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Winning the Fight of Their Lives

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Steelers-Cowboys rivalry always a classic conflict of styles

“The Dallas Cowboys.”

Those words were spoken in the heat of the day, during an afternoon practice at Saint Vincent College. It was the summer of 1980, my rookie year, and we were preparing to go to Dallas to play the Cowboys in the preseason finale. Just as the Steelers had done in 1978, and 1979. And of course, those were seasons that ended with Lombardi Trophy presentations. Chuck Noll apparently liked to finish off the preseason with a DATE: Nov. 8, 2020 TIME: 4:25 p.m. Chuck Noll Tom Landry game in the fiery heat and humidity of Dallas, Texas, and do so in August. Sort of “make it as miserable and as hard as you can” to end another Noll training camp, which always was an exercise in pain tolerance and misery all by itself.

The tone of the voice speaking those three words was that of apparent disgust, as if the very thought of the Cowboys, or even mentioning their name, was an insult to the hallowed grounds of Saint Vincent College, where back-to-back Super Bowl seasons were born in 1974-75 and then again in 1978-79.

The speaker was my offensive line coach Rollie Dotsch, a hardened and grizzled veteran of the NFL coaching profession. And a throwback to the days when the NFL wasn’t quite so full of fog machines, razzle dazzle, and red zone highlights. “They have bouffant hairdos, and they coach computers,” continued Rollie, with more than a little tinge of disgust and disdain. And then he spat on the ground, as if to emphasize his feelings. And in that moment, I began to get a glimpse of how bitter the battles between the Cowboys and the Steelers actually were throughout the 1970s. The obvious disdain that much of the Steelers coaching staff felt towards the Cowboys back then, and they with the Steelers, had to do with the extraordinary run of success that the Steelers had enjoyed.

As had the Cowboys, but there were two losses in Super Bowls that the Steelers had pinned on the “Cry-boys,” as they had come to be known in the ‘Burgh. I remember a few years later listening to Jack Lambert crooning on a microphone, sort of an early 1980s version of Karaoke, and singing an old Waylon Jennings tune, “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up To Be Cowboys,” with a touch of professional sarcasm (Jack wasn’t bad at singing, either). There was an obvious rivalry between the two teams. Adding fuel to the fire was the open way they were mocked in the ‘Burgh as “America’s Team” even though they couldn’t beat Pittsburgh’s team in the biggest showcase of professional football.

The Steelers won Super Bowl IX at the end of th 1974 seson by beating the Vikings. Then they beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl X in 1975, during the 1977 regular season, in Super Bowl XIII in 1978, in another regular season game in 1979, and then went on to win Super Bowl XIV after the 1979 season. But as Art Rooney Sr. said back in the day, the Steelers only wanted to be “Pittsburgh’s team.” And that statement alone seemed to symbolize the acrimony that filtered through not just the players, but the coaching staffs as well.

But it was more than the contrast between the two teams and the two organizations. It was about the steel town toughness of the ‘Burgh versus the uptown, flashy night life of Dallas. It was the simplicity of Three Rivers stadium, standing along the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers, contrasting with Texas stadium, with its open roof so “God could watch his favorite team play,” as Cowboys linebacker D.D. Lewis once said. It was the Yinzers with their steel-toed boots and hard hats vs. the gaudy belt buckles, cowboy boots, and wide brimmed hats of the Texas cowboys. The oversized and gaudy “Star” painted on the field at the 50-yard line and prominently featured on every Cowboys helmet, instead of the simple Steelers one-side-of-the-helmet decal featuring the hypocycloids of the steel industry.

It didn’t stop there. It was the flash and beauty of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, so popular back then they made appearances on network TV specials like the NBC Rock-n-Roll Sports Classic, The Osmond Brothers Special on ABC, and who can forget the made-for-TV movie, “The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders,” which aired in January 1979. Of course, the Steelers having no cheerleaders, and not needing any, because in the words of Dan Rooney, “Our fans know when to cheer.”

It was the straight forward training approach of Lou Riecke, an Olympic champion weightlifter, who along with Chuck Noll, instituted practical, simplistic weight training routines. It was the Cowboys who tried to one-up the Steelers legendary strength training success in the 1970s and 1980s by integrating Dr. Bob Ward and his gadget-filled approach to speed-strength and the martial arts. Ward had a highly sophisticated conditioning system that was to become all the rage in the coming years.

It was the pre-snap Dallas “shift,” where all five of the offensive lineman would, from a two-point stance, as if they were a choreographed dance troop, stand fully upright before squatting back down to get into their three-point stances. Subscribe for the rest of the article.

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