We’ve reached the team I have been following since becoming a football fan in 1972. There’s plenty of history with the Black and Gold since then and many great players that have come and gone. There are plenty before ‘72 as well but I was fortunate enough to witness some of the greatest players in Pittsburgh Steelers history. The thing about Pittsburgh is they have the reputation of digging deep in draft selections to find talent so some of their best players came from the second round and beyond. That’s not to say they have not had success with the first-round picks they’ve made as there are many who turned out to be great NFL players.
If you were unaware of who the Steelers drafted with their very first pick in 1936 it was William Shakespeare. No joke. Only he went By Bill. While it took 39 years for the Pittsburgh Steelers to become perennial winners, along that downtrodden path there were many great players. Byron “Whizzer” White came to the city of Pittsburgh in the first round of the 1938 draft. A few years later it was “Bullet” Bill Dudley. Lynn Chandois was an excellent draft pick in the first round of 1950’s draft. Future NFL coach Ted Marchibroda was a first-round-fifth pick quarterback by the Steelers in 1953.
The Steelers made a mistake of getting Johnny Unitas and letting him go but they also messed up on drafting Len Dawson in 1957 and not keeping him in Pittsburgh instead he went on to star in Kansas City. But it was 1969 and the hiring of legendary Chuck Noll that the tide began to turn. Noll used the first round of the draft and subsequent rounds to build a powerhouse team that would dominate the 1970s.
Noll’s first pick was a massive defensive lineman who fit the mold of his nickname, “Mean.” That would be Joe Greene who became the cornerstone of the amazing Pittsburgh defenses that began to build with Greene. Before forging ahead, I’d say that the best #1 pick the Steelers ever made would have to be Mean Joe Greene.
In 1970, the NFL’s first overall pick came down to either the Chicago Bears or Steelers and a coin toss was held between Chicago and Pittsburgh with Art Rooney St. Winning the flip and subsequently drafting Terry Bradshaw. If not for the correct coin toss call, the “Blonde Bomber” would have been a bear. The ball started rolling after those first two Noll drafts and he kept his cool despite Pittsburgh losing 13 of 14 games in 1969. The new head coach knew he was on the right track with his first two drafts. In 1971 it was wide receiver Frank Lewis followed by my first year as a fan at the age of 12 when Pittsburgh selected Franco Harris who as well know, would become super famous for his “Immaculate Reception” touchdown in the 1972 playoffs. Lynn Swann came in 1974 a draft that also brought Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster to the team all of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The incredible list of first-round picks that became outstanding players for the Steelers just goes on and on. Louis Lipps, Rod Woodson, Leon Searcy, Mark Bruener, Alan Faneca, Trou Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Santonio Holmes, Lawrence Timmons, Troy Polamalu, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, and T.J. Watt. Faneca just got voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Polamalu made it there last year, and Roethlisberger and Pouncey should be headed there five years after they retire.
Honorable Mentions: Felix “Doc” Blanchard (1946), Bobby Gage (1949), Bennie Cunningham (1976), Robin Cole (1977), Walter Abercrombie (1982), Eric Green (1990), Plaxico Burress (2000), Casey Hampton (2001), Cameron Heyward (2011)