Following up my Iconic Old School Steelers article (which chose several greats from the 70’s teams) I decided to keep this going with the following decade, profiling the most iconic Steelers players of the 80’s.
Initially, I wanted to revisit some of the greatest names in franchise history with my own mini-list of the most iconic players in franchise history. Brian Roach had already done so with his Top 100 Most Influential People in Steelers History, so in order to change things up, I thought to myself “when you mention a specific period in time, which players come to mind?”
The keyword here is “players” but also “iconic” with reference to the time period those players played. The 80’s were a low period for the Steelers, and many of the icons from the 70’s bled into those early years of this decade.
Therefore, it was more difficult to grab an “80’s only” player. Therefore, I decided to make some ground rules. As with the 70’s list, I’m focusing strictly on players. The players didn’t have to be drafted in the 80’s, but they had to have the majority of their success in that decade. That ended up being a harder decision than I’d thought: ruling out John Stallworth (who played through 1987) was a tough sell in the end. Stallworth had made two Pro Bowls in the 80’s (1982 and 1984) but was drafted in 1974 and had his best overall season in 1979.
Another iconic player I grew up with was Merril Hoge. He led the team in rushing three times, but only one of those was in the 80’s, as Hoge joined the team in 1987 and split duties with Tim Worley (who was drafted in ’89). He’s an outlier in the same way the 70’s players bleed into the 80’s, Hoge’s career, as well as a few others, were shared with the 90’s. That would ring true for Bubby Brister too: drafted in 1986, Brister wouldn’t see meaningful playing time until 1988. Also add that he since was awful for most of his tenure, that’s the only true reason he would be “iconic”.
The same concept applies to other names I’ll hold onto for my 90’s era article, despite them being drafted in the late 80’s. So, without further ado, here are the four names I came up with for the Steelers Mount Rushmore of the 80’s.
Mention “80’s” and “Steelers” in the same sentence, and there’s likely no one’s name that comes up more often than Louis Lipps. It would be hard to argue that he’s the most iconic player of the decade, matched only by one other on this list: but he’s without a doubt the most recognized player of this era.
The Steelers first round draft pick in 1984 made an instant impact on the franchise, helping lead the team to an AFC Championship game while being named to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. Lipps caught 45 passes for 860 yards, and while the Steelers fell short of the Super Bowl by one game that season, Lipps would surpass his successful freshman campaign with his only 1,000+ receiving season the following year.
Those would be the only two Pro Bowl selections for Lipps, however, as Pittsburgh fell into a four-year losing slump. During his period with the team, Lipps would lead the Steelers in receiving six times, four of which were in the 80’s. Therefore he was a no-brainer to top this list.
While names such as Robin Cole and Keith Willis may not be mentioned in the same breath as their Steel Curtain counterparts of the 70’s, there is one linebacker who was an absolute force to be reckoned with on the Steelers defenses of the 80’s: Mike Merriweather.
Merriweather makes this list for having a stellar career with the Steelers. Drafted in 1982, the linebacker would push ahead with Pro Bowl selections in 84, 85, and 86. He was also named to the all-NFL team in 1986 and honored as the Steelers Most Valuable Player in 1987.
That’s where Merriweather’s Steelers story ends, as a contract dispute saw him sit out his 1988 season and the Steelers dealt him to the Vikings in 1989. Regardless, his 15-sack season, along with Lipps’ contribution, nearly got the now forgotten 1984 team into another Super Bowl.
Drafted in 1980, Ilkin would play 13 seasons with the Steelers, appearing in 135 of his 176 games in Pittsburgh during the decade, the end of which, would see him named to the Pro Bowl in 1988 and 1989.
Ilkin was often a reliable offensive tackle, starting in every game for multiple seasons during the 80’s. Linemen are often unsung heroes who disappear in football history, but Tunch has carried on as the color commentator of the Steelers current radio broadcast team, in which he joined in 1998.
As an anchor of the Steelers offensive line and the only player on this list to have been with the team for every year of the 80’s, he’s another recognizable name and face which is deserving of making this list.
Another player who quietly played 13 seasons in Pittsburgh, Anderson may be the brightest spot in a collection of dismal 80’s Steelers teams. Drafted in 1982 by the Buffalo Bills, the kicker was cut before the regular season and picked up by Pittsburgh, where he’d remain through 1993. Incidentally, his final year in the Burgh would be one of his three Pro Bowl seasons with the Steelers (1983 and 1985 were the others).
When perusing the names who would be the most iconic Steelers of the 80’s, Anderson’s single-bar facemask attached to his helmet is an image embedded in my memory. The league banned item during the placekicker’s final NFL season, as a safety measure, but few players, outside of specialists, wore them, as the style faded in the 80’s and all but disappeared in the 90’s… save Gary Anderson and a few others.
But a facemask isn’t the only reason why Anderson is so iconic. His 1,343 points are a franchise record, with no one else remotely close to matching it (Jeff Reed is second with 919) and his 309 field goals are 105 more than Reed’s second-most. Anderson also held the team’s single-season scoring record for ten seasons before Norm Johnson bested it by two points in 1995. He’s one of many Steelers to play 13 or more seasons, but only one has played the most at 15 (Mike Webster). His 197 games are fifth-most in franchise history.
His 33 field goals in a single season now rank third-most in franchise history, following Chris Boswell’s 35 in 2017 and Johnson’s 34 in 1995. Boswell’s six field goals in a game this past season also matched Anderson’s record, which is a three-way share between the two and Reed. Boswell also matched the longest conversion in team history, of 55 yards, which was also set by… you guessed it… Gary Anderson.
I could continue to rehash the team record book, but you get the point: Anderson owns or has owned every meaningful kicking and scoring statistic for the Steelers.
And he did most of it during the 80’s.
For that reason, this kicker is one of the most iconic players of the “Decade of Decadence”.