Book Review: Lost Sundays: A Season In The Life Of Pittsburgh And The Steelers

Lost Sundays: A Season In The Life Of Pittsurgh And The Steelers, by Sam Toperoff

Given that the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing in the AFC Championship and wishing to avoid the feeling of triumphalism, I decided to take a look into the Steelers of the past with this thoughtfully written book about a lost season.  Now, the 1988 season was not a glorious season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in fact it was a pretty terrible season.  The Steelers went 5-11 that year and looked pretty pathetic doing it, setting a record for the most punts blocked in a season with the worst defense in the entire NFL, largely due to injuries.

This book is a fairly short and straightforward book, filled with anecdotes from fans, coaches, reporters (lovingly called “flies” here), and a worthwhile book to examine the relationship between cities and their beloved sports franchises.  As I have commented earlier there are a lot of relationships between the way cities view their sports teams as pagan civilizations viewed their heathen religions [1].  This author makes kinder, but similar, points.

For one, the identity of Pittsburgh is tied up far more in its Steelers than in any other franchise in its city of any sport.  Given the fall of the steel industry in Pittsburgh at around the time of my birth [2], the self image of the city is based in large part on the performance of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  When the Steelers do well, the city is proud, but when the Steelers do poorly, there is a great deal of hostility and high expectations dashed in the city itself, though fortunately the organization is itself loyal to an extent rare among professional teams.  This book captures very well the language and culture of the city of Pittsburgh, both socially and with regards to its beloved Stillers, and part of the book is a brief social and ethnic history of the Pittsburgh region told through its post-industrial small towns of the Pittsburgh area and their ethnic makeup, and the football players that came from the communities like Aliquippa, Jeannette (where my father was born), and Beaver Falls.

The book also details the sorry state of the Stillers franchise in 1988, as told from accounts of the 16 games of that season, interviews with reporters, players, and coaches from the team, and an analysis of what went wrong (which takes up the entire chapter “Why Sundays Were Lost,” which examines the lack of depth of talent on the Steelers that year, the conservative nature of the coaching, and other related factors).  The book does a good job looking at the real lives of the people affected by the difficult season, who looked to be learning and growing under difficulty and who seemed to be immature, and also the book is somewhat critical of two of the veterans who should have been leaders but were not, including Mike Webster, who left the Steelers after that season.

Among the more fascinating minor points of the book is the way in which Tony Dungy’s maturity as a coach is demonstrated as a result of the disastrous season examined in the book, experiences which prepared him to become a better head coach when his opportunity to coach in Tampa and Indianapolis came.  Likewise, Terry Bradshaw, before his big break with the Fox NFL pregame show, is shown as being hostile to Chuck Noll relating to their difficult relationship on the Steelers.

This book is part social history, part sports history, and all interesting, though it is probably a difficult to find book.  The combination of play-by-play of a lost season and thoughtful examination of the relationship between Pittsburgh and the Steelers makes it a compelling book for those who care about either Pittsburgh or the Steelers, and an antidote for triumphalist readings of history.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/sports-and-pagan-religion-a-preliminary-investigation/

[2] I was born in the former steel town of McKeesport because the bus drivers’ union to which my father belonged was part of the AFL-CIO, and McKeesport was where they had their hospital plan at the time.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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