Our life’s work: Reflections on the Super Bowl

Dr. Gary S. Smith

The Super Bowl is over, and life moves on. This year’s New England Patriots’ 13-3 low-scoring victory over the Los Angeles Rams has generally been bemoaned as lackluster, listless, and boring, except by those who value carefully planned and well-executed defensive schemes. The half-time show has been criticized as uninspiring, mundane, and the worst one ever. Even the commercials, which cost $5.2 million for 30 seconds, were generally bland and disappointing.

For Pittsburgh Steelers fans, whose mantra during the playoffs was, “anyone but the Patriots,” the Patriots’ sixth Super Bowl victory, tying the Steelers for the most Super Bowl wins, was especially depressing. In all fairness, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and his teammates have achieved a remarkable feat, winning six Super Bowls in 17 years. They deserve to be congratulated and celebrated.

As entertaining and preoccupying as football can be, as represented by the cultural phenomenon the Super Bowl has become, life involves much more than football. No one proclaimed or personally epitomized this better than Chuck Noll, the Steelers’ coach from 1969 to 1991. Under Noll’s leadership, the Steelers catapulted from a doormat to a dynasty, winning 88 regular season games from 1972 through 1979 while losing only 27 and winning four Super Bowls.

Noll repeatedly insisted that pro football was a stepping stone to players’ life calling. Tony Dungy, who played for the Steelers in 1977 and 1978, recalls that Noll told rookies that “you have to find your life’s work, while you’re working at this.” This phrase became closely associated with Noll and served as the title for Michael MacCambridge’s 2016 biography, Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work, and for Gary Pomerantz’s Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers (2014), which describes how a remarkable group of Steelers, motivated by their coach’s philosophy, excelled on the field and contributed substantially to society after their playing days ended. Noll set an example for his players; he was devoted to his family and was a licensed pilot, a sailor, and a scuba diver, spoke French, and loved to cook, garden, and do home repairs.

Noll “set a new standard for the Steelers that still is the foundation of what we do and who we are,” Art Rooney II proclaimed. He built a sense of family among the players, teaching them “the importance of sacrifice, humility, and winning both on and off the field.”  Roman Catholic bishop David Zubik, bishop of the Pittsburgh diocese, argued that in many ways Noll’s life was modeled after Christ’s. While Jesus showed people how to be “a light to the world,” Noll taught us “to do our best and encourage others to do the same.”

Numerous players and coaches testified that Noll profoundly influenced their lives. Almost every one of his players asserts that “I learned more from Chuck about life off the field than on,” a journalist declared. “The later-life success of so many of his former Steelers is testimony to this.” He taught us, defensive back Mel Blount stated, “how to win on the football field and win in life.” “If it hadn’t been for Chuck,” asked J. T. Thomas, another defensive back, “where would we all be?” Noll, avowed Donnie Shell, a third defensive back, is “a great example of a servant leader.” He taught the Steelers to “be better men.” Noll changed our approach to life, maintained running back Rocky Bleier. “The truths that Chuck Noll taught me,” offensive tackle Tunch Ilkin adds, apply to me “today as a men’s pastor and as a broadcaster, as a dad and a husband, as much as they did as a football player.”

Consider a few examples of what the Steelers who played for Noll did after they retired. Defensive tackle L. C. Greenwood ran an electrical supply company in Pittsburgh and served on the board of the Coalition for Christian Outreach and other ministries. Ernie Holmes, another member of the famed Steel Curtain, worked as a Baptist youth pastor and assistant minister. Wide receiver John Stallworth founded Madison Research, an engineering and IT company based in Huntsville, Alabama, which today employs about 500 people. Mel Blount opened youth homes in Vidalia, Georgia, and Claysville, south of Pittsburgh, to help troubled children “develop mentally, physically and morally,” build strong Christian character, and “become productive citizens.” Wide receiver Lynn Swann worked as a sideline commentator for ABC Sports, served as the nation’s fitness czar under George W. Bush, ran as the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania in 2006, and is currently the athletic director at the University of Southern California. Linebacker Robin Cole shared his faith in numerous churches and spoke to many elementary and high schools about the importance of values. Defensive back Dwayne Woodruff earned a law degree and has been elected to two ten-year terms on Allegheny County’s Court of Common Pleas, where he works to aid children.

On and on the list could go. Chuck Noll and the players he coached helped make Pittsburgh a city of champions in the 1970s and rejuvenate a city recovering from the decline of the steel industry. Their legacy, however, is greater off the field than on. Their contributions to business, the church, children, education, and other enterprises has had a tremendous impact. May we emulate their example.

—Dr. Gary Scott Smith is the retired chair of the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “A History of Christianity in Pittsburgh” (2018), “Suffer the Children” (2017), “Religion in the Oval Office” (Oxford University Press, 2015), “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009), “Religion in the Oval Office” and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).