´ Steel Curtain Rising: From Black to Gold: A Pittsburgh Steelers Transformation

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Monday, December 12, 2011

From Black to Gold: A Pittsburgh Steelers Transformation

From Black to Gold

The title feigns simplicity. At a glance one quickly concludes that Tim Gleason’s 260 page volume simply covers everything Steelers, from Black to Gold.

But From Black to Gold tells a more profound story, lending its title deeper significance.

Perhaps it’s appropriate then that I read the book on a trip to Uruguay that included a day in Piriapolis, the city founded by Francisco Piria the New World’s most famous Alchemist.

Why you ask?
  • Because medieval Alchemists sought to turn lead into gold.
While Gleason never mentions Alchemy, he might as well have, because one of the most remarkable transformations in sports history – the metamorphosis of the Pittsburgh Steelers from a 40 year perennial loser into North America’s most prestigious professional sports franchise is From Black to Gold’s tale.

He Knows Enough to Write a Book…

How often do we hear, “So-and-So knows enough to write a book…”? Perhaps no one ever told Gleason that, but he separated himself from the pack by having the guts to go out and self-publish his own book on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I first found Gleason’s work, under the pseudonym of Mary Rose, on Behind the Steel Curtain, one of the net’s best, if not simply the best fan-based Steelers sites (full disclosure, I am an occasional contributor to BTSC.)

Mary Rose first caught my attention with a retelling of the Rocky Blier story that was at once fresh and engaging. Since then he’s told and retold many stories of Steelers Nation in prose that always captivates.

If you seek an example look no futher than his article on the Immaculate Reception. All of us know the story, but the hair on everyone’s neck will stand straight up by the time you’re done with Gleason’s rendition.

The quality of Gleason’s writing in From Black to Gold is perhaps a smidge bit below the standard he sets for himself at Behind the Steel Curtain, but he did not alter his style explaining, “I only know how to write one way, so whatever and wherever I write, it’s pretty much the same style,” although he does concede that “There is a difference in the way you write based upon the subject matter.”

All of which simply means that prose of From Black to Gold is good or very good, and it is certainly well above the watered-down mushy middle schoolesque writing that plagues too many sports books.

Pittsburgh’s Story. The Steelers Story. Our Story.

The Pittsburgh Steelers count themselves as one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, anchored by a wide-spread and fiercely loyal fan base. Steelers Nation faces no shortage of reading material. A simple search for “Steelers Books” on Amazon.com brings back 468 results.
  • Storytellers have spun and re-spun the yarns that comprise the Steelers 79 years countless times.
Gleason follows in step, telling stories of World War II’s Stegals, Johnny Unitas getting cut, Jack Lambert’s confrontation with Chuck Noll over a short-lived health-food kick one summer at St. Vincents, and the all-important inclusion of Bill Nunn Sr. into the Steelers scouting department.
  • What then, sets From Black to Gold apart?
From Black to Gold stands apart from other Steelers literature because Tim Gleason narrates it with his own voice.

The first rule they teach in Journalism 101 is “Never Make Yourself Part of the Story.” Tim Gleason breaks this rule with relish throughout From Black to Gold.

Into each of the Steelers well-trod stories, Gleason weaves tales from his life, and that of his family. Don’t be fooled. Not all of these anecdotes end happily. In fact, one of the Steelers greatest moments, perhaps the franchise’s pivotal play, happened just two weeks after his family suffered a terrible tragedy.

But if you’re reading this, you’ll understand how that lends Gleason’s narrative both depth and authenticity. The Steelers hold great importance for all of us, and key moments in Steelers history not only remind us of our Beloved Black and Gold’s glories or failures but also serve as touchstones for remembering personal aspects of our lives that happened to coincide with events on the gridiron.

For example, Gleason shares how watching the late John Henry Johnson upset the mighty 1964 Cleveland Browns served as a key bonding moment between him and his father.

A generation later, he tells of how his daughter Mary Rose grew into a natural affinity for the Steelers, and he relives how watching the Steelers shocking upset of the Colts in the 2005 playoffs served as an important bonding moment between him and his daughter.

Such stories bring back my own memories, such as my 79 year old Argentine father-in-law staying up late in solidarity to watch Super Bowl XL, his first American football game. As nice as that was, it paled to the richness of enjoying the glory of Super Bowl XLIII in Buenos Aires with my Argentine wife. Likewise, the back injury my wife suffered while in Brazil during Super Bowl XLV left me with no need to be reminded that “it was just a football game.”

Fresh Insights Gleamed from Old Stories

From Black to Gold goes beyond simply repackaging the Steelers experience from Gleason’s view point. Very few will fail to learn something new while reading it.

Do you know why players like Len Dawson and Earle (Greasy) Neal get listed (in lower case letters) as part of the Steelers Hall of Fame contingent while Bobby Layne of Detroit Lions glory joins Joe Greene-John Stallworth et. al. in all upper case letters?

For decades I’d seen this in Steelers Media guides, and figured that some over zealous Steelers PR guy pulled a fast one by in claiming Layne was one of their own. Alas I was wrong, and I learned why reading Gleason’s book.

People under 40, such me, likely grew up needing to be convinced that the Steelers were atrocious during their first 4 decades. Could things have been different? Gleason convincingly making the case for a baker’s dozen of could have, would have, should have been history changers in a poignant chapter titled “If Only They Had Stayed.”

Everyone knows the story of Myron Cope’s Terrible Towel, and how proceeds of it sales benefit a home for the developmentally disabled in Western Pennsylvania. All of us have our superstitions about both how to use this talisman for greatest effect, as well as excusing it in the face of inconvenient truths.

But do you know why opposing players might really want to think twice about abusing the Terrible Towel? Gleason spins a yarn of players who’ve abused the golden towel at their own peril – the record is so consistent that it’s hard to write these off as mere coincidence.

Believe it or not, men whose names were not Noll, Cowher or Tomlin did once coach the Steelers. Gleason goes to the trouble of rating the seven of them who lasted more than a season – the only such rating I know of in existence.

Gleason devotes a chapter to stories on how he acquired a memorabilia/autograph collection that would be the envy of any Steelers fan. He’s got two Steelers helmets, one Black, one Gold, adorned by autographs of everyone from a member of the Steelers first squad in 1933 to players who started in Super Bowl XLV.

A Personal Primer on the Pittsburgh Steelers

From Black to Gold exemplifies the fact that you can tell a complete and compelling story in just a few words. Gleason begins his tale by recounting his meeting with Ray Kemp, the first African American NFL player and a member of the inaugural 1933 Pittsburgh Pirates squad, and then Gleason takes the reader through to the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

If Gleason’s book is complete, it is not all-inclusive. It contains very little on the Steelers of the ‘80’s, a period about which I was hoping to learn more.

Likewise material from the 1990’s is surprisingly thin, especially when one considers this was a decade where Pittsburgh returned to contender status. This represents a deliberate decision by Gleason as he explains “but I didn’t want to give equal time just to give equal time. There really was no correlation between the team being good and the amount of ink I used.”

Those who cut their teeth as Steelers fans during the Cowher-power inspired renaissance of the 1990’s will likely quibble that Gleason did not rank the Alfred Papunu AFC Championship loss more prominently on his list of playoff heart breaks.

While Gleason empathizes to some degree, he reminds us that the ’95 49ers team won the Super Bowl that year explaining: “For some reason, knowing that San Francisco would be the next opponent, that loss didn’t hurt as much as some others.”

While From Black to Gold is many ways a first-person story told by Gleason, he meticously researched the book admitting “My memory gets distorted with time. It was amazing how many things were a bit different than what I remembered.”

Beyond his own research, Gleason shares that he sent a manuscript to be vetted by the man he calls Mr. Steeler aka Dick Hoak, and was impressed that the only error Hoak found in 80,000 words was the fact it was in Palm Springs, and not in San Diego, that Frank Sinatra enjoyed his induction into Franco’s Italian Army.

A number of good Steelers history books have hit the market over the past few years. Dan Rooney’s self-titled autobiography and Art Rooney Jr. Ruanaidh provide an excellent inside view. The Ones Who Hit the Hardest by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne tells many of same Steelers stories from the ground up.

From Black to Gold covers much of the same ground, but does in a way that allows it to serve as an almost personalized primer on Pittsburgh Steelers history, making it must read for every serious Steelers fan.

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