Jack Ham

Jack Ham

Chuck O’Donnell

The 1974 AFC Championship Game against the Raiders was the ultimate battle of wills for the linebacker and the Steelers

SO MUCH GOES INTO A FOOTBALL game: all the physical and mental preparation, all the dissection of the other team’s tendencies, all the poring over film, all the time spent trying to come up with a plan that will give you that little edge.

But when you get on the field, and the moment of truth is finally at hand, it sometimes becomes a very simple matter. It comes down to whether you’re just a little bit stronger than the man in front of you, whether you want to win today just a little bit more than the man on the other side of the ball.

It was going to be a primal war of wills when we flew into Oakland to meet the Raiders in the 1974 AFC Championship Game. It was going to be our “Steal Curtain” defense going grunt-for-grunt, shove-for-shove against their offensive line, led by future Hall-of-Famers Art Shell and Gene Upshaw. It was going to be our young, strong-armed quarterback Terry Bradshaw, trying to outdo their wily left-hander, Ken Stabler. It was going to be our cornerback, Mel Blount, trying to stare down their receiver, Fred Biletnikoff. It was going to our running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, trying to break the tackles of the mean Otis Sistrunk and the even meaner Jack Tatum.

The Raiders were coming off of a 12-2 regular season and a big last-minute win in Miami, where they bounced the defending Super Bowl champion Dolphins out of the playoffs in the first round. We were coming off a 10-3-1 regular-season, a Central Division title, and a nice win over the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the playoffs.

Most observers figured the Raiders were ready to take the crown from the Dolphins and establish their own dynasty. Plus, we were tagged with the reputation of not being winners–even though we had made it to the 1972 AFC Championship Game before losing to the Dolphins.

We were determined to win this one. For me, every team’s goal is to get to the championship, so in some ways this game would be more important than the Super Bowl. This is the game we’d been pointing to since the first day of training camp.

As the game got closer, we realized that stopping their running attack was going to be a key. The Raiders liked to play power football. What team featuring Shell, Upshaw, Jim Otto, and his eventual successor, Dave Dalby, wouldn’t? The Raiders would hand the ball to 225-pound Marv Hubbard and, if you weren’t careful, would push you right down the field.

We knew we had to stop their running game if we had any hope of going to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. That meant our front seven–me, “Mean” Joe Greene, L,C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White, Andy Russell, and Jack Lambert–would have to give our best effort. In the first half, our little game plan seemed to be working, even though Oakland scored first George Blanda hit a 40-yard field goal, but we fled it in the second quarter when Roy Gerela nailed a 23-yarder.

When the teams came-out for the third quarter with the game still fled 3-3, the Raiders decided thai because their ground game was going nowhere, they would try moving the ball through the air I intercepted a Stabler pass to end one drive, but he got enough time on a later possession to hit Cliff Branch for a long touchdown pass.

Our offense had an immediate answer, though. After driving down the field, Harris bulled his way into the endzone, tying the game at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

Now that our offense had pulled us even with the Raiders, our defense wanted to put the clamps on–and put them on hard. Knowing Stabler was going to try to pass, we blitzed. If I’m not mistaken, Glen Edwards came in on a safety blitz and put the heat on Stabler. The Raiders quarterback had to get rid of the ball; he wanted to get it to Charlie Smith, but I stepped in and picked it off along the Raiders’ sideline. I started back the other way, cuffing into the middle of the field. I never had great speed or anything, so they got some angles on me and took me down at about their eight- or nine-yard line.

It turned out to be the turning point in the game. A few players later, Bradshaw hit Lynn Swann for a touch-down.

But Oakland didn’t quit, driving the ball down the field and getting deep inside our territory. However, we made them settle for a field goal and held our lead. Stabler tried again in the final few minutes to crank up the passing game, but cornerback J.T. Thomas intercepted his pass and ran the ball back deep inside Raiders territory. A few plays later, Franco scored again–and we were heading to the Super Bowl.

When you look back now, our defense dominated that game. Man, did Holmes ever play a great game–everyone did. We held them to 29 yards rushing on 21 carries. Against that offensive line, that’s a fantastic job. It was better than we ever could have hoped for.

Our rushing defense put on that same sort of dominant performance two weeks later in Super Bowl 9. We defeated Minnesota, for the first of four Super Bowls the Steelers’-would win over the next six years, by holding the Vikings and running back Chuck Foreman to 17 yards on 21 carries. In our three playoff games that season, we allowed fewer than 100 yards rushing–combined.

I guess it shows you what can happen when you win the war of wills.

From the Gridiron to the Booth

WHEN THE PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME voters gathered to pick the NFL’s All-Time team last July, was there any doubt that Jack Ham would be selected as a starter at outside line-backer?

After all, Ham had already been named to the NFL Team of the Decade for the 1970s, the Silver Anniversary All-Time Super Bowl Team in 1990, the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1994, and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ All-Time Team in 1982, and he had been inducted into both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame Why, Ham is even a member of the Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.

The former linebacker–known for his agility, intelligence, and fierce desire to win on the gridiron–now attacks broadcasting in much the same way. Covering college and pro games for radio and television, Ham puts every ounce of himself into each broadcast. A student of his craft, he carefully studies the nuances of doing games in different mediums.

“On radio, you have to paint a picture; on TV you have to try to focus more on why things happen,” says Ham. “On TV, especially with replays, you want to comment on why it happened, and make sure that you’re not just repeating the play-by-play. The fans have already seen that.

“There are pros and cons with both [mediums]. They’re different, I enjoy both. The good thing with the Westwood one network’s [college and pro] game of the week is we usually have good matchups. I don’t get a dog game.”

Ham didn’t have many dog games as a player. either. As a collegian, the consensus All-American helped Penn State earn the nickname “Linebacker U.”

“That’s nice to hear,” Ham says of the claim that be helped form Penn State’s reputation. “But there were great players before me and great guys after me, such as Shane Conlin, Greg Buttle, anti LaVar Arrington, and the other guys that they’ve had recently. If [the nickname] started back then, I’m not sure I was responsible. There were a lot of other guys out there as well.”

A Steelers franchise hoping to erase decades of failure selected Ham in the first round of the 1971 draft It was one of the best moves the team ever made. Ham, a native of Johnstown, Pa., would play 12 years, anchoring the vaunted “Steel Curtain.” Ham shut down running games and covered running backs out of the backfield; he blitzed quarterbacks and snuffed out draw plays he was in the backfield before plays could develop and would come from one sideline to the other to chase down a runner.

Ham was selected for eight Pro Bowls, was an All-Pro nine times, and was named the NFL defensive player of the year in 1975. He is one of six players in NFL history to have at least 20 interceptions (he finished with 32) and 20 fumble recoveries (he had 21) in his career. He also recorded 25.5 sacks.

But as Ham will tell you, while the awards and statistics were nice, winning four Super Bowls was what was truly special. “It wasn’t difficult making plays on those Steelers teams,” says Ham, who will turn 52 in December. “I had Joe Greene, a Hall-of-Famer, in front of me at left tackle, and L.C. Greenwood, who should be considered for the Hall, at left end. I didn’t need a uniform with those guys in front of me. I could have played in basketball shorts.”

One of Ham’s biggest fans was former Steelers assistant coach George Perles, who says that even today when you watch Jack on film, “you feel like standing up and applauding.”

Jack Ham’s Most Memorable Game

AFC Champion Game; Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum; December 29, 1974

Pittsburgh Steelers 0 3 0 21-24

Oakland Raiders 3 0 7 3-13

Scoring Steelers Raiders

First Quarter

Oakland–Blanda, 40-yard field goal 0 3

Second Quarter

Pittsburg–Gerela, 23-yard field goal 3 3

Third Quarter

Oakland–Branch, 38-yard pass from

Stabler (Blanda kick) 3 10

Fourth Quarter

Pittsburgh–Harris, 8-yard run (Gerela kick) 10 10

Pittsburgh–Swann, 6-yard pass from Bradshaw

(Gerela kick) 17 10

Oakland–Blanda, 24-yard field goal 17 13

Pittsburgh Harris, 21-yard run (Gerela kick) 24 13

Team statistics Steelers Raiders

First downs 20 15

Net rushing yards 210 29

Net passing yards 95 271

Passs (completions-attempts-interceptions) 8-17-1 19-39-3

Punts-average 4-41.0 5-43.4

Fumbles lost 3-2 0-0

Yards penalized 30 60

Individual statistics

Rushing

Steelers: Harris 29 rushes for 111 yards, Bleier 18-98 Bradshaw

4-1.

Raiders: Davis 10-16, Banazak 3-7 Hubbard 7-6. Stabler 1-0.

Passing

Steelers: Bradshaw 8 completions, 17 attempts, 95 yards.

Raiders: Stabler 19-36-271.

Receiving

Steelers: Brown 2 receptions for 37 yards, Bleier 2-25, Swann

2-17, Stallworth 2-16.

Readers: Branch 9-186, Moore 4-32, Biletnikoff 3-45 Davis 2-8

Banazak 1-0.

Attendance: 53,800.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group