PITTSBURGH — Terry Bradshaw, as naive and impressionable as any NFL rookie could be, walked into the Pittsburgh Steelers' brand new quarters in Three Rivers Stadium in 1970 and gazed eagerly around.
The spacious locker room, the stalls that were more than a nail in the wall, the training room with--get this--a huge whirlpool? They were all too much for this small-college kid and the struggling franchise he played for.
Excitedly, he walked up to a blackboard and wrote a single word, one that had rarely been used to describe the Steelers in their 38-season existence.
With that one-word message delivered by a player who would not live up to his own prediction for four more years, the Steelers officially moved into their new house, one they expected to call home for ever and ever.
Earlier this fall, the Pirates couldn't wait to vacate Three Rivers Stadium and its unappealing decor, its distorted sight lines and ugly artificial turf. But when the Steelers play the stadium's last game Saturday against the Washington Redskins, there will be tears in the eyes of more than a few Pittsburghers, and not just because of the blustery weather.
"It will be sad to see it come down," Steelers president Dan Rooney said. "I don't want to get sentimental, but it will be a sad occasion."
Bradshaw never realized how right he would be.
Pittsburgh was known nationally as the City of Champions in the 1970s, and Three Rivers was the stadium of champions. In its first 10 years of existence, about the time similar circular concrete stadiums were built in Atlanta, St. Louis and Cincinnati, Three Rivers was home to four Super Bowl champions and two World Series champions, plus 13 division champions (the Steelers' seven and Pirates' six). Pitt beat Penn State there en route to its 1976 college football national championship.
Three Rivers "was the catalyst that brought everything together," former Steelers coach Chuck Noll said. "I remember coming into the players' locker room at our first game there and their eyes sparkled, they just exuded a great deal of enthusiasm. It was very much a factor in our success."
To Rooney, those who trash Three Rivers and all the unfashionable things it now stands for -- multipurpose uniformity rather than unique individuality, fake grass -- should remember where the Pirates and Steelers were before moving there.
Forbes Field was small and baseball-friendly -- until fans tried to squeeze into seats built for 19th-century bodies, find an unoccupied toilet or buy a hot dog. Even if the game was good, the one-hour wait to exit a traffic-clogged university neighborhood never was.
The Steelers' facilities were worse. After years of sharing Forbes Field with the Pirates, they moved into Pitt Stadium in the 1960s, but again weren't the primary occupant. They didn't have their own locker room, and the field often was chewed up if Pitt had played the previous day.
Practice conditions were primitive in South Park, a county-run facility that lacked the comforts players now take for granted -- hot water, lockers, carpeting. The circus sometimes performed there, leaving behind a stench that players practiced in for weeks.
But when they moved into Three Rivers to play and to practice, the Steelers finally had a level playing field, even if they weren't the only team playing on it.
Fortified by a run of draft picks such as Bradshaw and Mean Joe Greene and led by a coach, Noll, who refused to live in their unsuccessful past, the Steelers went 11-3 and made the playoffs in 1972. Some called it a miracle.
Actually, the miracle was about to happen.
In the final minute of a playoff game against Oakland, rookie Franco Harris made a shoetop grab of a fourth-down pass that had ricocheted wildly when the Raiders' Jack Tatum and the Steelers' Frenchy Fuqua collided, and scored the most improbable touchdown in NFL history.
The imperfect play--the Raiders still argue the ball deflected from one teammate to another, against the rules at the time--immediately gained a perfect nickname.
The Immaculate Reception gave Three Rivers an identity, one forged by talented teams that rarely lost there and their imaginative fans, who formed Franco's Italian Army, wore gorilla suits for kicker Roy Gerela, and coined "Steel Curtain" for the defense.
"The Immaculate Reception put us on a different plane, and it brought all the fans together," Rooney said. "The biggest thing Three Rivers did for us, it gave us a sense that this place was it. It was a very special place."
Three Rivers was more than one amazing catch.