(April 20, 1925 – February 17, 2006)
An iron man in a city of steel, Ernie Stautner was the epitome of hard work and intensity. His built-in attitude was one that struck fear into the minds of many offensive players, and filled quarterbacks with doubt on the field. Stautner could arguably be one of the best professional football players in the National Football League in not only the 1950s, but throughout the history of the league.
Stautner was born April 20, 1925, in Bavaria (specifically, Prinzing-by-Cham, Germany) and migrated with his family to Albany, New York when he was three years of age. As a young man, Stautner served in the U.S. Marine Corps before attending Boston College. At 6’1” and 230 pounds, Stautner was considered ‘under-sized’ by the league’s standards at that time. By the fifties, professional football teams were looking for the biggest men to hold the positions on the defensive line. His size didn’t keep him from starting all four years for Boston College, and it didn’t keep him off of the roster for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The only man to ever wear the number ‘70’ on his jersey in the Steelers organization (officially retired by the Steelers), Stautner made up for his size by becoming quick, strong and meaner. Selected either in the second or third round of the 1950 NFL Draft (sources are conflicted over the exact round); Stautner became a man in black and gold. Once in uniform, Stautner transformed a Steelers team that had struggled for nearly two decades. Stautner became a cornerstone of a bruising defense in Pittsburgh that wasn’t afraid to get into the faces of the opponents.
Stautner himself said, “You’ve got to be a man who wants to hurt somebody. You know where I am going for? The quarterback’s face. It hurts in the face. I want him to know I’m coming the next time. I want him to be scared.”
It was a new generation, and the Steelers counted on Stautner to punish opposing offenses. He didn’t disappoint. Stautner recovered 21 fumbles in his career, many of them a direct result of his defensive play. His three career safeties tied him for an all-time high at that time in the NFL.
“Ernie was one of the NFL’s first impact players along the defensive line,” Dan Rooney said of Stautner. “He was probably the most well-known player on the team throughout much of his career and one of the greatest players ever to wear a Steelers uniform.”
In a city filled with blue collar workers in hard hats, their lunch buckets in hand, Stautner was the type of hard-nosed and gritty player that those who called Pittsburgh home could relate to. Pittsburgh was the kind of city where the sky was so blackened by smoke and ash from the mills that they had to turn lights on at noon. Stautner symbolized a man who relished dirty work, and who never left the field without grass stains, mud and blood on his uniform.
“That man ain’t human. He’s too strong to be human…He’s the toughest guy in the league to play against because he keeps coming head first. Swinging those forearms wears you down. That animal used to stick his head in my belly and drive me into the backfield so hard that, when I picked myself up and looked around, there was a path chopped through the field like a farmer had run a plow over it.”
— Jim Parker (Hall of Fame tackle for the Baltimore Colts)
Stautner became the type of man people wanted to see on the field, and was lucky enough to play his entire professional football career for one team; the Steelers (1950-1963). Even though the Steelers struggled, Stautner played like a man possessed. Though he never won a championship with the Steelers, he was selected to the Pro Bowl nine times (1952, 1953, 1955-1961). He was named MVP of the Pro Bowl in 1957. During his 14-year career, the Steelers’ best season record was third in the NFL and no higher. The most wins they recorded in a single season were seven. The NFL has a history of many players who weren’t very talented being overlooked for such honors because he was wearing the jersey of a bad team overall. Stautner may not have played for a winning team, but he gained the respect of his teammates and other players in the league. The colors of his jersey didn’t make any difference in how he played.
Tough as nails, Stautner used a ground and pound mentality that is usually seen today only in a mixed martial arts arena. Mel Blount, a defensive back for the Steelers, and fellow Hall of Fame inductee once said of Stautner, “No matter what their records were, the Steelers still had a great defense when [he] played.” While Stautner had few friends in the sport that played quarterback, he did have the respect and friendship of many offensive linemen. He was a disruptive influence to opponents, and his play was at a tempo many could not keep up with.
“The Horse’ was unbelievable. If you had four of him, you’d have a championship team – he could make that much of a difference.” –Dick Modzelewski
In a 1958 game against the Cleveland Browns, Stautner had a shoulder injury that was nagging him. Before the kickoff, the team doctor gave him a shot of Novocain. The one shot wasn’t enough, and he soon received another. It wasn’t until Stautner became dizzy during the game that the Steelers staff realized he’d been accidentally overdosed on the administration of Demerol, a strong narcotic pain reliever. Stautner ended up in the hospital.
“I almost died,” Stautner later said. “I was close enough to death to receive the last rights from the Catholic Church.” When the priest asked for his confession, Stautner told the man, “Lookit, father, I don’t have much time. I can only hit the high spots.” Stautner went on to play many more games over the next few years.
In Stautner’s final year in the NFL as a player (1963), the rough man was feeling the effects of being such a bruising force on the field. His body was no longer tolerant of the punishment he put on it every week, every year. His true worth could never be measured by statistics. In his day, the number of tackles a player made was even recorded. Even though he was a strong man, Stautner broke his ribs, injured his shoulders and hands, and had broken his nose too many times to keep track of.
His secret desire to play piano gained no fruition due to his large, thick fingers which had been beaten up while wrestling offensive linemen out of his way. The music that Stautner played was a gridiron jig instead.
After he retired from play, he joined the Steelers as an assistant coach for two years. Stautner was also a defensive assistant coach for the Dallas Cowboys, helping them to two Super Bowl championships in 1971 and 1977. He has been credited with developing Randy White and Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Stautner spent 30 years of his life coaching other NFL players from the sidelines (including time with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos). Stautner’s last coaching job lasted a period of two years for the Frankfurt Galaxy in the now-defunct NFL Europe league.
In 1969, Stautner’s first eligible year, he was heartily welcomed into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The Steelers honored him by retiring his jersey, which was something the organization rarely did. Stautner was rare enough to be given such high respect. On September 13, 1969, Stautner stood at a podium with Art Rooney, who presented his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and said, “I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the enshrinees, and their families. Just before we came out on the platform, a mutual friend has said that this had been the first time that he had ever seen Ernie Stautner out of a uniform…I think he looks better in the uniform.”
Rooney recounted an event in a training session after Stautner had gone to a hospital to have his knee surgically repaired, that Stautner had gotten himself back on his feet in time for the first league game. He also reminded those in attendance that day that Stautner had occasionally played offense as well (as a guard on the line). “He’s been a credit to all athletes, and certainly been a credit to professional sports,” Rooney told the crowd. “I am grateful to Ernie for choosing me in bestowing upon him honor as his presenter.”
When Stautner began his speech he thanked ‘The Chief’ first and foremost. He then said that his parents’ choice to move to the United States was done with “fortitude and initiative”. He went on, saying, “Little did I really know then that football with all the pains and mental anguish that go with it would bring me such great personal pride and pleasure.”
When asked what he thought about the honors after the ceremony, Stautner said, “What a thrill, but I’m glad I played when I did. I don’t think I could stand the pounding today’s guys get every week.”
As part of a new series geared towards Steelers fans and the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you will start to see these articles listed as ‘Steelers Legends’. The series will focus not only on historical figures, players, coaches and team history, but also on stories attributed to people associated with the Pittsburgh Steelers. I hope you enjoy this new series.
Freedman, Lew. Pittsburgh Steelers: The complete illustrated history / Lew Freedman; foreward by Dick Hoak; MVP Books; Compendium Publishing LTD; 2009, 2010.
Professional Football Hall of Fame website
The Official site of Ernie Stautner, by the Estate of Ernie Stautner c/o CMG Worldwide.
NFL.com – the National Football League
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