The 2017 regular season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was one that included a number of firsts, as well as a bunch of first-in-a-whiles. One of those first-in-a-while achievements took all the way to the second half of the final game of the season, and it came courtesy of the youngest player in the NFL.
Just as the Cleveland Browns tied the game at 21 on their opening drive of the second half, rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for the touchdown. That touchdown off of a kick return was the first by the team in seven years, when another rookie wide receiver also did it.
That rookie wide receiver’s name is Antonio Brown. On the first touch of his NFL career, on the opening kickoff of the second game of the season against the Titans in 2010, Tennessee kicked to the three-yard line, where the ball was fielded by Mewelde Moore.
Brown, on the left flank of a three-man wedge, doubled back and around, behind Moore, who pitched him the ball. Before the Titans realized what happened, he was already heading up the sideline, racing past kicker Rob Bironas at midfield. Stevenson Sylvester and Ryan Mundy secured the key blocks on the perimeter.
The Steelers do not return kicks for scores with great frequency. Smith-Schuster’s was just the 19th in team history, according to Pro Football Reference. The last kick return score prior to Brown’s was by Allen Rossum in 2007, marking the three kick return scores in the Mike Tomlin era.
Let’s continue to work our way back. In his rookie season in 2002, Antwaan Randle El recorded his lone kickoff return touchdown, though he had five on punt returns. Prior to him, Will Blackwell, one of only three players in team history with more than one kick return score, got his second in 2000, and his first in 1997.
Eric Pegram scored a kick return touchdown in 1996 as well, which at the time was the first season 1989, when Rod Woodson recorded the second of his career. Woodson and Dwight Stone each recorded one in 1988.
Larry Anderson was a rookie in 1978 when he collected his lone kick return touchdown, a decade prior to the last mentioned. Mike Collier, in his one season with the team, had one of his own in 1975. Don McCall’s lone season in 1969 also featured one. James ‘Cannonball’ Butler in 1966 and Gary Ballman in 1963 lead us to the greatest kick returner in team history: Lynn Chandnois.
The Steelers’ first-round pick in 1950, Chandnois, who was active both in rushing and receiving, was also a weapon in the return game, posting a career 29.6-yard kick return average. He recorded three touchdowns in this department including two in 1952 and another in 1953.
But the first kick return in Steelers history belongs to none other than John ‘Blood’ McNally. A Hall of Famer better known for his time in Green Bay, McNally finished up his career in Pittsburgh in 1937 and 1938 (also playing for the Steelers in 1934), and he recorded his lone kick return touchdown of his career in 1937, his 13th season.
From a 34-year-old in McNally to a 21-year-old in Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have a lengthy and interesting history of kick return touchdowns. One only wishes there were more entries into the list.