled “Coping” until he lost his wife Mildred in 1994.

Chuck Noll, Mark Malone

Chuck Noll and Mark Malone.

Other features were tucked further in. Vic Ketchman might have a feature on Steelers history – those were always clip and save stories. Former players such as Andy Russell and even Mark Malone would publish stories there. A Catholic Church on the North Side used to advertise mass schedules designed around Steelers games. Teresa Varley often did profiles on players or human interest stories that were always “can’t miss.”

At the end was The Overview, where Bob Labriola would print reader letters, offering what information he could about Steelers bars and responding to other questions just the way he does today in “Asked and Answered.”

Things were different then. The idea of getting a newspaper on Friday focused on last Sunday’s games seems quaint today. But back then, even though you knew the game’s results, like a fine wine, the in-depth, Steelers-focused analysis countered for its lack of freshness with maturity. In fact, the Digest’s arrival was highlight of the week.

  • Differences extended beyond the timing and delivery.

The Digest got creative in ways that would backfire in the social media age. If memory serves, when my very first Steelers Digest arrived my mom announced, “There’s something in the mail for you that called ‘Steelers Digest’ with a guy in a Superman suit on it.”

  • Sure enough, Rod Woodson was on the cover, outfitted in a Superman suit.

Can you imagine the reaction if Steelers.com tried to do something similar with T.J. Watt or Minkah Fitzpatrick today?

Yet, that wasn’t a one off for the Digest. As you can see above, another they led with a picture of Greg Lloyd with a Darth Vader helmet. In the fall of 1990, they featured Woodson, Carnell Lake, D.J. Johnson and Thomas Everett standing in the end zone at Three Rivers Stadium with orange barrels, stop signs and road blocks – that week’s feature was on Dave Brazil’s defense who were enjoying a phenomenal run in limiting touchdown passes (the run lasted for 15 games, until Cody Carlson torched them in the season finale at the Astrodome).

  • The Digest also served as a means for differentiating serious Steelers fans from casual ones.

Living in the DC area, Baltimore (pre-Ravens), Boston and later Cincinnati, people would often see me wearing Steelers stuff, prompting spontaneous high fives. After that, the conversation evolved in one of two ways.

Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Steelers, Steelers of the 70s

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

You’d say something like, “Man, I LOVE Merril Hoge, I honestly think that they upgraded at fullback by bringing John L. Williams in” and the fan would either say, A. “Ah, man, I love the Steelers, but I’m not that up on today’s players. I just loved like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann,” or B. he’d dive into debating the nuances of the Hoge vs Williams dynamic.

  • Group B fans were almost always Steelers Digest readers.

I continued subscribing to Steelers Digest, even after the advent of “the world wide web” provided access to papers like the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review and later Steelers blogs. The Digest still offered exclusive features by writers like Mike Prisuta, Jim Wexell or Dale Lolley or exclusive interviews with Dan Rooney, Tom Donahoe or Kevin Colbert.

As time passed many if not most of those exclusives found their way on to Steelers.com – once as I was performing my Saturday night ritual of reading Bob Labriola’s column I realized it was the same column that he’d published on Monday after the game.

  • And that’s when I allowed my subscription to lapse.

And that’s OK. Times change. Today a serious fan, from any corner on the globe, literally has a choice of hundreds, if not thousands of articles, videos or other forms of “content” about the Steelers. Quality may suffer in that sea of quantity, but you can still find it, if you look for it.

Would I go back if I could? Consider this: My first view of Bill Cowher came several days after he was hired when I spied a rumpled copy of the USA Today sitting on the floor of my dorm room at Loyola Maryland (Wynnwood Towers 905E if you must know.) In 2007, in the evening after work, I watched an on-line recording of Cowher’s retirement press conference from my apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

  • So no, I wouldn’t go back if I could.

But is it possible that for all we’ve gained, maybe we’ve also lost something too? I don’t know.

But I do know this: I miss the days when Christmas came in my mail box every Friday thanks to the Steelers Digest.

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Another Steeler Quarterback Who Never Was: Chad Pennington

Times like these make you appreciate Ben Roethlisberger and Terry Bradshaw all the more.

By many measures, it is the men who didn’t play quarterback for the Steelers than serve as conversation pieces for Steelers Nation.

Dan Marino is of course the most famous non-Steelers quarterback of the modern era, recently discussed in Steel Curtain Rising’s post commemorating the Todd Blackledge trade. Marino, however has plenty of company, for this is the franchise that cut Johnny Unitas, Len Dawson, and Jack Kemp, only to see those men return in other uniforms to collect their retribution .

Chad Pennington, another Steelers quarterback who never was, tore his ACL today in a pick up basketball game, and most likely is facing the end of his career.

Did Pennington Almost Become a Steeler?

Following one poor and another atrocious season by Kordell Stewart in 1998 and 1999, the conventional wisdom in the NFL was that the Steelers must draft a quarterback. With the 8th pick overall the Steelers figured to get a shot at one of the collegiate rank’s top signal callers.

Rumors flew both before and after the 2003 NFL draft that Pennington was to be Pittsburgh’s pick. Pennington even claimed that Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert called and said he was going to be a Steelers should he be available.

The Steelers of course picked Plaxico Burress. Never one above sowing mischief, Bill Parcells leaked rumors that he’d called the Steelers and offered them Chad Pennington and Sean Ellis in exchange for Burress.

We’ll never know if there’s any truth to behind those tales.

Lack of Pennington Delivers Roethlisberger?

The Steelers would continue to ride the roller coaster under center, as Kordell Stewart surged back into the starting role in 2000 and 2001 only to fade quickly in early 2002, giving way to Tommy “Gun” Maddox, who blazed like a comet only to struggle with the Cover-2 defnese (and perhaps a little too much over coaching.)

Throughout this process, there were plenty of second guessers who stood ready to dub Pennington as the Marino of his age (in terms of opportunity cost to the Steelers, not in terms of talent.)

Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola roundly refuted those second guesses prior to the Steelers 2003 game against the Jets, arguing that Pennington was a system quarterback or a “game manager” and therefore, not worthy of a number 8 pick.

Of course the Steelers went on to lose that game, which helped seal the 11th pick which brought Ben Roethlisberger to Pittsburgh.

Sadly, it appears that Pennington’s career will end with a greater balance of unrealized than realized potential.

Again, it makes you appreciate Ben Roethlisberger and Terry Bradshaw all the more.

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Steelers (Barely) Spook Gameday Superstition…

As regular readers know, yours truly is a long-time subscriber of the Steelers Digest. A life line in the pre-internet, pre-Sunday Ticket days, I still subscribe mainly to get access to the commentary of Bob Labriola, and some of the other publications.

At some point, I am not sure when, I settled into a ritual of reading Labriola’s column the day before the game.

I never bought too much into superstition, but I did not read his column until right before the kickoff of the Bears game last year. You know the result.

This year the same thing happened with the Baltimore game….

As fate would have it, I forgot to read the Digest yesterday….

….The Steelers spooked this superstition and came away with the win, but man, it was close!

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Watch Tower: Hines Ward to Retire After 2009?

Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola dropped a potential bombshell in the publication’s pre-draft issue.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Steelers Digest, (and judging on the clicks that links to the Digest draw, that’s a lot of you) it was founded in the late 80’s by the Steelers and Curtis Publishing. During the pre-internet years it served as a crucial life line to Steelers Nation.

Today, much of what it publishes is easily found on the internet but, as it is the Steelers only in-house publication, it also serves as a vital source of inside information that makes the light of day nowhere else. (And that’s the reason I still am a paying customer.)

Tucked into the end of assessment of the Steelers draft needs visa-vi wide receiver, Labriola lauded Hines Ward’s records, contribution, and legacy, and then offered this:

The idea of Ward retiring after the 2009 season is something the Steelers should be considering seriously.

Wow.

  • Everyone knows that Hines Ward is in the final year of his contract
  • Everyone knows Ward just turned 33
  • Everyone remembers Ward’s hold out and tense stand off with the Steelers before the 2005 season

And everyone “knows” that the Steelers do not pay big money to players who are their 30’s (while there is some truth to this, it is funny to see how this little pearl of conventional wisdom is now regarded as incontrovertible, “fact” despite the multi-year, multi-million dollar deals that the Steelers awarded to James Farrior and James Harrison in the span of less than 8 months.)

So the fact that 2009 might be Hines Ward’s last year with the Steelers is no shock to Steelers Nation.

But to retire?

What (if anything) is Labriola Trying to Tell Us?

This is where consideration of the source comes in. For whatever the Digest might lack in objectivity (although it is pretty objective), Bob Labriola is the one journalist with unfettered access to the Steelers brain trust. Which means the retirement comment could mean:

  • Ward is quietly talking about retirement with either players or management
  • The Steelers might be planning to try to coax Ward into retirement, ala Franco Harris

There’s also a chance the Labriola is just speculating.

Historically, his predraft speculations are hit or miss. In 1995, he discounted the possibility of the Steelers taking a quarterback, save for that “the Steelers might have some interest in Kordell Stewart in late rounds if he is still available.”

  • The Steelers drafted Stewart in the second.

He also discounted the possibility of the Steelers drafting a quarterback in 2008, and they took Dennis Dixon

What the Steelers Need to Do with Hines Ward

Since we don’t know the source or motive of Labiorla’s comments, it goes without saying that what follows here is pure speculation.

If Ward decides to hang it up it will be a surprise. As Mike Tomlin says, Hines Ward is a football player first, and a wide receiver second. But as Chuck Noll advised, “if you’re thinking of retiring, you probably should.” So if Hines is ready to begin “life’s work,” then Steelers Nation should lament his loss but wish 86 well.

However, the second possibility is much, much more troubling. The Steelers are a class organization from top to bottom. But for all of that class, they are seldom overly sentimental about letting players go when it is time. In terms of football, they usually make the right decision.

But the way they carry out those decisions has sometimes left something to be desired.

  • The Franco Harris situation was a disaster for all involved
  • Likewise, the Steelers really mishandled Rod Woodson’s departure (although to be fair, they’d made him a very generous offer the summer before he hit the open market)
  • Unexcuseably, Levon Kirkland had to find out from the press that the Steelers were planning on cutting him

This must not happen with Hines Ward.

Hines Ward means too much to the Steelers. He hustles on every play. He leads by example, and his bone crunching style sets the tone on the field. Off the field he is both a leader and a mentor.

Unless he shows serious signs of slowing in 2009 and/or is hobbled by injuries, then the Steelers must do with Ward what they did with Jerome Bettis – make all reasonable attempts to keep him with the team.

Oops…

There must be something funny in the water that runs in the South Side during March and April. Last year, the Watch Tower pointed out that the Steelers Digest made two rather obvious errors when referring to Steelers draft history.

They’ve done something similar this year. On page 18, in the “Fast Fact” section states: “The Steelers never have signed an unrestricted free agent to be a starting tackle…” and goes on to explain that they have done that at guard and center.

Interesting factoid.

But its wrong.

The Steelers signed Wayne Gandy in 1999 to be their starting left tackle. Gandy’s play ranged from horrendous to OK, but he did start for four straight seasons at left tackle. They also signed Anthony Brown in that same year, who ended up starting a number of games at right tackle.

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Between the Lines: Final Comment on Alan Faneca

Today’s post deals with an eyebrow raising statement Steelers Digest Editor Bob Labriola made in the Digest’s May edition. Our most recent Watch Tower post debated Labriola’s contention that Rashard Mendenhall’s arrival could help compensate for the Steelers (very wise) choice not to reach for an offensive lineman in the 2008 draft.

In assembling his argument, Labriola offered this snippet of insight into the Steelers offensive line woes:

With Faneca gone, the offensive line is without its lone star, but it also becomes a group without a dominating personality, without a player who has earned the stature of a superstar among his peers. Faneca was never a problem in any way during his final season here, but it’s also true he never completely bought into the new regime.

“With Faneca gone, it will be easier to change some things, to teach different techniques, to coerce everyone to do it the way it’s being taught instead of the way it used to be done. [Emphasis added.]

One of the real perks Digest readers enjoy is that you sometimes get a little peek into the inner workings of the Steelers. Labriola’s observation that Fanaca “never completely bought into the new regime” is attention grabbing.

Just what does it mean?

  • It’s hard to say. Labriola’s certainly not making the case for addition by subtraction. Faneca was too good for that.

However, it’s also true that cohesion is an important component in quality offensive line play. Labriola’s observations perhaps cast offensive line coach Larry Zierlein’s comments about new blocking techniques in a new light. (For the record, Steel Curtain Rising criticized Zierlein for those remarks.)

Anyone who has ever worked in business knows that any new system requires “user buy in” for success. Without it, things flounder quickly. (Think the metric system in the US, the Susan B. Anthony dollar.)

It is too much of a stretch to think that, lineman for lineman, the net quality of the Steelers offensive line corps will improve with Fanaca’s departure. But Labriola’s revelation makes it conceivable that, as a whole, the overall quality of play of the offensive line can improve in 2008.

 

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