Celebrities

Being Terry Bradshaw

Don’t let the act fool you: NFL legend Terry Bradshaw is on top of his game
| By Jack Bettridge | From David Harbour, September/October 2020
Being Terry Bradshaw
Portraits by Brent Humphries
NFL legend Terry Bradshaw is at home on the range in Oklahoma, and still in the spotlight each and every football season.

As August rolled around, the sports world was in disarray. Baseball’s tardy schedule was going off in fits and starts. Basketball and hockey playoffs were being contested completely out of season. The fate of 2020 football was anyone’s guess. But one thing was certain. Terry Bradshaw, winning quarterback of four Super Bowls, linchpin of the game’s most popular pregame show, entertainer in movies and on record, plugger of many products, would be with us in some shape or form. 

Come September, whether or not the pandemic would make a 27th season of “Fox NFL Sunday” superfluous, fans would be able to get their dose of Bradshaw. The affable commentator with the aw-shucks manner has been busy filming a reality show set around his Oklahoma home life. “The Bradshaw Bunch” is a twist on the ubiquitous television genre. While the E! network series will showcase his household with his wife and three adult daughters, comedy, not drama, is the focus. 

“It probably sounds hollow,” Bradshaw says in a phone call, as cameramen get ready for a shoot. “This is not a compassionate show. It’s predominantly humor.

Terry Bradshaw

Wouldn’t you rather laugh? I watch ‘Yellowstone’ [an intense and violent television series about Northwest ranchers] and I tell my wife, ‘Are these people ever going to smile?’ One disaster after another. I would rather laugh than feel like shit. I need some Bradshaw after watching that.”

Pittsburgh Steelers from rural Louisiana in 1970, always portraying himself as the unsophisticated rube, the guy that Cowboys rival Hollywood Henderson said couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted him the “c” and “a.” But the reality seems to be that beneath the persona lurks a healthy ambition and a shrewd mind better summed up by broadcast partner Jimmy Johnson’s quip: “He’s so dumb he has to have somebody else fly his private plane.” 

Although Bradshaw’s pronunciation of cigars is the homespun CEE-gars most of his conversation is crisp and articulate and betrays a well-honed understanding of the way business works. He’s always kept busy, making appearances in movies like Cannonball Run and Failure to Launch (although he pooh-poohs any notion that he is an actor), making country music albums and putting on a Las Vegas-style show that he describes as a synopsis of his career with singing and conversation. “I’m just doing a lot of things at 71 that I want to do,” he says, riddling off endorsements of baked beans, trousers, insect repellent and sunblock. “I guess you could call that branding yourself.”

Terry Bradshaw

His latest enterprise is his own whiskey brand. While the Bourbon carries the name Bradshaw, the uninformed would have to look more closely at the understated signature to make the connection to the quarterback. Other label clues are the numerals IX, X, XIII and XIV, which allude to his greatest triumphs without explicitly revealing those are the Super Bowls he won as the starting quarterback for the 1970s Steelers, one of the most dominant teams in NFL history. Most arcane of all is the alcohol strength: 103.8 proof, the equivalent of 51.9 percent, his career passing percentage. “Thank God I didn’t throw 70 percent,” he says with a laugh. Whiskey is not off brand for Bradshaw, although he says, “I could have never done this while my dad was living because he would have had a fit. My mom just buries her head. My preacher doesn’t want to know.” 

Cigars have been part of his lifestyle since he was 26. At the time it wasn’t considered breaking training, Bradshaw says. “Back then, guys smoked cigarettes in the locker room.” He reels off the names of such brands as Avo, Fuente Fuente OpusX and My Father that fill his 18-box humidor, all the while pleading ignorance of the subject. “I never have been one to get into the ring size. I don’t understand all that. I don’t even take the time to understand it.”

It took the world some time to appreciate Bradshaw. He entered the NFL as 1970’s overall No. 1 draft pick, selected by the then-lowly Steelers, who went a miserable 1-13 in 1969. “Mean” Joe Greene, the fearsome defensive tackle who would become the heart of Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain defense, remembers the rookie first entering the locker room: “He had a head full of blond hair, not overly muscular, but a good chest and arms. I thought of Li’l Abner. I think he had a tooth missing.”

Some of the makings of future greatness were already apparent. “In practice I used to see Terry stand in one corner of the end zone and throw diagonally to the opposite end zone into a big trash can. A brute! And he could do that constantly,” says Greene. “I was told if you had to catch his passes they’d burn your hands.”

The lineman also recalls some pitfalls: “When Terry threw interceptions it was because he thought he could squeeze the ball in there with the power of his arm. He soon found out that the defensive backs [in the NFL] were a little bit better than they were in college.”

Bradshaw was also not a shoo-in for the QB slot. Pittsburgh had drafted Notre Dame All-American quarterback Terry Hanratty the previous year, and two years later the team would draft another passer, Joe Gilliam from Tennessee State. “It was touch and go for him,” says Greene.

The rookie had come from a small, rural school, Louisiana Tech in Ruston. He had to acclimate himself to big city life, learn to be interviewed by the media and deal with the boos while learning to read defenses. “Up until the fifth year in the NFL I was always fighting for my job,” Bradshaw says. “Joe Gilliam was a friend of mine. Terry Hanratty was a friend of mine. But it was a tough beginning. I had a tough coach. You had no offensive coordinator. You had no quarterback coach. That’s the way it was back then.”

Even now, Bradshaw wonders why his brilliant, but impersonal head coach Chuck Noll even drafted him. “It started off really bad,” he says. “I didn’t like him at all. He was tough, impersonal. He would not build your confidence up, even when we started winning. I was always scared of him. I never got comfortable.” 

For Greene “it became clear around the third year that the fortunes of the Steelers were going to be with Terry.” While the young quarterback was very much a free spirit with a penchant for self-deprecating humor, the lineman recalls one incident when Bradshaw established his dominance over the team. The defensive end Dwight “Mad Dog” White hit him a little too zealously in practice. “Terry fussed and Dwight hit him again. Terry threw the football at him and said, ‘You can lose with me, but you can’t win without me.’ ”

For his interpersonal shortcomings, Noll had a knack for draft picks, selecting such future Hall of Famers as receiver Lynn Swann, running back Franco Harris, linebacker Jack Ham, cornerback Mel Blount and center Mike Webster.

By 1975, the Steelers had won their first Super Bowl and set off on a course of dominance, which would bring rings in four of the six years remaining in the decade. 

Terry Bradshaw

Bradshaw won not only with a cannon arm, but by being tough. In the waning minutes of the fourth quarter in Super Bowl X, Bradshaw threw the 65-yard touchdown pass that would prove to be the game winner. Reading a Cowboys blitz, Bradshaw called a bomb. He waited until the last split second, before throwing to Lynn Swann. Dallas lineman “Larry Cole caught him—smack—on the chin,” Greene says. “But Terry stood in there.” Knocked out of the game, Bradshaw didn’t know the pass was complete until he was informed in the locker room. 

Surprisingly, with a career that boasted a number of Super Bowl records on top of his four victories, Bradshaw is often ranked second tier in lists of the greatest quarterbacks. In part, that can be attributed to the era in which he played, one that emphasized grinding out yards on the grounds. When teams went to the air 30 times in a game, as isn’t unusual today, it was often because they were playing catch-up. 

But if Bradshaw didn’t rack up gaudy completions and aerial yardage, he always did shine in the big games. “I knew the importance of winning those games, and losing them was devastation. My concentration was just at a peak. You bury yourself down in there. You don’t hear things,” he says.  “I wish I could have done that during the regular season, but the regular season is not as much fun as being in the playoffs.”

Poked on the subject of modern statistical ratings, he is a bit miffed: “Give me a break,” he says. “It’s a whole different world of playing football now than it was in the ’70s. Lets take these guys back to the ’70s and lets see how it happens.”

However prideful he is of his era Bradshaw doesn’t begrudge the changes in the game. Rather he takes it philosophically, attributing the evolution to the coming of the American Football League in the 1960s, with its air force of such impressive passers as Joe Namath, John Hadl and Daryle Lamonica. “It was just a beautiful thing, and the ratings were there,” he says. “You keep an audience glued to the television set by scoring points… You would not have [the TV ratings of today] if you had Green Bay playing the New York Giants of 1959.”

The physical punishment and the stress of having to prove himself eventually took its toll. “After all those episodes,” he says. “I wanted to retire. I’d had enough… I felt like four Super Bowls in nine years would shut everybody up.” After a MVP season in 1978 and winning MVP awards in Super Bowls XIII and XIV, injuries began to slow him, and Bradshaw retired after appearing in but one game in 1983.

Bradshaw was immediately picked up as a CBS commentator. “I was hired because I had won four Super Bowls… for no other reason than I was a name. I was not qualified to be an analyst nor did I seek it. I had not given a thought to doing football on TV.” But he quickly established his humorous good ol’ boy character: “I was doing the worst games on television, I was just as bored as everyone else, so I started doing things with toilet paper and demonstrations and having fun.” 

He moved up to the network’s pregame show “NFL Today,” pairing with Greg Gumbel. “When I started doing the show and adding personality to it I was called in and told I would lose credibility with the fans,” Bradshaw relates. “I thought that was the stupidest thing I ever heard because who doesn’t like to laugh? Football’s not that serious.”

In 1994, his performance shtick found a better home at “Fox NFL Sunday” as part of that network’s fledgling sports division.  “When [former president of Fox Sports] David Hill hired me he never said anything about putting a bit in my mouth.” The approach worked with the addition of such welcome gimmicks as a gridiron painted on the studio floor for demonstrations, and the show climbed to the top of the ratings. 

Terry Bradshaw

Bill Richards, the show’s producer, describes the Fox approach: “The guys we put on television, the best way we’re going to have a good show is if they are themselves. Nobody on television is more himself than Terry. David Hill knew he didn’t want an Xs and Os show, he wanted an entertainment show and Terry was the first hire.”

Howie Long also joined the show at its inception, having just retired as a defensive end for the Raiders. He describes having arrived over-prepared with a stack of papers, when Hill and Bradshaw pulled him aside: “David said, ‘Look we didn’t bring you in here to be Bob Costas. We brought you in to be you.’ Terry said, ‘Relax man. Don’t worry about all this shit. Just go ahead and have fun.’ ”

As well as being the show’s centerpiece for 27 years, Bradshaw has set himself as a comic foil who hasn’t done his homework, in contrast to Long and Johnson as relative football scholars. Despite the joking, Richards says, “He comes as prepared, if not more so, as anybody else,” following a workweek that begins on Tuesday and, for Bradshaw, entails much interviewing of players—one of his fortes.

For the most part the on-air banter doesn’t take much planning. “The one thing Terry might put in his back pocket,” says Richards, is figuring out “what farm animal story makes sense with what is going on in the league that week.” It is a long-standing bit in which Bradshaw will liken a situation to a hog, a mule or a hound dog to make a point. The cameras inevitably cut to eye-rolling on the part of his cohosts who wonder where he’s going. “You have to commit to it to the end,” Richards adds. “It takes a while to get to the diner, but the food’s always good once you do.”

Even on the phone, Bradshaw slips livestock references into his conversation. Describing former Dallas Cowboy coach Johnson’s role on the show, he says, “I’m a sheep and he’s the shepherd. Wherever he goes we just follow behind him and go ‘baaaa.’ ”

Part of the format is a lot of good-natured kidding, which is important to Bradshaw on and off the set, “Do you want to have a working relationship or do you want to have a personal relationship? I always want to have a personal relationship.”

Long says that despite their differences in background (one a Catholic from Boston and the other a Baptist from Louisiana) they had an instant chemistry and have since been involved in each other’s lives. “He’s like the big brother I never wanted to have,” Long jokes. “Terry comes back to the house and spends time with my sons. I think he gets his boy fix through our family. He’s kind of a dysfunctional uncle in the sense of the movie Uncle Buck.” 

Notwithstanding the boys-club atmosphere of the show that spills over into his life, Bradshaw is quite capable of taking serious positions. He stood firm on the NFL’s problems with domestic abuse and sexual assault, even calling out a fellow Steeler, Ben Roethlisberger. “I did not let my words come softly. I have three girls and there’s a reason he got a suspension,” he says. “I like him as a player. I really do think he is phenomenal. But what I said about him killed any chance of us having any kind of relationship.”

As someone who as a child witnessed segregation in the South, Bradshaw has also spoke in support of players who kneel during the playing of the national anthem before games as a way of protesting mistreatment of blacks by police. “They have a right to do what they feel is best for them,” he says. “We are in changing times and I think it will all go for naught if the players don’t keep on with their movement, if they don’t keep on pushing for social equality, justice for all, like our constitution says.”

Amidst this discussion of one of the most serious issues to confront the sport of football, another phone rings. Bradshaw excuses himself and takes the call only to say, “Go! Disappear!” He comes back on the line to gripe about the caller: “He wanted to sell me this mare. I don’t want the mare. I already told him I didn’t want the mare.” Then he’s instantly back where the conversation left off. “If they just let the George Floyd incident die and go away, that would be a horrible crime to that man.”

The interchange is another example of how nimbly Bradshaw is able to switch back and forth between personae. Richards may have summed up his versatility best: “Most of us would kill to be in the Hall of Fame in one field and T.B. is without a doubt first ballot in two different fields.”

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