As I continue to provide you with the greatest players at every jersey number in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, we start getting a little defensive.
In football, the higher the uniform number is usually means we’re discussing players that man the defensive line or linebacker positions. With so many great defensive players throughout their history, there will be numbers in part three of this four-part series that will have one player standing above and beyond any other man to wear that jersey number.
Let’s get started.
We start with the first number over 50, one representing some very good linebackers that once wore the Black and Gold.
Back in 1973, the Steelers brought in Loren Toews. Lost in a sea of amazing defensive players, Toews made the most of his playing time and probably could have been a starter elsewhere. Carlos Emmons was effective at the position for several years in the 90s. And if not for injuries, perhaps more recently Sean Spence would have been more of an impact player.
But the man taking the prize at No. 51 was a former New York Jet who came to the Steelers and became a tackling machine. That would be James Farrior.
Does it matter that anyone else has worn this number when “Iron Mike” Webster, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and perhaps the greatest center in the history of the NFL bore No. 52? It’s Webbie all day.
From one center at No. 52 to another great who is still snapping the ball. Maurkice Pouncey has been one of the best centers in the league since being drafted by the Steelers.
While Clark Haggans also wore the number and had a long career (eight seasons), Bryan Hinkle was another linebacker that starred in the middle of Pittsburgh defenses in the 1980s and early 90s.
Dennis “Dirt” Winston wore two numbers in his career—53 and 55—and was a solid linebacker. Hinkle may deserve serious consideration for being named best ever at No. 53, but the nod goes to Pouncey here.
No. 54 in Steelers history shows that there have been a handful of players to make their mark.
It begins with Hardy Nickerson, a fantastic linebacker taking the field for the Black and Gold from 1987-1992.
Special teams players don’t get much attention, but before current long snapper Greg Warren came along, Mike Schneck was one of the best in the business while sporting No. 54.
Other recognizable and memorable names with these digits were Donta Jones, Craig Bingham and Marv Kellum. However, Nickerson is the easy choice here.
Recently, Joey Porter—linebackers coach for the Steelers—found himself in legal trouble following Pittsburgh’s postseason victory over the Miami Dolphins. But as a linebacker for the Steelers, Porter was one of the best.
Playing the same position was Jerry Olsavsky from 1990-1997. Like Porter, he is currently on the staff as a coach. Unlike Porter, Olsavsky was unable to cement a starting position.
On the offensive side, Jon Kolb was a vital part of the greatest offensive line that played together during the dynasty years of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. The pick here will have to be offensive despite the challenge of Porter, which means Jon Kolb becomes the best ever at No. 55.
Five names stand out here. LaMarr Woodley, Chukky Okobi, Mike Vrabel, Robin Cole, and Ray Mansfield. “The Ranger” Ray Mansfield loved the outdoors, and that is where he tragically lost his life. It was 1996 and at the age of 55 while hiking with his son in the Grand Canyon, he died of a fatal heart attack.
Robin Cole was a solid linebacker for the Steelers and for Mike Vrabel, unable to land a starting job at linebacker for Pittsburgh, he left the Steelers for the New England Patriots —ultimately finding much more success.
LaMarr Woodley got his career off to a fast start with Pittsburgh only to end up leaving for the Oakland Raiders after injuries would hamper his career in Black and Gold. Chukky Okobi played for a few years and after retiring from football, purchased a bed and breakfast in Pittsburgh.
But for the purpose of this article, the best No. 56 ever goes to “The Ranger”. Mansfield was the first in a long line of centers who stayed at that position for long tenures. Mansfield gave way to Mike Webster, who would give way to Dermontti Dawson, who would ultimately give way to Maurkice Pouncey.
When you think of No. 57 for the Steelers, you may remember linebacker Mike Merriweather, who was outstanding in Black and Gold. Giving him a run for best all-time at the number would be offensive lineman Sam Davis, a vital part of the Steelers’ dynasty during the 1970s.
But Merriweather is the pick here based on his athleticism. He was simply a great linebacker for a team that specialized at that position.
No-brainer 100 times over. Jack Lambert.
See Jack Lambert above, but replace with Jack Ham. Back-to-back Jacks.
A special-teamer gets special recognition at No. 60. Greg Warren is the Steelers outstanding long snapper. While Brian Blankenship made some solid contributions at linebacker, Warren was a more vital player and did his job at a high rate.
The pickings are slim here, but rising above the rest is Tyrone McGriff—who played three seasons with the Steelers—and Brian Stenger, a very solid player who played for the Steelers too soon from 1969 to 1973—mostly as a backup—but a quality player who wasn’t around long enough to be part of any Super Bowl teams of that era.
Therefore, this choice is a tie.
The man that takes No.62 all-time may not get the recognition he deserves, and may very well be underrated. Tunch Ilkin played on the offensive line for the Steelers from 1980-1992 and was simply outstanding. No other player comes close to deserving the nod here.
Any member of the Steelers that lands in the Pro Football Hall of Fame will most likely be the best player that wears their respective uniform number. That is certainly the case here, as Dermontti Dawson wore it proudly from 1988 to 2000. Before Dawson became a great center for Pittsburgh he was preceded by Mike Webster. And before that, Ray Mansfield.
Like the head coaches of the Steelers since 1969, the position of center has been an area of stability. Since 1969, four centers have stood out with little lapse in between. They were Mansfield, Webster, Dawson, and these days, Maurkice Pouncey.
Honorable mention here needs to go to the zany Ernie Holmes, part of Pittsburgh’s infamous “Steel Curtain.”
Some very good players wore the next number, including Doug Legursky—an interim center before Pouncey came along—Jeff Hartings, a very good nose tackle in Edmund Nelson, and a solid journeyman named Chuck Hinton.
But the best at No. 64 goes to defensive lineman Steve Furness, a member of Pittsburgh’s four Super Bowl teams. An excellent defender, Furness tragically passed away on February 9, 2000 of a heart attack at the tender age of just 49.
Missing out on this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame class was former Steelers guard Alan Faneca. Many believe Faneca belongs. I am one of those, and until he makes it inside the hallowed halls of Canton, he will be remembered here as the best player to ever wear No. 65 for the Steelers.
However, right on Faneca’s tail are two excellent offensive linemen and two very good defensive players. They are John Jackson and Ray Pinney on offense and Tom Beasley and Lloyd Voss on defense.
Current Steeler David DeCastro is well on his way to an All-Pro career as he takes the field each Sunday wearing No. 66. For Alan Faneca mentioned above, he too wore this number (as well as 65).
Back during their dynasty years in the 1970s, it was said the Steelers had 22 Pro Bowl players on the field all at once. The fact is, behind those 22 starters, there were many more men who probably and easily could’ve been starters elsewhere. Their depth was immense. Jersey No. 66 is a good example with players like Bruce Van Dyke and Ted Petersen from that era.
Given the progress of DeCastro’s career thus far and to spare Alan Faneca from being named twice, we’ll give this one to DeCastro.
Here’s a little-known fact about former Steeler Kimo von Oelhoffen, who might be better known for injuring the knee of Cincinnati Bengals quarter Carson Palmer in a playoff game years ago. Oelhoffen used to drink pickle juice to replenish nutrients in his body.
Aside from those tidbits, the ex-defensive lineman also wore No. 67 for the Steelers. While we seek the best player at this number, it’s worth mentioning the WORST player sporting this one would easily be a former overall number one draft pick: Jamain Stephens.
Picking a player for this number would boil down to either Duval Love or Gary Dunn. Like Tunch Ilkin before, Dunn was underrated and a very good defensive lineman. With that said, he takes home the honor of best ever at No. 67
As Alan Faneca waits to get his yellow jacket, the late L.C. Greenwood never received his despite being one of the best defensive linemen of his time. Brenden Stai shared the number and was a vital part of Pittsburgh’s offensive line in the 1990s, but this pick is easy with “Hollywood Bags” taking home the honor.
The number 69 carries a tragic event relating to a Steelers player who wore the number. Gabe Rivera was a first-round selection by Pittsburgh in 1983. After an outstanding career at Texas Tech University, where he was known as “Senior Sack,” Rivera had a terrible car accident in the North Hills section of Pittsburgh during his rookie campaign. The accident would leave him paralyzed and his football career came to an immediate end. Still, Rivera was inducted into College Hall of Fame five years ago.
Since Rivera’s full potential can never be found out, the nod goes to Ariel Solomon—a fine offensive lineman for the Steelers for five seasons—beginning with his rookie campaign in 1991 as a 10th-round draft selection from the University of Colorado.
Another Hall of Famer, another easy pick. In fact, Pittsburgh has just two retired uniform numbers. One of them is No. 70 that belonged the late, great Ernie Stautner. Unfortunately for Stautner, he played during the lean years for the Steelers, from 1951 to 1963, but became one of the toughest, grittiest and meanest players in the NFL before “Mean Joe” Greene came along.
Another member of the 1970s Steelers takes home No. 71 honors. That man is Gordon Gravelle, more of a finesse offensive lineman rather than the brute force style of the men around him like Mike Webster and Jon Kolb. Gravelle excelled at the position despite being on the squad for just five seasons from 1972-1976.
He would finish his career with the New York Giants and the Los Angeles Rams, coincidentally the team Pittsburgh won their fourth Super Bowl against in Gravelle’s only season there (1979). For his career, Gravelle appeared in 96 games and started 68.
Two offensive linemen battle for the top spot here: Leon Searcy (92-95) and Gerry Mullins (71-79).
“Moon” as Mullins was nicknamed—reportedly after a cartoon character—will be the choice here. Why? Because his entire career was with the Steelers. Whereas Searcy, while a great player, left for greener pastures.
Side note: Joe Greene wore this number for one season in his rookie year before switching to the number he made so famous.
The Steelers have suffered many tragedies of players who suited up for them throughout the years. We add to that list at No. 73 with the passing of Justin Strzelczyk, who became one of the best offensive lineman of the 1990s. But in 2004 at the age of 36, six years after retiring from football, Strzelczyk was scheduled to appear at a fundraiser in Orchard Park, New York. He left home with $2,600 in cash and a few crucifixes, but left his cell phone behind.
Driving 90 miles per hour, the former player led police on a chase which ended in a fiery crash when Strzelczyk slammed into a tank truck.
His autopsy revealed that he had suffered brain damage attributed to CTE. Looking back at this number, there’s a handful of players who could be named the best. They include current player Ramon Foster. There’s also Kendall Simmons. And, Craig Wolfley, who teamed with Tunch Ilkin. We can’t forget Ray Mansfield either.
So who was the best all-around player of the bunch? It would probably have to go to the late Justin Strzelczyk.
As we near the end of this chapter, our next man follows in the footsteps of Justin Strzelczyk’s death with a self-inflicted one. One by a player who wore No. 74 for the Steelers from 1984-1991. Terry Long is also said to have suffered from CTE and less than a year after the crash of Strzelczyk, Long made his second attempt at suicide—this time seeing it through by drinking a gallon of antifreeze. Long was only 45.
Willie Colon was a “74” as was Ray Pinney and John Brown. As Colon and Long were good players, Ray Pinney started on the Steelers offensive line when needed. He did manage to start 81 of 125 games played and probably could’ve been a starter on other teams during his tenure.
What better way to end this chapter than to name not only the best player in Steelers’ history to wear this number, but one considered by most as the BEST player in the entire history of the franchise?
When drafted in the first round in 1969, new Steelers Head Coach Chuck Noll knew he had the cornerstone for his defense. He knew he had a fantastic building block for a dynasty when he picked “Mean” Joe Greene.
Greene became the scariest, nastiest, meanest and most dominating defensive end in the NFL. And, absolutely terrorized opposing offenses—especially quarterbacks. Along the way, he made one of the most famous and favorite commercials in history by drinking a Coca-Cola and throwing his jersey to a small boy.
A Pro Football Hall of Famer, Greene remains the only surviving member of the famed “Steel Curtain.”