Four who made a difference

The Steelers third Hall of Honor class was officially enshrined on Sunday night, and it includes individuals who had a huge impact on the team throughout the years.

Larry Brown, Bill Cowher, Elbie Nickle and Hines Ward are the legends that make up the Hall of Honor Class of 2019.

Steelers legends Larry Brown, Bill Cowher, Elbie Nickel, and Hines Ward were inducted into the Steelers Hall of Honor Class of 2019

The team introduced the Hall of Honor in 2017, an idea that came from Steelers President Art Rooney II, along with late Chairman Dan Rooney. The Hall of Honor was established to recognize former players, coaches, and front office personnel who played an integral role in the success of the franchise, from the beginning in 1933 until now. To be considered, a player must be retired at least three years and played a minimum of three seasons for the Steelers. Former coaches and contributors had to make significant contributions to the team and community.

Brown was an integral member of the Steelers four Super Bowl teams of the 1970s. A fifth round draft pick in 1971, Brown easily can be considered one of the most underrated players in team history. When you think of the teams of the 70s, you think of names like Lambert, Harris, Bradshaw and the litany of Hall of Famers. But when late Coach Chuck Noll was once asked of all the great players who were a part of those Super Bowl teams deserved to be in the Hall of Fame too, his answer came fast – Larry Brown.

Brown started his career at tight end and caught a game-clinching touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw to secure a win in Super Bowl IX. He later made the switch to tackle, where he blocked for Franco Harris and made an impact that was tough to measure.

“It’s a great honor,” said Brown. “I certainly feel appreciated. It was unexpected. To be recognized with so many great players and teammates is very humbling. I think all players know when you play, so many who worked hard, toiled and are dedicated don’t get recognized. When you get recognized it’s quite an honor.

“When I got the call from Art, I sat there and was reflective and thought about it for a minute. I am still processing it. It’s greatly appreciated.“

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Tonight is very special. I say this with all sincerity. It’s completely unexpected. It’s humbling too. I played with a lot of great players. Players don’t always get recognition. As I accept this tonight, I understand there are a lot of great players I had the opportunity to play with who don’t always get recognized. It’s humbling. All of us get so much from doing things and getting the recognition from your efforts and what you contributed and tried to do. When you get recognized it’s special.”

Brown said it means a lot to everyone in the Hall of Honor that the team created it, and it’s something he will always cherish.

“I value this a great deal,” said Brown. “I am honored to be a part of this organization. It’s been about opportunity, particularly Mr. (Dan) Rooney who introduced the Rooney Rule. It’s about opportunity. Without opportunity I wouldn’t be here and wouldn’t have played for the Steelers. I am proud to have played for an organization who made that a part of the process in the National Football League.”

Cowher was the Steelers head coach from 1992-2006, leading the team to victory in Super Bowl XL. In his 15 seasons he guided the team to eight division titles and his teams played in six AFC Championship games and two Super Bowls, losing in Super Bowl XXX to the Dallas Cowboys.

“To be inducted into the Hall of Honor is a true honor,” said Cowher. “The Steelers organization and the tradition is recognized as one of the best in the NFL. Football is the ultimate team sport. My 15 years was the collaborative work of players, coaches and support staff. Having grown up in Crafton, just four miles from Heinz Field, this is very special to me. I am truly humbled.

“I was blessed to play a small role in the Steelers tradition. To be recognized with those in the Hall of Honor, it’s humbling. It all starts at the top with the Rooney Family. To be recognized for making the contributions I did, along with the others who are part of the Hall of Honor, it really is humbling. Particularly when you grow up in Pittsburgh and know what the Steelers mean to the city. To me, as a little boy growing up watching the Steelers, this means a lot to me. It’s special.

“When you talk about tradition, and organizations, the Steelers are one of the best in the NFL. The longevity of the ownership. As a kid growing up watching the likes of Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Joe Greene and Chuck Noll. It was a steel town and Noll identified with that. As a kid you were proud to say you were from Pittsburgh. You can take people out of Pittsburgh, but you will never take the Pittsburgh out of people.”

Nickel was one of the Steelers early legends. He was drafted in 1947 in the 17th round and played 11 seasons for the black and gold. The former tight end had 329 career receptions and was named a member of the Steelers 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.

Nickel, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, served in the Army during World War II. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 84 and was represented by his two kids and his grandkids at the ceremony.

“It’s great to be able to introduce our young fans to the greats of the past,” said Art Rooney II. “Elbie was someone who I heard his name a lot growing up and I know my dad would have been upset with us if we didn’t get Elbie in there. I’m glad we got that done. We like to try to recognize people from all the different eras of Steelers football. It’s great to see Elbie be part of this class.

“I was alive when he played but I honestly don’t remember it. But I’ve seen a lot of tape and when you see him catching the touchdown with a white football you know that that was a long time ago.”

Ward wasn’t so long ago, having played 14 seasons for the Steelers, after being selected in the third round of the 1998 NFL Draft. He played on two Super Bowl teams and was the MVP of Super Bowl XL. He had 1,000 career receptions for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns. His versatility was always on display with his blocking ability a shining example of that.

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“This is truly a big honor,” sad Ward. “A lot of greats have left their marks with this organization and this prestigious honor is something I will always cherish. It's very humbling. My greatest accomplishment was a culmination of my 14 years as a Steeler. Being fortunate to have played for only one organization in my entire NFL career is something I will always cherish. Winning was great. But being a part of a winning and supportive city and unbelievable fan base, an organization that cared for you, and being a part of a band of brothers in my teammates that will last a lifetime.”

Cowher said it’s special to be inducted along with Ward, who he coached, as well as Brown, who he watched as a kid growing up.

“What is unique also is I remember Larry Brown used to live in Rosslyn Farms when I was in high school and he would run around the Carlynton High School track,” said Cowher. “I remember watching him do it and I never bothered him, but I thought wow, I am training on the same track as a Steelers player.

“And Hines, what he epitomized. He represented how we played the game. He had fun. He was a tough football player, a consistent football player. He played with passion. He always had that smile on his face. That represented who we were. We were going to enjoy playing the game, but we were going to play it the right way. And we played the game to win. He represented those things.”

Ward was an inspiration to many. Someone who did his job with a smile always on his face, whether he just caught a touchdown pass or was making a punishing block to help one of his running backs get a few more yards.

"To be among the greats is surreal," said Ward. "I grew up idolizing these guys. Now I am in the same fraternity as them. That is what the Pittsburgh Steelers are all about. It is truly a family."

The members of the Hall of Honor, or family members representing them, were presented with a steel football, a replica of one presented to Art Rooney Sr. by the U.S. Steel Corporation at the team’s 50th Season celebration.

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The first class included the team’s Hall of Famers, as well as a select group of individuals. They were Jerome Bettis, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Butler, Dermontti Dawson, Bill Dudley, Joe Greene, Kevin Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Dick Hoak, John Henry Johnson, Walt Keisling, Jack Lambert, Bobby Layne, John McNally, Chuck Noll, Arthur J. Rooney Sr., Daniel M. Rooney, Andy Russell, Donnie Shell, John Stallworth, Ernie Stautner, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster, and Rod Woodson. The second class included Rocky Bleier, Buddy Dial, Alan Faneca, Bill Nunn and Art Rooney Jr.

The Hall of Honor Selection Committee consists of Steelers President Art Rooney II, Joe Gordon, Bob Labriola, Stan Savran, Andrew Stockey and Tony Quatrini.

Larry Brown
(1971-84)
It almost seems to be a commentary on what Chuck Noll thought of both positions. The move of Larry Brown from tight end to offensive tackle showed what attributes Noll valued from the guys who played both positions. He wanted tight ends who could block, and he wanted offensive tackles who were athletic. After being a fifth-round pick out of Kansas in 1971, Brown played 14 seasons with the Steelers, the first seven at tight end and the last seven as a right tackle. Franco Harris ran for 1,000 yards in four of Brown’s seven seasons as the right tackle, and was 13 yards short in a fifth. The play of the Steelers tackles (Brown and Jon Kolb) vs. the Los Angeles Rams defensive ends (Fred Dryer and Jack Youngblood) was a critical part of Pittsburgh’s come-from-behind win in Super Bowl XIV. The only men in franchise history to play more seasons with the team than Brown’s 14 are Mike Webster and Ben Roethlisberger, both at 15, and Brown appeared in 167 career regular season games, with 121 of those being starts. Brown was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1982.

Bill Cowher
(1992-2006)
On Jan. 21, 1992, Bill Cowher became the 15th coach in Steelers history when he was hired to replace Chuck Noll as the second man to hold that job since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Dan Rooney’s search for Noll’s successor came down to two finalists, but he selected Cowher over Dave Wannstedt, a decision that yielded immediate dividends. In Cowher’s rookie season as coach, he took what had been a talented team that finished a disappointing 7-9 in 1991 and turned it into an 11-5 AFC Central Division champion that entered those playoffs as the AFC’s No. 1 seed. In Cowher’s 15 seasons as coach, the Steelers won eight division titles, made the playoffs 10 times during which they participated in 21 playoff games. Those 21 playoff games included six appearances in AFC Championship Games and two trips to the Super Bowl, in which the Steelers were 1-1. Cowher finished his career as one of only six coaches in NFL history with at least seven division titles, and he joined Paul Brown as the only coaches in history to take their teams to the playoffs in each of their first six years as coach.

Elbie Nickel
Tight End (1947-57)
It wasn’t called tight end when he played it, but Elbie Nickel still played tight end better than anybody in Steelers’ history not named Heath Miller. Nickel, drafted in the 15th round in 1947, finished his career with 329 receptions for 5,131 yards, both of which still are seventh on the team’s all-time lists. He also hauled in 37 career touchdowns, which is the eighth-highest total in team history. Nickel led the NFL in yards per catch with a 24.3 average in 1949, but his best season was in 1952 when he posted 55 receptions for 884 yards and nine touchdowns, all of which were Steelers’ records at the time. In that 1952 season, the Steelers as a team completed 167 passes for 2,504 yards and 21 touchdowns, which means Nickel caught 32.9 percent of the passes for 35 percent of the receiving yards for 42.9 percent of the receiving touchdowns. Nickel finished in the top 10 in the NFL in receptions in both 1952 (second) and 1953 (third); in the top 10 in the NFL in receiving yards in 1949 (eighth), 1952 (sixth), and 1953 (seventh); and in the top 10 in the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 1952 (fourth) and 1956 (seventh.

Hines Ward
Wide Receiver (1998-2011)
The great players always find something that motivates them, and for Hines Ward what motivated him was a sense that he was being disrespected. A third-round selection in 1998 (92nd overall) after a career as a “slash” at the University of Georgia, Ward saw the Steelers spend No. 1 picks on receivers in both 1999 and 2000, but Ward made himself into a starting receiver, then one of the most productive receivers in the NFL, and by the time he retired after the 2011 season he was the most productive receiver in Steelers history. Ward still sits atop the Steelers all-time lists in catches with 1,000, in yards with 12,083, and in receiving touchdowns with 85. He was voted to four Pro Bowls for his work during the regular season, and as a guy who had another 88 receptions for 1,181 yards and 10 touchdowns in 18 playoff games he added a Super Bowl MVP award for his contributions to the Steelers 21-10 victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XL. But in addition to his statistical production as a receiver, Ward also played the position like no one else in the NFL during his tenure. Simply put, Ward often treated defensive players the way defensive players commonly treated receivers, and he was such a physical and enthusiastic blocker that a rule eventually was passed by the league to prohibit the kind of block Ward used to break Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers’ jaw.

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