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Why they belong in the Hall of Honor

LATROBE, Pa. – It’s still very much a process dominated by “when” rather than “if.”

The Steelers announced their Hall of Honor Class of 2019 at the Rogers Center on the campus of Saint Vincent College today, and there should be little argument that Larry Brown, Bill Cowher, Elbie Nickel, and Hines Ward all are deserving of inclusion. That meant the main work of the committee came down to deciding this was their time.

One of the NFL’s storied franchises, the Steelers will be entering their 87th season, and as evidence of their status only the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers have had more members inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame than the Steelers’ 23. The addition of these four worthy candidates raises the number of Steelers recognized in the Hall of Honor at 36.

What follows is a breakdown of the careers of each of the four new members of the Hall of Honor:

LARRY BROWN (1971-84)
It can be viewed as a commentary of what Chuck Noll valued in the kinds of players he wanted at both positions. At tight end, Noll wanted players who were physical and willing blockers, and at offensive tackle he wanted players who were athletic enough and could move well enough to execute the trap-blocking scheme that was a staple of the Steelers running game.

Larry Brown gave Noll what he wanted at both positions, and Brown did it so well for so long that both Noll and Jack Ham named him when asked to identify the most underrated player from those four Super Bowl teams from the 1970s.

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 of 1,000 in a fifth.

In Super Bowl IX, after spending most of the game helping Harris rush for a then-record 158 yards on 34 carries (4.6 average) to go along with the game’s first touchdown, Brown caught a 4-yard bullet from Terry Bradshaw in the end zone for the touchdown that gave the Steelers some breathing room in the form of a 16-6 lead with 3:31 remaining in the game.

Then in Super Bowl XIV, the play of the Steelers tackles (Brown and Jon Kolb) vs. Los Angeles Rams defensive ends (Fred Dryer and Jack Youngblood) was a critical part of Pittsburgh’s come-from-behind win in that game. 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)
Of course, he is remembered as the coach who followed Chuck Noll, as the born-and-raised within a 10-minute drive from Three Rivers Stadium who went on to coach his hometown team, as the man who coached the Steelers to their fifth Super Bowl championship, and as the quintessential Pittsburgh guy who wore his emotions on his sleeve. But Bill Cowher also contributed something else of significance to Western Pennsylvania and the rabid sports fans who live there.

He brought the excitement of NFL playoff football back to Pittsburgh. And on a regular basis.

During Cowher’s inaugural season of 1992, the Steelers posted an 11-5 record and won the AFC Central Division while earning the conference’s top seed for the playoffs, which meant a postseason game in Pittsburgh for the first time since the strike-shortened season of 1982. Starting with 1992, playoff games at home became a rather regular occurrence.

On Jan. 21, 1992, Cowher became the 15th coach in Steelers history when he was hired to replace Noll, and he became just 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 was validated almost instantly, and then for seasons to come.

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.

And of those 21 playoff games, 13 were played in Pittsburgh, six were road games, and the two Super Bowls were at neutral sites.

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 (1947-57)
Visitors to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex at first might not even notice it, hanging as it does on a wall high above the staircase that takes people from the first to the second floor. And while not as eye-catching or as recognizable as those six Lombardi Trophies lined up all in a row, it too is a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ rich history.

At first glance, it looks like a modern-art version of a football play, with the Xs and Os recreated on fabric, and this hand-made stitchery by Sally Anderson that was presented to the Pittsburgh Steelers upon their entry into Three Rivers Stadium in 1970 was so valued by Dan Rooney that it has occupied a place of honor at Three Rivers Stadium and then the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for 49 years. Today, with Elbie Nickel announced as part of the four-member Hall of Honor Class of 2019, there is a little extra meaning attached to the play depicted in Sally Anderson’s artistry.

At the end of its 1953 season, the National Football League crowned the Detroit Lions as its champions. The Pittsburgh Steelers finished that season at 6-6, and they had defeated the New York Giants twice, the Green Bay Packers once and had played the Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Browns tough at home before losing by four points. As a result, there was plenty of optimism in Pittsburgh for the 1954 pro football season.

The Steelers’ first four games of 1954 included a one-point win in Green Bay and the franchise’s first-ever win over the Cleveland Browns that drew a record 39,075 fans to Forbes Field. Next up for the 3-1 Steelers was a rematch against the Eagles, who were bringing their league-best 4-0 record to Forbes Field for a Saturday night game.

The Steelers held a 3-0 lead at halftime, and there seemed to be more blood on the field than there were points on the scoreboard. The second half offered more of the same until Pittsburgh faced a fourth-and-1 from the Philadelphia 40-yard line.

When Coach Walt Kielsing decided to go for the first down and sent fullback Jim “Popcorn” Brandt onto the field, the Eagles defense crowded the line of scrimmage. These teams looked to be preparing for war over this 1 yard of Forbes Field turf.

But the Steelers fooled everybody. Quarterback Jim Finks faked a hand-off to Brandt, and that allowed Elbie Nickel to slip behind the secondary. Finks threw the ball to Nickel, who raced 40 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 Steelers lead.

The momentum from the play carried the Steelers to a 17-7 win that day and they ended the day tied with the Eagles and New York Giants for first place in the Eastern Conference. The 1954 Steelers couldn’t maintain the momentum from that 4-1 start, but that play against the Eagles cemented Nickel’s status as a bonafide star of his time and is memorialized to this day.

Drafted in the 15th round in 1947, Nickel finished his career with 329 receptions for 5,131 yards, both of which still are seventh on the team’s all-time receiving 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).

The position Nickel played so well for so long might not have been called tight end during his era, but he still played tight end better than anybody in Steelers’ history not named Heath Miller.

HINES WARD (1998-2011)
More than the perpetual smile inside the helmet, more than the molar-rattling blocks he inflicted on defensive players, more than the contributions he made in Super Bowl XL that ended with him being voted the game’s MVP, even more than the numbers he posted and the place those numbers have allowed him to hold on the team’s all-time lists, this is what defined Hines Ward’s career with the Steelers.

Allow Ward to explain.

“As a third-rounder (in 1998), it’s not like I came out of college and everybody’s expectations were high. There was a lot of questioning going on, personally, if I could play in this league. I thought I was heading in the right direction. Then in the 2000 draft, they took Plaxico Burress and it was two years straight that we took a receiver in the first round. I took that as a sign of disrespect to me. The coaches didn’t come to me and tell me I was doing badly. I just took it as the organization not believing in me. As a young kid trying to prove myself, it was like me against everybody.”

Me against everybody.

That was the source of the fire Ward used throughout a career that finished with him sitting 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 also owns a couple of Super Bowl rings.

Ward was a fiery and intense player, but he also constantly wore a smile as he went about his business, and in many ways his was the business of being the most physically punishing receiver in football. Some opponents called him dirty, but Ward soon became an example for wide receivers at every level of football.

“He was always an example that you used in college,” said Randy Fichtner, who coached at Michigan, USC, and Memphis, among others, before joining the Steelers in 2007 and today is the team’s offensive coordinator. “You had some guys who wanted to be like him or someone else. It seemed like wherever I was, we had a receiver or two who wanted to be like him. That’s a good thing. Now that I’ve had a chance to work with him, I would tell all young receivers if they want to play the game and be the best and play it at its highest level, be like Hines.”

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