Labriola On

Labriola on the HOH Class of 2020

Ready or not, here it comes:

• One week ago, the Steelers announced the five-player Class of 2020 for induction into the Hall of Honor. The unique things about this group was that it was the first one to contain only players, and the first one to be made up solely of defensive players. If I had to use a word or phrase to explain what special quality each player had that made him deserving of a spot in the Hall of Honor, I would go with these:

• Dwight White – desire.
• Mike Wagner – selfless.
• Troy Polamalu – dynamic.
• James Farrior – poise.
• Greg Lloyd – demeanor.

• I make no claims that the qualities identified here are the definitive reasons why each of these players occupies a special place in franchise history, but they are the qualities that speak to me when these men come to mind.

DESIRE
• White's desire never was more apparent than it was on the occasion of Super Bowl IX, the biggest game in franchise history and one played at the end of a week he spent in a New Orleans hospital with pneumonia and pleurisy. And let me clue you in on pleurisy: According to mayoclinic.org, the symptoms of pleurisy might include "chest pain that worsens when you breathe, cough or sneeze; shortness of breath — because you are trying to minimize breathing in and out. Pain caused by pleurisy might worsen with movement of your upper body and can radiate to your shoulders or back."

• Remember that when White went into the hospital, the Steelers still were a franchise that had won squat during their previous 42 seasons in the NFL. To be completely accurate, they had won a couple of division titles and a playoff game or two, but never a game that ended with a trophy presentation. (The Lamar Hunt Trophy for winning the AFC didn't exist at the time.)

• Read those symptoms over once again, and imagine trying to play professional football with that disease. And re-read this sentence, too: "Pain caused by pleurisy might worsen with movement of your upper body and can radiate to your shoulders or back." Again, imagine trying to play professional football, and not as a punter or a placekicker or a backup, but a starting defensive end in an era when running the football was a two-of-every-three-down reality.

• The Steelers allowed White to check himself out of the hospital on game day and dress for the game and participate in warmups, because they figured his appearance would be ceremonial and nothing more. But White started at defensive end, and aware of his condition the Vikings went right at him.

• The Vikings were a running team anyway, and their first eight running plays of Super Bowl IX went right at his tried to run the ball against the Steelers, thinking they could go at White's side, and the first eight running plays went at White, the right defensive end. Those eight running plays netted zero yards, and White made three unassisted tackles. The tone was set, and the Vikings finished the game with only 17 rushing yards on 21 attempts.

• White finished the game second among Steelers defensive linemen in tackles – behind Ernie Holmes – and recorded the first points in Steelers Super Bowl history when he touched down Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton in the end zone for a safety.

SELFLESS
• The Steelers had won back-to-back Super Bowls to become one of just three teams to have done so, and Mike Wagner's selflessness showed itself to a difference-making degree after the players had begun to enjoy the limelight and some of the other trappings of being one of the NFL's best teams on an annual basis.

• After a 1976 season in which the Steelers defense posted five shutouts and allowed only 28 points during a nine-game season-ending winning streak, eight players on the team's starting defensive unit were voted to the Pro Bowl, including both safeties – Glen Edwards and Mike Wagner. Still, when Coach Chuck Noll saw an opportunity to improve, he wasn't the type to allow convention to get in his way.

• Wagner picks up the narrative:

• "(Shell) even knocked two Pro Bowl safeties around at the beginning of the 1977 season," remembered Wagner. "We had some changes to the coaching staff the previous year at the assistant level, and (new defensive coordinator) Woody Widenhofer came to me at the beginning of the year and said, 'Mike, we're moving you over to free safety.' I kind of looked at him and said, 'I've been playing strong safety and been playing it pretty well, I thought.' He said, 'Well, we want to get Donnie into the lineup and see if he can play strong safety. We think free safety is more of a natural position for you, Mike, and it should extend your career. You won't have to make as many tackles.' I said, OK, whatever, but the open-ended question was, 'Well, what about Glen Edwards, who also had been in the Pro Bowl the year before and had been a great player for us?' That was never explained to me, but I just shrugged my shoulders, and said, OK.

• "In the third game of that (1977) season, I cracked a vertebrae and was out for the rest of the year. Donnie continued to play strong safety, and they put Glen Edwards back in at free safety. Donnie was a linebacker in college, and so he was used to being more physical and playing at the line of scrimmage. I have some videos from the 1970s that I still watch from time to time, and it's remarkable how many times during the telecast a broadcaster might be talking to the opposing coaches, and they always singled out Donnie as the real challenge, as the player in the back end who gives them the hardest time."

• When Wagner was asked to move from his spot to make room for a younger player, he had 26 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries for 37 takeaways in 79 games, plus fie more interceptions in the playoffs. The only defensive back close to those numbers was Mel Blount.

DYNAMIC
• It was the fourth quarter of the 2008 AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field, and most of the media assembled there would have agreed these were the two best teams in football that year. The Steelers had a 16-14 lead in the game, but since their offense seemed to be done for the day, and because the Ravens had just scored a touchdown to make it a 2-point game, the living-in-their-fears observers could envision a 17-16 final.

• There was 6:50 remaining and the Ravens had a first-and-10 from their 14-yard line following a Mitch Berger punt. Joe Flacco's 20-yard completion to tight end Todd Heap had given the Ravens one first down, but a second-down sack by LaMarr Woodley put Baltimore in a third-and-13 hole from their 29-yard line. Flacco had been looking less like the rookie he was as the game progressed, but at this moment he committed the ultimate rookie mistake. He lost sight of Troy Polamalu.

• Flacco got the ball out quickly on third-and-13, a pass to the right for Derrick Mason that he likely believed would keep the drive alive by giving the receiver a chance to run for the first down following the catch. But the ball never got to Mason, because Polamalu appeared from somewhere closer to the middle of the field and went high in the air to make the interception. And when he came down with the ball securely in his hands, Polamalu set off on a roundabout journey to the end zone. Starting to the right, then reversing his field around to the left, and then cutting up the field, Polamalu ran here, there, everywhere until he crossed the goal line with the game-clinching, conference-championship-clinching pick-six as 65,350 fans rocked Heinz Field to its foundation.

• "I was watching a clip of Troy the other day, and I turned it off so quickly, so quickly," said former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, "because it did not end well for us, and I haven't been the same since. Because when you're watching the (quarterback), you're asking yourself, 'Are you not looking at probably the best player on that team, like right now?' You have to locate Troy Polamalu. Just his ability to change games, and I always used to say that the greatest ones find a way to change the game in the course of a game. Where Troy and Ed (Reed) are very similar is that the game can be just going along, and then like we have many times in our rivalry, we watch Troy change the game. And even though I hated it, I had to respect it. When you talk about why the Hall of Fame for Troy, there are many kids, there are many people who play this game who will hope one day that they have the humility and the passion to play the game like Troy Polamalu played the game."

POISE
• There were 80 seconds left on the clock inside the RCA Dome, and the party already had started. Started prematurely as it turned out, but at that moment it seemed completely appropriate. The Steelers had a 21-18 lead over the No. 1 seeded, 14-2, Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Round of the 2005 AFC Playoffs. And more significantly to the partiers, they also had the football at the Colts 2-yard line.

• In homes and bars and anywhere groups of the team's fans had gathered to watch the game, even in the visiting team radio booth adjacent to the RCA Dome Press Box, the celebration had begun. The Steelers had pulled off a major upset and were going to advance to the AFC Championship Game to face the Broncos the following weekend in Denver, and all of a sudden they were looking very much like the favorite to represent their conference in the Super Bowl.

• On the Steelers sideline, it wasn't so much a celebration as a sense of satisfaction. The regular season defeat had been avenged. The dragon had been slayed. They were one step closer to the Super Bowl, and the step they had just taken universally was considered the biggest and most difficult of their journey.

• But in the next 19 seconds, everything changed. EVERYTHING.

• Jerome Bettis fumbled. Nick Harper recovered the ball on the move and seemingly had a clear path to the end zone and a go-ahead touchdown. The feelings of disbelief mixed with waves of nausea as this horror story unfolded awakened the SRO crowd inside the RCA Dome, which roared its approval. In a display of athleticism few quarterbacks could duplicate, Ben Roethlisberger somehow got Harper on the ground at the Indianapolis 42-yard line. But Peyton Manning had 61 seconds and three timeouts to make something happen.

• Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was in the middle of it all and was taken along for the ride on the wave of emotion sweeping though the Steelers bench area. The incredible high of his defense turning the ball over on downs at the Indianapolis 2-yard line, the feeling of accomplishment and near euphoria of the job the defense had done on this high-powered offense all afternoon, only to have it all washed away by a sick feeling at seeing the ball bouncing on the turf, and then have the realization of the enormity of the challenge now facing his defense dropped on his head like a ton of bricks.

• LeBeau remembered it all, and as he recalled those moments, he said he took just a moment to gather himself, and when he turned back to look out onto the playing field James Farrior was standing right in front of him and was buckling his chinstrap. LeBeau said he saw nothing but cool and calm on Farrior's face, whose only words were, "What's the call (for first down)?" And after LeBeau told him what he needed to know, Farrior turned and went onto the field, gathered the defense around him, and went back to work.

DEMEANOR
• The T-shirt said it all. The one Greg Lloyd wore every day under his shoulder pads. It was gray, with a skull & crossbones on the front, with this message on the back: "I wasn't hired for my disposition."

• Jerry Olsavsky is the Steelers' inside linebackers coach, and he played that position for the team during Lloyd's career as its right outside linebacker. Olsavsky, a 10th-round draft pick from Pitt, was able to work his way into the starting lineup alongside Lloyd, himself a sixth-round pick from Fort Valley State. In one of his first games as a starter, Olsavsky recalled a play in which the opposing running back tried to turn the corner and get up the sideline in front of the Steelers bench. Olsavsky was in on the tackle for little to no gain and was juiced up as a result. He bounced up and extended a hand to help the Browns running back to his feet. Lloyd, who also was in the area, slapped Olsavsky's hand away and snarled at him, "We don't do that %$#@ here."

• Greg Lloyd set a tone in every game he ever played for the Steelers, maybe none as remarkable as the 1993 season finale against the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers needed a victory in that game to claim a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, and they were trailing, 9-3, at halftime when Lloyd decided he had seen enough.

• In the locker room at halftime, Lloyd spoke some truths to his teammates, with some of his most pointed comments being directed to the offensive players, and he was said to have punctuated his comments by forcefully moving some furniture around. Lloyd was playing with a torn hamstring, he already had run down Eric Metcalf from behind to save a touchdown, and he just didn't believe the offense was pulling its weight.

• Lloyd then went out in the second half and backed up his mouth. In the third quarter, he sacked Vinny Testaverde and caused a fumble that Joel Steed recovered to set up a field goal. And then in the fourth quarter, he stripped running back Leroy Hoard, and Kevin Greene recovered that fumble to set up another field goal. And in both instances, the Browns were in scoring territory when Lloyd caused those turnovers in a game the Steelers would win, 16-9.

• After the game, Coach Bill Cowher said, "Greg's an emotional football player and when he's out there he's very, very competitive and he plays with a lot of fire, a lot of desire. He makes things happen. He's a good football player. I don't think anyone here can underestimate his value to us. He was surely needed today."

• Needed on the field and in the locker room. And Lloyd's session with the media at his locker after the game was a classic.

• "Coach Cowher always says," Lloyd began, "if you don't have nothing positive to say, don't say nothing. But I thought it was time to step up and tell it like it is. Some things you can't candy-coat. But when you're getting your butts kicked each week, then the message has to be sent. The defense can't win every game. Some guys on offense have to step it up and if they don't like me saying it, tough. This should have been said nine weeks ago, and maybe we wouldn't have to be waiting for other teams to put us in the playoffs."

• Q. What did you say to the offense at halftime?

• "If you aren't ready to go out there and play and you're just gonna sit back and rely on us (defense) to win this game, don't even go back out there. I ain't ready to go home and call it a season."

• Q. Greg, at any point when you were saying those things, did you worry about what your teammates thought of that?

• "Ain't too many $%&#@ in here want to $%&@ with me."

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