NFL Top 100: No. 69 Terry Bradshaw, who set the standard for Super Bowl quarterbacks (2024)

Welcome tothe NFL 100,The Athletic’sendeavor to identify the 100 best players in football history. You can order the book versionhere. Every day until the season begins, we’ll unveil new members of the list, with the No. 1 player to be crowned on Wednesday, Sept. 8.

It took Terry Bradshaw three years to become a winner, and then he never stopped.

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The beginning was not pretty. The Steelers made him the first draft choice in 1970 after winning a coin flip with the Bears for that honor. He threw six touchdown passes and 24 interceptions as a rookie, and 13 touchdowns vs. 22 interceptions his second season as Pittsburgh continued its losing ways.

Then came their magical 1972 season when the Steelers went 11-3 as Bradshaw turned the corner. He cut loose with the pass that became the Immaculate Reception via Franco Harris that gave the Steelers the first playoff victory in franchise history and put them in the AFC Championship Game. Two years later, Bradshaw and the Steelers won their first of four Super Bowls over six seasons.

Bradshaw overcame his early struggles in Pittsburgh as the first of only two quarterbacks (Joe Montana) with 4-0 Super Bowl records. Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. spotted his potential from the start.

Said Art Rooney Jr., who headed the team’s personnel department that drafted Bradshaw, “My dad told him, ‘I saw all the great athletes — Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange. You’re better than all of them,’ and he went for it. It took him time.”

Joe Greene, Chuck Noll’s first draft pick a year before Bradshaw, became one of his biggest and most important supporters. Greene helped lift the young quarterback during his early struggles and as fans and media pleaded for the Steelers to replace him with the other Terry, local hero Terry Hanratty, drafted the year before Bradshaw from Notre Dame.

“I had seen Terry (Bradshaw) throw the football in practice from one corner of the end zone to the next and landing that football in a big trash can,” Greene said, explaining why he favored him. “I’d seen him throw the football on the line and hear it whistle. I said ‘This guy can throw the football.’ And I’d seen him when we were in our infancy and he was getting killed and how tough he was, and standing in the pocket and getting beat up and still making plays. The passes he threw that were intercepted, I always thought that was confidence or overconfidence that he could put the ball where he wanted to. But sometimes it didn’t get there because the defense did a better job, the cornerbacks did a better job. But it wasn’t like he didn’t know. He thought he could do that and many times he did.”

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Bradshaw, known by teammates and fans alike as the Blond Bomber, threw 212 touchdown passes and 210 interceptions, yet he also finished with a 107-51 record in the regular season and 14-5 in the postseason, including that perfect four-pack in Super Bowls. He earned the league’s MVP award in 1978 and two Super Bowl MVPs.

“I think the thing that I’m most proud of as a football player was that I played big in big games,” Bradshaw said during the NFL Network’s “A Football Life” in 2019.

“He made a lot of big moments happen,” teammate Franco Harris concurred on that show.

Bradshaw led the NFL twice in touchdown passes and to this day believes he could have played longer had he treated his right elbow injury and surgery in early 1983 differently. He played just one game that season, famously throwing two touchdown passes in the final game at Shea Stadium that helped put the Steelers in the playoffs.

But he walked off the field clutching his elbow that day never to play again. He was 35. He had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow while throwing those TD passes in New York. He visited Dr. Frank Jobe, who developed the famous Tommy John surgery and offered it to Bradshaw back then. Looking back, he wished he had done it and extended his career, maybe won another Super Bowl (the Steelers lost to Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game the following season).

“It was really my fault; no one but my own,” Bradshaw said. “I should have done Tommy John. I should have done it. Why I didn’t do it, I have no idea. … Today I would have had the Tommy John, I would have been out a year and I would have come back at 36 and ready to go. That truly is something I regret. I don’t know what I was waiting on. Was I waiting on someone to say, ‘We want you well?’ It was so different back then. I can’t say it was anybody’s fault but my own.”

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Bradshaw transferred successfully to what Chuck Noll often called his players’ post-NFL careers as their “life’s work” as a studio analyst for CBS and then Fox. He has acted in movies, TV commercials, participated in a reality TV show with his daughters, cut albums of songs, and has an ongoing Las Vegas performance act in which he sings and entertains.

What the Steelers and his teammates did not know is that Bradshaw has since said he did not enjoy all that Super Bowl success. He wrote about that over the course of several books, saying what drove him more in those Super Bowls was the fear of losing.

“He had the greatest talent in the world but multiple intangible problems,” Rooney Jr. said. “Dick Haley (a former Steelers personnel man) said once, ‘You know he loves to fish, but when he’s going fishing, he’s thinking about fishing, he’s not thinking about football.’”

Greene was sad to learn later on that Bradshaw did not enjoy all of his success.

“I thought Terry was on top of the world when he led the team to the Super Bowl, all four,” Greene said. “Then when it came to light that he was not enjoying himself and it wasn’t a lot of fun for him — and the relationship between him and Chuck (Noll) wasn’t the best — I was disappointed because all I ever wanted to do was play football and have fun. Having fun was winning and we did that, and I thought a number of us teammates enjoyed that experience and I was disappointed for Terry that he didn’t enjoy that experience.”

Yet during his Hall of Fame speech in 1989, Bradshaw spoke more about his teammates and winning games than he did his other various accomplishments. His philosophy as quarterback was perfectly summed up in the title of his first book, “Looking Deep.”

“My nature was attack, throw it deep,’’ Bradshaw said during his induction in Canton, Ohio. “Anybody can throw wide. Let’s go deep. … Oh, God, wasn’t it fun? Didn’t y’all like seeing that stuff fly down there? I mean it was fun! What a ride, what a ride. … We, the Steelers, all my boys, all of them, we loved to win. God, we loved to win.”

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In that vein, Greene recalled how Bradshaw and defensive end Dwight White would have an ongoing back and forth during practices, and how one day Bradshaw reminded his teammates about his value to them.

“He and Dwight used to squabble all the time, playfully,” Greene recounted. “Dwight would hit him in practice. Bradshaw: ‘You’re not supposed to hit the quarterback.’ Dwight: ‘C’mon, Blond Bombah, C’mon, Blond Bombah. C’mon now, why you crying?’

“Blond Bombah, that’s what Dwight would call him. And one day Terry got so mad, he said, ‘Dwight White, you can lose with him but you can’t win without me.’

“That was perfect. That was perfect.”

Just like Terry Bradshaw’s record in Super Bowls.

(Illustration: Wes McCabe / The Athletic; photo: Focus on Sport/ Getty Images)

NFL Top 100: No. 69 Terry Bradshaw, who set the standard for Super Bowl quarterbacks (2024)

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