In Part I of this four-part series, the best players for the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout their storied history were reviewed based on what jersey number they wore.
Covered in the opening were numbers 1-25. Now we turn our attention to the next 25, from 26 through 50.
This number is so easy. Say “26” and Hall of Famer Rod Woodson immediately comes to mind. One of the best corners in Steelers history, only Mel Blount may have been better. Some very good players have also shared this number. Players such as Deshea Townsend, Preston Pearson, and for those unaware, Rocky Bleier had No. 26 on his back for one season in 1968. But this is a no-brainer. It’s Woodson.
Another handful of solid options, but the choice here goes back to the dynasty of the 1970s and finds Glen Edwards. Edwards was an underrated safety who had the unfortunate experience of playing behind some amazing defensive players. But he held his own, and fends off consideration from Willie Williams, Brent Alexander, Thomas Everett, Greg Hawthorne, and current offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s father Dick, who played for Pittsburgh from 1961 to 1964.
Seeing this number throughout Steelers history does not bring back great memories. There have been no HOFers to wear this jersey. But the digits have been tossed around and worn plenty. Picking the best No. 28 probably boils down to a choice between current rising star Sean Davis or another solid safety who liked to hit. His name was Chris Hope. Because Davis is only in his rookie campaign, the pick is Hope.
Two outstanding players immediately come to mind at No. 29. But Barry Foster has to be the choice. After all, he remains the all-time Steelers leader for single season rushing yards (1,690 in 1992). Foster’s NFL career was short—just five seasons—all with Pittsburgh. Because of injuries and the emergence of Bam Morris, the Steelers cut him after the 1994 season. Then, he failed a physical in trying to suit up for the Carolina Panthers.
Foster made one last attempt with the Cincinnati Bengals but quit after one day as he said he simply did not have it anymore. But as a Steeler, he was outstanding. Over five years, Foster averaged nearly 790 yards per season, adding 26 touchdowns. He also caught 93 passes for 804 yards. Ron Johnson was another fine player to wear No. 29, but for the purpose of this article, Foster is the choice.
As he is thought of now, it is hoped by Steelers coaches and management that 2016’s top draft pick Artie Burns will be the next great cornerback to wear the Black and Gold. That was also the case with Chad Scott in 1997 when he too was a No. 1 pick. Burns does not wear No. 30, but Scott did. However, Scott is not the best Steeler ever to don that number.
That honor goes to Frank Pollard. Pollard was a big bruising back who played from 1983-1988. At 5’10”, Pollard was a tough man to tackle. His best season came in 1985 when he gained 991 yards rushing. But his career rushing average of 4.2 YPC was very respectable. And, he added 20 touchdowns over nine years—all with the Steelers. A little known fact about Frank Pollard:
In Sports Illustrated’s famous “Faces in the Crowd” section, Pollard was featured on June 14, 1976 after starring in the 1976 Texas State Track Championships. What SI wrote was:
“Frank Pollard Jr., 19, a senior at Meridian High, a class B school, became the highest scorer in the history of the Texas High School track meet, winning the discus (154’9″), the shot (56’3″), the 100 (9.9) and the 220 (21.8). His sprint-relay team also placed fourth.”
“The Torpedo” is the greatest option here, no question. That would be Donnie Shell, who should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame—just as many of his 1970s teammates are. In a nut-Shell, no others can really be considered.
There are certain numbers worn by Steelers players since 1933 that when deciding who was the best, you just say: “PLEASE.” That’s the case at No. 32, an obvious pick. Not only is Franco Harris statistically the best rusher in Steelers history, he’s a Hall of Famer. And, owns multiple Super Bowl victories, one of which he was MVP in. Truth is, there were only 10 players before Harris that even wore his number. Not one of them, with the exception of Joe Womack (1962-1963), lasted more than one season in the ‘Burgh.
At double-three, there have been quite a few notable players. Most of them have been runners and it begins with John “Frenchy” Fuqua, who came to the Steelers from the New York Giants in 1970. Ever heard “Hey Diddle Diddle, Rogel Up the Middle?” That was No. 33 Fran Rogel, who from 1954-1957 was Pittsburgh’s leading rusher. And on EVERY single first play of the game with the exception of one, the call was a hand-off to Rogel who ran right into the gut of opposing defenses.
Bam Morris if not for his drug problem, wore the number and could have probably become one of Pittsburgh’s best runners ever. Merril Hoge was another great back from 1987-1993. Richard Huntley gave us some good numbers following the departure of Morris. So did Isaac Redman. There were many more 33s, and picking one is a bit tough. But given his colorful character and athletic abilities, as well as being the intended target on the infamous “Immaculate Reception”, John “Frenchy” Fuqua and his goldfish-filled heeled shoes gets the nod.
These days, you will not find a linebacker in the NFL that wears a number as low as 34. But from 1966 until he retired exactly 10 years later, that is just what Andy Russell did. Like his teammate Donnie Shell, Russell won’t be entering the hallowed halls of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio anytime soon. But Russell paired well with Jack Ham using a similar style of football. Smart, efficient, great tackler. All heart.
Nowadays, No. 34 is related to offensive players. And the Steelers have had several putting the number on. DeAngelo Williams wears it today. Rashard Mendenhall did from 2008 until he left for the Arizona Cardinals in 2012. Another very good runner wearing No. 33 was Verron Haynes. Not to mention the bus driver for Jerome Bettis, Tim Lester.
In the 1980s, the Steelers backfield was manned by No. 34, Walter Abercrombie. So who would be the best ever? It’s a tough choice, but Andy Russell is deserving.
A running back and fullback wore No. 35 at one time in Steelers history. The fullback was a fine one in Dan Kreider. But the running back was a great one. A bruising runner, John Henry Johnson was one of Pittsburgh’s best ever. Delton Hall played defense in the late 80s wearing this number. And who can forget Jack “Hydroplane” Deloplaine? But this pick is easy. John Henry Johnson.
Get on the bus! Jerome Bettis drives away at No. 36. Another Hall of Famer, the second-leading rusher in Steelers’ history, and a fan favorite. The Bus gets the nod in a landslide. There isn’t another player even worthy of consideration.
Another unanimous decision falls on this number with the choice of Carnell Lake. One of the finest defensive backs in Steelers’ history, Lake is now on the coaching staff of the team he made so many great plays for. Again, there are very few others to even consider.
Only about a dozen players have worn this on their back while playing for Pittsburgh. Fans used to love the style of play that fullback Jon Witman brought to the field. Tim Worley donned the number but failed to have a stellar career. Sidney Thornton was a big bruising back as well. Ed Bradley played when linebackers wore lower numbers and was an excellent backup to some great men in front of him from 1972-1975. The pick here is a difficult one, but I would have to go with Sidney Thornton based on the impact he had on teams he played with from 1977-1981.
The most exciting player in Pittsburgh Steelers history might very well be “Fast” Willie Parker. His career was not long in the backfield for the Black and Gold, but it had some great moments. Including the longest touchdown run from scrimmage in a Super Bowl against Seattle in Super Bowl XL. That 75-yard romp put Parker in the record books. Aside from Willie, Darren Perry—who played for the Steelers in the secondary—was a very solid safety. Rick Moser, a decent backup running back, bore the number as well. If not for Willie Parker, the “old man”—punter Bobby Walden—would have been named best player ever at this number.
The pick is Myron Bell, the only player to wear this number for Pittsburgh for more than two seasons. Bell was a very good, hard-hitting safety.
Playing alongside Myron Bell for a time was another hard-hitter in Lee Flowers. Flowers is also remembered for his trash-talking. He and Joey Porter led the league in smack talk for several years. Fans also enjoyed watching and hearing Flowers, making him the choice for best ever at No. 41.
In MLB, nobody is permitted to wear the number belonging to the great Jackie Robinson. In Steelers lore, this number was worn by many. But it really stood out when players like Warren Williams wore it from 1988-1992. And even more so when long-time running backs coach Dick Hoak bore the number from 1961-1970. Hoak would retire with 3,965 yards rushing and 25 scores. He was a Pro-Bowl player once, and to this day ranks fifth on the Steelers list for all-time rushers. He gets the nod.
With this, another easy pick. Frank Lewis was a respectable receiver in the 1970s, but come on… it’s Troy Polamalu. Certainly to be considered a HoF candidate one day, Polamalu at the peak of his career was the best strong safety in football. Often called the “Tazmanian Devil,” he was also one of the good guys. A gentleman on and off the field.
Sporting double-fours was little know D.J. Johnson, playing in Pittsburgh from 1989-1993 at corner. Aside from him, only Frank Pollard—who wore the number for three seasons—is worthy of consideration. Based on stats, the nod goes to Johnson. Barely.
Who can ever forget Chris Fuamatu-Maʻafala? Or just trying to pronounce his name correctly. The late great Myron Cope made it easy on everyone, referring to the massive running back as “Fu.” Jim Allen was a part of the amazing 1974 Steelers draft class that saw four players become Hall of Fame inductees. But while Allen was a decent cornerback, Fu takes the honors.
Two backs that played in nearly consecutive years get consideration here. Warren Bankston arrived in Pittsburgh in 1969, Chuck Noll’s first season, as the team finished 1-13. Bankston would remain a part of the backfield until 1973. And the following season, a big back named Reggie Harrison came along. Harrison was part of several Super Bowl teams, including Super Bowl X, when he had a key blocked punt. And for that, he’s the pick.
Some jersey numbers in the history of the Steelers are just plain easy to put a name to. This is the case here once again. By a landslide, Mel Blount takes the honor.
The only one to consider here is based on tenure. Matt Cushing would put on the number for five seasons from 2000-2004. A decent tight end, Cushing was also an undrafted free agent. And, also served time playing fullback. Maybe one day, Bud Dupree will be spoken of as the best to ever wear No. 48.
Similar to the great Byron “Whizzer” White—who became a Supreme Court Justice after his playing days with the Pittsburgh Steelers—is Dwayne Woodruff, who is now a judge in Pittsburgh’s judicial system. As a player Woodruff was a very good one, playing from 1979 to his retirement in 1990. He was the team MVP in 1982 and a member of the team that won Super Bowl XIV. Over the course of his career, he accumulated 37 interceptions. Honorable mention goes to Lynn Chandnois.
This chapter concludes with what has been a very popular number. One worn mostly by linebackers. Currently, Ryan Shazier is taking the field with No. 50 and when avoiding injury, is a very good linebacker. Choosing the best ever has several names to consider.
Larry Foote (2002-08, 2010-12). Earl Holmes (1996-2001). David Little (1980-1992). Jim Clack (1969-1977). And, John Reger (1955-1963).
Little’s story may be the most tragic. At just age 46, Little was at home in Miami on March 17, 2005 when during a weight-lifting session which he was doing on his own, the 250-pound bench press bar he was hoisting fell on his chest after Little suffered a heart attack. The bar suffocated Little with no one around to help. His brother Larry is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Larry Foote was one of the steadiest linebackers to ever play for Pittsburgh. Earl Holmes was a tough-nosed linebacker who was a great tackler. Jim Clack was a very good offensive lineman. And in Reger was another linebacker who unfortunately played in some of the Steelers’ lean years.
Tough pick here, but by a slim margin it is Larry Foote. Come back next time for numbers 51 through 75.
For more from Harv Aronson, visit his website.