While most people tend to overlook the Pittsburgh Steelers in the era prior to the 1970s dynasty, this Steelers History Series will look back on some of the history of the franchise, ripe with some nuggets you may not know and hope you will enjoy.
The First Franchise Player
By 1938, the Pittsburgh “Football” Pirates were in trouble. The closest the franchise had come to achieving any success was from the long forgotten 1936 season. After a 6-3 start, all it would take was a single win and Pittsburgh would qualify to play for the NFL Championship. They finished 0-3 and became forgotten to history.
Art Rooney was losing money and the team was losing fans. In desperation, he used the windfall of winnings acquired in Saratoga to convince 1st round pick Byron “Whizzer” White to sign with a then-unheard of $15,800 contract. This infuriated other owners as it was 3 times more than the going rate for top players in the league. Washington “Redskins” owner George Preston Marshall accosted Rooney, asking him, “What are you trying to do, ruin the league?”
There was never a question about the talent of White, he just never intended to play in the NFL. The size of the deal was too much to pass up on though and he did not disappoint. White would be the first “star” player in franchise history, leading the league in rushing and impressing fans, but not enough to overcome the bad coaching and poor play around him. It was also short-lived. He left after one season with his other ambitions in mind, which included moving on to Oxford, becoming a Rhodes Scholar and a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
The Second Franchise Player
The Steelers finally achieved their first winning season in 1942, finishing 7-4 behind the amazing play of a young star halfback named “Bullet” Bill Dudley. As a rookie, the versatile Dudley led the NFL in rushing and returning kickoffs. In addition, he led the Steelers in passing and interceptions. The nickname of “Bullet” was a little misleading, as he was far more elusive than fast, but was a perfect fit for the offense.
Just as everything was coming together, World War II came about and as with many men called to active duty, Dudley would serve in the Air Force for 3 years. Upon his return in 1946, he was spectacular as he led the NFL in rushing, kickoffs, interceptions (10) and total yards. For his efforts he was awarded the Joe Carr Trophy as MVP. The Steelers finished 5-5-1 and were beginning to blossom under new head coach Jock Sutherland. However, the single-wing formation Sutherland employed resulted in the undersized (5′ 10″, 180 pounds) Dudley taking such a physical beating that he threatened to retire.
Southerland was disappointed but still was professional about it. He would state: “I respect Dudley tremendously as a player, I’m sorry he didn’t see fit to come back to us.” Southerland then executed a trade of Dudley that benefited both the Steelers (already struggling after impact of WWII on the team) and the Detroit Lions (who paid Dudley a then-immense sum of $20,000).
To this day he remains the last Steelers player to lead to league in rushing. Dudley also shares the honor with Terry Bradshaw as being the only NFL MVPs in team history.
Rookies as NFL Rushing Leaders
The Steelers first two franchise players may have been short-lived, but one can hope that Najee Harris can join their ranks and lead the NFL in rushing in 2021!
- How The Pittsburgh Steelers Came to Be – Art Rooney
- How a day at Saratoga saved the Pittsburgh Steelers
- When Art Rooney played a prank on George Halas
- Byron “Whizzer” White and “Bullet” Bill Dudley: The Steelers first Franchise Players
- NEXT: The Pennsylvania Polka – When Art Rooney sold the Steelers
- When Art Rooney was offered the chance to buy the New York Yankees
- What might have been – Jock Sutherland
- Same Old Steelers – “Rogel up the Middle”
- Why the Steelers cut Johnny Unitas
- How Buddy Parker vs. Dan Rooney set up the Steelers Dynasty
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