Other than a photo in a #12 tee shirt and a vague recollection of Black and Gold Day at nursery school before Super Bowl XIV, I’m too young to remember the Steel Dynasty teams of the 1970s. The Pittsburgh Steelers of my childhood were Mark Malone, Frank Pollard, and Weegie Thompson. Needless to say, I didn’t go to sleep with Super Bowl dreams dancing in my head.
That changed in 1989. The season started about as badly as could be when the Steelers lost their first two games by a combined score of 92-10. That’s not a typo. Chuck Noll pulled off perhaps the greatest coaching job of his career, righting the ship to finish 9-7 and earn a Wild Card playoff berth. The Steelers won the first playoff game I ever saw them play in overtime against the hated Houston Oilers. In the next round, they faced the heavily favored Denver Broncos. Back then, the Broncos were AFC juggernauts, having appeared (and gotten crushed) in the previous two Super Bowls. Miraculously, the Steelers led the entire game before finally losing 24-23. A patented last minute John Elway comeback is all that came between them and one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.
One of the primary architects of that near-miracle was fullback Merril Hoge.
Hoge rushed for 120 yards that day, inspiring the classic NFL Films clip where a Broncos player standing on the sideline is caught on tape exclaiming, “He’s kicking our asses, y’all.” A scrappy, blue-collar player, Merril was a Steeler Nation favorite well before and certainly long after that game. But his story goes a lot deeper than what happened in the Mile High city. In fact, the more you learn about #33, the more quickly you realize miracles are no stranger to Merril Hoge.
Merril has recently released his autobiography, appropriately titled “Find A Way.” Hogey being a hero of my youth, I eagerly dove in expecting the typical stories of high school excellence, some sort of college setback, and then redemption in the Black and Gold. I soon found this book is less a series of gridiron exploits than an inspirational story of personal tragedy and triumph.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t any football talk. Most autobiographies are written by stars who manufacture a lot of phony “drama” to make their stories more compelling when their athletic gifts ensured they’d succeed all along. For those too young to remember Merril, he was a 6’1 220 pound fullback from a no-name program (Idaho State) who was never particularly fast nor particularly athletic. What makes his story unique is not only that he made it to the NFL but how his intelligence and work ethic triumphed over any physical limitations he may have had.
A pivotal figure in Merril’s life is Chuck Noll. Much has been written about Noll’s work with the great teams of the 70s but this book gives you rare insight into the Emperor’s final years and a peek into the first couple seasons of the Bill Cowher era. Although not explicitly stated, Hoge had a cold and distant (even abusive) relationship with his own dad and you really get the impression Noll became almost a surrogate father to his fullback. I’ve heard Terry Bradshaw, Rocky Bleir, and Franco Harris all talk about Noll teaching life lessons as well as he taught football and this book details what a great man he was in addition to being a great coach.
“Find A Way” is much more than a clever title. It’s the very heart of Merril’s story. He had to find a way to overcome a rough childhood fraught with peril. He had to find a way to deal with the serious after-effects of concussion(s) which ended his career in 1994 and left him unable to read or write. And in 2002, he had to find a way to survive cancer. For those with relatives who’ve battled this dreaded disease, as my late grandmother did many years ago, his account of the emotional and physical toll the fight takes elevates this from a simple football book into something even non-sports fans would find worth reading.
“Find A Way” is available in both hardcover and e-book editions. You can click here for a comprehensive list of retailers from Hachette Book Group’s official website. If you visit Amazon.com by clicking here, you can preview the first chapter through the “search inside the book” link (below the photo) before purchasing.
Finally, when I was contacted by the fine folks at Hachette Book Group about receiving a copy for review, we also discussed a special treat for my loyal readers. They generously agreed to provide TWO complimentary copies of “Find A Way” for a little contest which I’m going to tie to Sunday night’s game against the New England Patriots.
Since there are two copies and I need two winners there will be two parts to the contest. Leave a guess IN THE COMMENTS how many yards Big Ben will throw for AND how many yards Rashard Mendenhall will run for this Sunday night. That’s all. Pick two numbers and the closest in each category wins a free copy of “Find A Way.” Two guesses, two chances to win.
Rules mumbo jumbo: Make it clear which number goes with which player. If I just see numbers without names next to them, you’re disqualified. Make sure you post under a REAL WORKING EMAIL ADDRESS. If you win, I will contact you asking for your mailing address (No P.O. boxes, U.S. and Canada only) and if the email you’ve entered is phony, you’re disqualified. If two people choose the same number, the person who posted first wins. If you email me your guesses, you’re disqualified. Lastly, if by some miracle you guess both numbers correctly, buy a lottery ticket. Oh, and you get one book, the next closest Ben guesser gets the other. Don’t be greedy.
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