Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Profiles: Running Backs


We’ve reviewed the most popular quarterbacks to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but among those signal callers, who are some of the players they were handing the ball off to when not throwing the rock?

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The Steelers have had several players enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame after being a part of the Pittsburgh’s ground game for most of or all of their entire careers. Jerome Bettis is the latest Steelers running back to become a member in Canton, Ohio. He joins Franco Harris and John Henry Johnson.

While that trio may be the best-best-of-the best to run behind Pittsburgh’s all-time offensive lines, there have been more than a handful of outstanding running backs for Pittsburgh since they began play in 1933. Those three men will be bypassed for this article despite Johnson ranking third in the all-time rushing yardage for the Black and Gold. Time to profile some of the outstanding and popular running backs to suit up for the Steelers.

Willie Parker: “Fast” Willie Parker actually lands in third place all-time among Pittsburgh rushers. He ran for 5,378 yards while playing at Heinz Field. Parker set the record for longest rushing touchdown from scrimmage in a Super Bowl (XL) with a romp of 75 yards which still stands today. The Steelers had a reputation of big bruising backs but Parker spelled that philosophy with speed and elusiveness.

As an undrafted rookie in 2004, Bill Cowher took a chance on the 5-foot-10, 209-pound first-year player and Parker impressed sharing time with The Bus, Jerome Bettis. He would eventually become the feature back, but in 2009 he suffered Jack Lambert‘s injury, “turf toe” and was replaced by Rashard Mendenhall in the process. Parker never regained his starting job and was released only to make on attempt at staying in the NFL with the Washington Redskins in 2010 where he spent his time on the practice squad before retiring.

Frank Pollard: In the mid-1980s, a stout Frank Pollard became the Steelers primary running back. His best season was in 1985 when he rushed for 991 yards. In 1984 while beating the Denver Broncos in the playoffs, Pollard ran for 99 yards and two scores, a game won by Pittsburgh 24-17. In the following AFC title game against Miami, Pollard was held to just 48 yards rushing. In nine seasons all as a Steeler, Pollard scored 20 touchdowns.

Dick Hoak: The running backs coach for the Steelers for an incredible 35 years, Hoak was also an excellent player at the position he would spend so many years coaching up. As a Steeler running back, Hoak would spend his entire career with Pittsburgh that began in 1961 as a seventh round draft pick after running for the Penn State Nittany Lions. He would retire with 3,965 yards on the ground, second best in history for the Steelers at that time. But Hoak is probably best remembered for his ever-so-long tenure as the Running Backs coach with Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher.

Barry Foster: Unfortunately for Barry Foster, his career was short in the ‘Burgh. He lasted just five seasons but they were filled with success. He sill holds the single season record for rushing for Pittsburgh with 1,690 yards gained in 1992. The stud running back finished with 3,943 yards which lands him seventh on Pittsburgh’s all-time list. His 4.3 yards-per-carry average for his career is second only to John Henry Johnson’s 4.4 and ties him with Wille Parker among Pittsburgh’s top ten rushers in history for yardage.

Having gone through a tough contract negotiation in 1995, the Steelers instead of trying to settle traded Foster over to the Carolina Panthers who then cut the running back in training camp due to a failed physical. Foster made one attempt to come out of retirement with the Cincinnati Bengals that same year but after just a few days with the club he decided on retirement at the tender age of 26.

Rocky Bleier: For some Steelers fans it might be hard to believe that Robert Patrick Bleier, known best in Steelers Nation as “Rocky” turned 69 years of age this year. Perhaps one of the most popular and beloved Steelers players of all-time, Bleier became famous before he ever established himself as Franco Harris’s partner in crime based on his experiences in the Vietnam War. Prior to being drafted by the Army for service, Bleier was a University of Notre Dame product graduating in 1968 earning a degree in Business Management.

In 1966 when the Fighting Irish won the national title, Rocky was a member of that team. His teammate Terry Hanratty, the QB at Notre Dame during that tenure became a Steeler as well. Both men had the unfortunate circumstance of being behind other great players on the roster, Franco Harris and Terry Bradshaw. Still, Bleier became a starter in the backfield with Harris and shined. Bleier was an outstanding lead blocker as well as being able to run the ball well and also had solid hands as a receiver.

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But it was his story of injury during the war that gave him notoriety at the start of his career. A bullet pierced his left thigh in Vietnam and further injuries occurred when a grenade exploded near him putting shrapnel in his lower right leg. For his service in the war, Bleier received the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Doctors had told him following the enemy attack that his football days were over. To no one’s surprise, Art Rooney Sr. mailed a post card to his running back while in recovery that said, “Rock – We need you.” That was the kind of man “The Chief” was. In later years Bleier helped pen a book about himself and a movie was made about his story titled “Fighting Back.”

Bleier believed the doctors were wrong and reported to Steelers training camp a year after he left the war. Despite suffering continuing pain and losing weight down to 180 pounds, Rocky spent the next two years putting on weight and fighting for a roster spot. He was cut twice but kept up his persistence. By 1974, Bleier was weighing in at 212 pounds and he made the team to stay. Wanting the jersey number 26 which he wore at Notre Dame, Preston Pearson held those digits so Rocky settled for No. 20 and retired with that number despite the departure of Pearson to Dallas.

Bleier starred in Super Bowl XIII with a touchdown reception and a recovered onside kick to seal Pittsburgh’s third NFL title. In the end Rocky Bleier rushed for 3,865 yards, 1,294 yards receiving on 136 catches and scored 25 times.

Rashard Mendenhall: Like Barry Foster before him, Rashard Mendenhall was done with professional football by the age of 26. Drafted by the Steelers in the first round with the 23rd pick in 2008, Mendenhall replaced Willie Parker and had successive years of 1,000 or more yards rushing in 2009 and 2010 with a high of 1,273 in ’10. He tailed off to 928 the following season and then suffered injuries in 2012 playing in just six games before the Steelers cut him loose where he signed with the Arizona Cardinals lasting just one season after 687 yards on the ground. He peculiarly retired after that one campaign with the Cardinals. Mendenhall provided the following reason for retiring so young: “Football was pretty cool, but I don’t want to play anymore. I want to travel the world and write.” If that wasn’t strange enough, Mendenhall got himself into hot water in 2011 as a Steeler when he tweeted a controversial reaction to the United States’ elimination of Osama bin Laden. The running back said that he was only trying to stimulate conversation about the topic but because of it he lost an endorsement deal with Champion Sports.

Walter Abercrombie: To this day, Abercrombie is Baylor University’s all-time leading rusher with 3,674 yards while scoring 22 touchdowns. In 1982, he was Pittsburgh’s first overall pick in the draft coming in at number 12. He would play six seasons in Three Rivers Stadium when the Steelers were home and finish with 3,343 yards rushing. Abercrombie played one more season in 1988 with the cross state Philadelphia Eagles before retiring. Today, Abercrombie spends his days atsthe Executive Director for his alma mater leading the Baylor B Association which is an organization of previous letter winners for the university.

Fran Rogel: For Steelers fans who watched the team in the 1950s they would be familiar with a famous nursery rhyme with a Pittsburgh Steelers twist. From the time Fran Rogel became the team’s starting running back in 1950 until his retirement in 1957, Pittsburgh’s first play from scrimmage in every game Rogel was in the backfield began with a handoff to the California State Teachers College and Penn State University product with a rush into the middle of the offensive line. This led to fans chanting “Hey Diddle Diddle, Rogel Up the Middle.” There was just one occasion that the Steelers failed to use Rogel on the game’s first play.

That one instance came in 1956 when Art Rooney Sr. uncharacteristically was frustrated with a head coach and instructed the then Head Coach Walt Kiesling to negate the opening Rogel rush and throw the ball instead. Feeling he had to listen to his boss, Kiesling had quarterback Jack Scarbath toss the ball which resulted in a touchdown to Goose McClairen. The Steelers had jumped offsides on the play and it was called back. Reportedly, a local sportswriter told Rooney that “Kiesling purposely made his lineman jump offsides so they could run their bread-and-butter Rogel running play first. “It has been said that Rooney responded with the declaration that he would never again attempt to call a play for his team. Fran Rogel was also a local product having grown up in North Braddock, Pennsylvania.

Merril Hoge: Lasting until the 10th round in the 1987 NFL draft, Merril Hoge was a tough as nails runner for the Steelers who suffered a rash of concussion injuries that would cost him his career. In the second concussion he encountered, it resulted in Hoge having to be resuscitated when he stopped breathing. He was intensive care for 48 hours and this forced his retirement. The concussion was so bad that Hoge had to learn to read again and suffered from memory loss as well as encountering headaches and confusion. At the time of the second injury, he was no longer with the Steelers but playing for the Chicago Bears and sued that team’s doctor resulting in a $1.55 million judgment in favor of Hoge. Despite the occurrences of injury, Hoge ran for 3,115 yards as a Steeler and rushed for 21 touchdowns. He is more famously known for his post-retirement with ESPN as an analyst which he has excelled at and has become one of that network’s finest announcers.

John Fuqua: How could any Steelers fan in the Nation of Black and Gold not smile when speaking of John “Frenchy” Fuqua. Fuqua would have to be the most colorful player in Steelers history as well as the most controversial. The controversy surrounds what is called by many as the Greatest play in NFL history. Of course we are talking about the “Immaculate Reception. “Franco Harris gets most of the credit for that infamous incident, but Terry Bradshaw’s passing attempt on that play was originally intended for Fuqua who was decleated by Jack Tatum. The controversy arose when the ball deflected off of Tatum or Frenchy. If it was Fuqua who the ball last touched, it would not be a legal catch by Harris according to the rules in 1972. The real results of who touched it first is still undetermined to this day.

Fuqua to this day refuses to give his take on what actually took place. In 2007, Fuqua created a candy and marketed it as “The Immaculate Confection.” But aside from that 1972 playoff game with the Oakland Raiders, Fuqua could be seen off the field wearing the flashiest of clothes that included shoes with see-through heals and live fish in them. Fuqua was not an original Steelers having been drafted by the New York Giants and then traded to Pittsburgh. Today he is 68 and still colorful.

Preston Pearson: Pearson wore Rocky Bleier’s college number of 26 and was a solid football player who was a member of the Steelers first Super Bowl winning team in 1975 when they defeated the Minnesota Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl IX. He would end up moving to the Dallas Cowboys where he would get a chance to face off against his former team in two more Super Bowls (X and XIII). For the Steelers he would rush for 2,243 yards five seasons.

Amos Zereoue: Another fan favorite was West Virginia University product, “Famous” Amos Zereoue. Born in the Ivory Coast, Zereoue played his high school football in Long Island, New York and then went on to be a star running back for the Mountaineers. Drafted in the third round by the Steelers, Zereoue would play from 1999 to 2003 in Black and Gold before finishing his career in Oakland for one season and another in New England. Still young at 38 years of age, Zereoue stays in shape these days by playing soccer for a New York amateur club called the Central Park Rangers FC. As a Steeler, Famous Amos ran the ball 434 times for 1,698 yards and was a powerful running back at 205 pounds on a 5’8” frame.

Sidney Thornton: Another stout running back for Pittsburgh was the bullish Thornton who weighed in at 230 pounds during his play days in Pittsburgh from 1977 to 1982. In 1980, Thornton would average five yards-per-carry while carrying the rock 78 times. He finished with 585 yards and scored six touchdowns including a 75-yard run. His entire career was with the Steelers and he would finish those six seasons with 1,512 yards and 18 touchdowns. Thornton was also a member of the Super Bowl winning teams for Pittsburgh in 1979 and 1980.

Bill Dudley: “Bullet Bill” was his nickname and a great running back he was. Dudley could do it all on the field as he was just not a back but a defensive back, punter, and place kicker. Drafted by the Steelers in 1942 and in his rookie season led the NFL in rushing with 696 yards. As a punter, he kicked the ball 18 times during his career and averaged 32 yards per punt. He also was a punt returner, bringing back 20 punts with a 14.0 average per return. Dudley also found himself on kickoff returns where he fielded 11 of those for 298 yards (27.0 average). One return went to the house. Dudley also served his country during World War II as a member of the Army and played for that team while away from the NFL. In 1944 he led Army to an undefeated record with 12 victories and was named the team’s Most Valuable Player.

Bullet Bill Dudley is also in the record books for the National Football League as the only man to run for a touchdown, catch a touchdown pass, return a punt for a score, run to the end zone on a kickoff return, intercept a pass for a pick-six, pick up a fumble and reach pay dirt, and throw a touchdown pass. Dudley also scored on a lateraled pass and has kicked point-after-touchdowns as well as making successful field goals. Bill Dudley was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966 and 10 year prior was inducted into College Football’s Hall of Fame.

Bill Dudley also played with the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins after leaving the Steelers, and finished his career with 3,057 yards rushing, 1,383 yards receiving, punted the ball for a total of 7,304 yards, and on defense intercepted 23 passes. Dudley owns 44 touchdowns to his credit. He ranks 23rd all-time among Pittsburgh rushers having gained 1,504 yards as a Steeler.

Bam Morris: Morris’ story is a sad, tragic, and unfulfilled one. Born Byron Morris, drafted in the third round of the 1994 draft, Morris immediately made an impact with the Pittsburgh Steelers coming to them from Texas Tech University. At 244 pounds, Morris was a load running behind the offensive line and his numbers backed up his train rushing efforts. In his rookie season, Morris rushed for 836 yards and a 4.2 yards-per-carry average. He scored seven touchdowns and caught the ball 22 times for an additional 204 yards and a 9.3 yards-per-reception mark.

In Super Bowl XXX when the Steelers lost to the Dallas Cowboys that many thought that Pittsburgh could have won if not for Neil O’Donnell‘s errant interceptions, Morris rushed for 73 yards on 19 carries and scored a touchdown. He also had three catches in that loss for 18 yards. It was thought by the Steelers coaching staff and fans alike that Pittsburgh had found their new star running back.

But following the Super Bowl Morris was arrested for trafficking marijuana and the Steelers wanted nothing to do with his off-the-field problems and released him. Morris signed with Baltimore Ravens where he lasted just two seasons before the Chicago Bears and Kansas City Chiefs took a chance on him in 1998. In 1999 the Chiefs cut him and his life spiraled out of control with drug problems and jail time. In 2006 he tried to make a comeback in the Arena Football League and the National Indoor Football League but that last just part of one season.

Le’Veon Bell: Finally we have our current star in the making. Le’Veon Bell got off to a late start in his rookie season due to injuries but then proved he was worthy of his second round draft selection. Another big bruising back that also has surprising quickness, Bell at 244 pounds is turning into a super star in the NFL. In two seasons, he is already 18th among all Steelers backs in rushing.

He already has as many touchdowns rushing as Bam Morris Unfortunately, before the season began last year, Bell was arrested with LeGarrette Blount for a DWI and possession of marijuana. Bell will pay the price this season with a three-game suspension to start the 2015 season. Last season he was in the top five among running backs in several categories.

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