'The Ones Who Hit the Hardest'

It’s fascinating to revisit a time when the Steelers and Cowboys rivalry was at its fever pitch.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Cowboys were, to a Steelers fan, the most reviled team in the league. As kids tore open packs of football trading cards, we were given to recoiling as though struck by an open palm slap when confronted with the pearly grin of a Dallas DB or the vacant dreaminess of Troy Aikman’s baby blues.

And don’t get me started on Super Bowl XXX, ’cause I still don’t want to talk about it. But that was then, and this current crop of Cowboys just ain’t worth the ink—no matter how much supposed talent these ’boys have.

So it’s fascinating to revisit a time when the Steelers and Cowboys rivalry was at its fever pitch. The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, The ’70s, and the Fight for America’s Soul is something of a time machine returning us to the beginnings of both clubs. Chad Millman, an editor at ESPN The Magazine, and Shawn Coyne, publisher at Rugged Land, have (mostly) done their research in this rich history of not only the teams and some of the more colorful players, but also of the cities Pittsburgh and Dallas, the steel industry, oil speculation and the labor movement.

Occasionally, the authors fail to present all of the facts. Such is the case in a reference to Alexander Berkman’s attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, which states that Frick was “stabbed by a radical anarchist,” and while yes, it is true that Berkman stabbed Frick in the leg with a sharpened file, it seems odd to neglect mentioning the damage done by the shots from Berkman’s revolver.

In spite of a very strong opening, The Ones Who Hit the Hardest eventually succumbs to the weight of its own pretensions. Pro sports as a spiritual and social metaphor only works as long as you don’t push too hard on it. The storied rivalry of these teams is at best a superficial allegory, and the movement in the United States from an economy based on production to an economy based on the service industry and market speculation cannot be simplified to three yards and a cloud of dust.

Millman and Coyne are at their best when their narratives of the NFL and the shifting ground of the national economy run parallel. It’s when they slam the two together that the book fails to adhere. While not the classic of Steelers reportage that is Roy Blount Jr.’s About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, when it’s good, The Ones Who Hit the Hardest is very good indeed.


The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, The ’70s, and the Fight for America’s Soul by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne; Gotham Books; $26.