Though player jobs are won and lost and season-affecting injuries occur, preseason football is generally looked upon as meaningless.
That was certainly the case the last time prior to tonight the Pittsburgh Steelers played a preseason game in Jacksonville. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette didn’t even send down a reporter to cover the game.
But that otherwise forgotten game, a 16-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins on August 8, 1970, may have been one of the most historic contests the Steelers have ever played, preseason or otherwise.
* The game was the first game the Steelers would play as members of the American Football Conference.
* The game was the first Terry Bradshaw would play for the Steelers.
* It was the first game Don Shula coached the Miami Dolphins.
* It was the first Steelers game broadcast by Myron Cope.
THE AFC- The game against the Dolphins was not the Steelers’ first foray against a team from the former American Football League. Following the merger announcement in 1966, AFL and NFL teams often played each other in the preseason, which allowed the Steelers a first taste of playing future rivals Cincinnati and San Diego.
But the merger also meant three teams from the old NFL would have to join the “new” AFC to give each conference and even 13. The Steelers were then famously cash-strapped, and given a $3 million incentive to make the switch, sentiment for old rivals was easily overcome.
Ironically, the Steelers’ first game as a conference member was against one of the teams they’d rule the AFC with for the next decade.
TERRY BRADSHAW’S DEBUT– Bradshaw entered the game for the only time in his career as the Steelers’ third-string quarterback, behind Kent Nix and Terry Hanratty.
But by the time the team returned to Latrobe, head coach Chuck Noll had put Bradshaw on the first string based on his performance against the Dolphins.
After Nix failed to get the Steelers on the scoreboard in the first half and Hanratty missed on all six of his passes in the second, Bradshaw was brought in and threw 19 passes, completing his first two and nine overall for 92 yards and one interception.
Trailing 16-3, the rookie from Louisiana Tech engineered a 10-play, 54-yard drive highlighted by a 15-yard completion to Roy Jefferson that culminated in a 1-yard rush from Preston Pearson with 2:51 left in the game for the Steelers only sustained scoring drive of the game. Their field goal had largely come as the result of a Chuck Beatty interception in Miami territory, with Frenchy Fuqua also rising to the top of the depth chart following the game by rushing Pittsburgh into field goal range.
While the P-G did not cover the game, the Miami News did. But the headline on the front page of the News sports section did not speak of the Dolphins’ victory but rather read “Terry Bradshaw was so excited . . .” and pushed the majority of the coverage of the home team to the back pages in favor of the top pick of the draft.
Bradshaw was critical of his performance, saying he got down and distance mixed up twice during the game, therefore calling for a pass and not a rush on 3rd and 1.
Imagine today a quarterback apologizing for passing!
But Noll said after the game, “Considering it was his first professional game, Bradshaw did a remarkable job.”
Nix was soon traded to Minnesota, and a football legend was born.
Oh, and for our readers from Avonworth, Mercury Morris did not touch the ball in the game. Instead Jake Scott also made his professional debut and handled return duties for the Dolphins.
DON SHULA’S DOLPHINS DEBUT– It’s not well known, but much like Chuck Noll was the second choice of the Rooneys to coach the Steelers behind Joe Paterno, Shula was the second choice of Joe Robbie behind Bear Bryant.
But when Bryant didn’t come, the Dolphins’ owner lured Shula away from Baltimore, making this game to be the first time Shula would face his former defensive coordinator with the Colts.
The game drew, depending on what historic figures one relies on, a modest crowd of 11,800 (Dolphins media guide) or 13,407 (listed as the approximate crowd by the News). The Gator Bowl held 62,000 fans.
At the time, the Dolphins were the only major professional sports franchise in Florida and had never had so much as a winning record in four seasons of play, so one could understand why they wished to play preseason games all over the state. But three games in Jacksonville always drew embarrassingly small crowds, and after 1970 the Dolphins would not play another neutral site game in Florida until 1992.
The Steelers, meanwhile, would play their first game at brand-new Three Rivers Stadium three weeks later. This contest, a 21-6 Steelers victory, marked the first time Howard Cosell and Don Meredith were paired together for a football broadcast, but that historical note must sway a distant second in the hearts and minds of Steelers fans due to the broadcasting history made in Jacksonville earlier that month.
MYRON COPE’S DEBUT– In 1970 the Steelers, upset their early season radio broadcasts on KDKA-AM were preempted for Pirates games, took their games to WTAE. The station, broadcasting on AM 1250, was trying to establish a sports identity and already had the rights to University of Pittsburgh broadcasts and Bill Hillgrove’s “musical scoreboard” at night.
Jack Fleming was entrenched as the Steelers play-by-play broadcaster, but who would provide the color commentary?
Dick Stockton, then a sportscaster at KDKA-TV, was the Steelers’ first choice, but he turned the offer down. Enter Cope, already giving morning sports commentaries on WTAE and a fan of the team since their “Pirates Pros” days.
As a freelance writer in the 1960s, Cope gave the Steelers positive ink on a national scale they otherwise wouldn’t have received.
So that night, in Jacksonville, Fleming and Cope called their first game. They would broadcast together for 24 years, until Hillgrove replaced Fleming in 1994 as the Steelers’ play-by-play broadcaster. Cope continued providing color commentary, good humor, and Terrible Towels through the 2004 season and won the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Pete Rozelle Award for broadcasting excellence in following year.
The one notable instance of the broadcasting legends’ debut came after the game. Being on a new station with a new color commentator meant a new format, and after the game Cope went to the locker room while Fleming prepared to leave as the lights were turned out at the stadium.
Suddenly, Fleming was told by a producer “You’re on!” and had to ad lib the closing moments of the broadcast in the dark!
Marky Billson is a sportswriter who contributes weekly to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He wants everyone to know he isn’t really THAT old, and in fact spent this game as an embryo in his mother’s womb. Follow him @MarkyBillson