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Original Issue

A time for the Stoudt of heart

Pittsburgh's boo-birds welcomed back whipping boy Cliff Stoudt

When Cliff Stoudt replaced Terry Bradshaw at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, he was greeted with all the enthusiasm Ed McMahon would get if he subbed for Johnny. Stoudt's problem was a penchant for getting his passes picked off, and though the Steelers won their division, by the end of the year Stoudt was being booed almost every time he took the field. The whole experience made him downright depressed. "I tried to commit suicide," he says. "But the bullet got intercepted."

On Sunday the quipping quarterback, now with the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL, brought his act back to town for a game against the Maulers and found that Pittsburghers' boos are loud in any league. Indeed, heckling Stoudt had become a sort of cottage industry in the Iron City. There were BOO STOUDT buttons, T shirts and pep rallies. A local radio station, WEEP, printed WEEP FOR STOUDT pennants. Three Rivers Stadium had been sold out—a USFL first—two weeks in advance, and most ticket requests were for seats behind the Stallions' bench. "It's the social event of the year," Stoudt exulted. But it wasn't exactly a debutante's ball. "They'll be coming at you like a thousand screaming Uzbeks with dull knives," warned Steve Courson, a former Steeler teammate. Courson was referring, of course, to the Turko-Mongol hordes who blitzed Transoxiana in the 16th century.

As it turned out, the local Uzbeks pelted Stoudt with iceballs, apples, oranges, full beer cans and frozen Oreos. At one point, the game had to be stopped when an official standing near Stoudt got clobbered by a beer bottle. Stoudt himself got hit in the helmet three times. His own aim was considerably less accurate. Of his 16 passes, he completed just one in each half for a total of 29 yards. But he also scrambled for a 10-yard TD and a two-point conversion while engineering the Stallion's 30-18 win.

How had Stoudt prepared for his return to the scene of his humiliation? During practice in Birmingham, Stallions coach Rollie Dotsch had piped crowd noise and anti-Stoudt slurs over the loud-speakers. For stealing Stoudt from the Steelers, Dotsch had received a thank-you note signed by 100 Steeler fans. Clipped to the card was a dollar bill to help defray the cost of Stoudt's three-year, $1.2 million contract.

Stoudt, who will turn 29 on March 27, is extremely good-natured about all this. He's a an easygoing Joe, in the Namath mold. That is, if Namath were 6'4", 215 pounds and owned 20 pairs of boots—ostrich, eel, lizard, antelope and python (no, not Monty). "Namath was my idol," Stoudt says. "People tell me I look like him. The truth is, I have better legs." Perhaps, but nobody yet has asked him to model panty hose.

In five years on the Steelers' bench, Stoudt, a fifth-round draft choice out of Youngstown State in 1977, was a paragon of patience. For his first 3½ years, 56 games in all, with Pittsburgh, Stoudt was in a kind of never-never land: He was never sacked and never intercepted, but then, he never played a down, either. As Bradshaw's backstop, he mostly stood on the sidelines compiling defensive charts that Bradshaw never looked at and polishing his comedy routines: "I've heard of bringing guys along slowly, but this is ridiculous."

In Stoudt's company, flippancies fly more fleetly than James Lofton on a post pattern, than a blitzing Lawrence Taylor, than..."a Terry Bradshaw aerial," says Stoudt helpfully. Bradshaw, it happens, is never far from his thoughts.

Stoudt could have played in any number of Steeler blowouts those first 56 games, but his coach, Chuck Noll, never put him in. "It wouldn't have been fair," Noll told him. "Hell," says Stoudt. "I'd have played tight end just to get into a game." He never asked to be traded; he wanted to be a Steeler.

It was at Super Bowl XIV in Los Angeles in 1980 that a hungry horde of media people searching for fresh angles "discovered" Stoudt. He was on the verge of winning his second Super Bowl ring without ever having played a second of pro ball. "I played it for all it was worth," Stoudt says.

He told the press, "I reach my threshold of pain when my toes get cold in the fourth quarter."

And, "Yes, I shower with the team. But I don't know if they wash my uniform." After all, it never was dirtied.

Stoudt parlayed his newfound celebrity into $30,000 on the off-season banquet circuit telling jokes about not playing.

Like all NFL players, Stoudt qualified for his pension in the third game of his fourth season, 1980. The following week he finally got his chance, entering a rout of the Bears and leading an 80-yard drive that ended with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Franco Harris. In the next 2½ years he threw only one more TD pass and seven interceptions. But of the 11 games he played in, he started just one.

Stoudt fumbled a chance to start in 1981 when he took out his frustrations on a barroom punching bag in Seattle. He threw a right hook and broke the ulna of his throwing arm. He was out for the season. A month later, Bradshaw broke a bone in his throwing hand, and Mark Malone, the third-stringer, became the quarterback for the rest of the year.

The flutterball wisecracks that Stoudt tossed off masked his melancholy. "At times I loved the attention," he says. "But then the jokes started getting old. Many nights I'd lay awake thinking about what I could've done if I'd come into the league without Brad around."

Last season, with Bradshaw out with an elbow injury, it looked as if Stoudt's patience had finally paid off. The Steelers had a green receiving unit and a patchwork offensive line, but still won nine of their first 11 games, scoring just enough to get by. Stoudt's chip-shot attack was cautious and methodical; he didn't blow games open as Bradshaw did with exciting bombs.

Then the Steelers turned to rust, dropping five of their last six, including a 38-10 thrashing by the Raiders in the playoffs. "The more we lost, the deeper and deeper the pass patterns got," says Stoudt. "That's not my game, it's Terry's." Stoudt had a 40.9% completion rate during that stretch, and the Steelers wound up with the second-worst passing offense in the league.

Stoudt maintained his dignity even when he was trotted through a gauntlet of cruel embarrassments. With the Steelers losing big in their final home game, Bradshaw, who was in uniform but unable to play, began tossing 20-yard spirals on the sidelines. The crowd began chanting "Bradshaw! Bradshaw! Bradshaw!" Stoudt was upset and bewildered. He says it was as if a long, thin nail was being hammered into his coffin. "Very long," he says, "and very thin."

One morning Stoudt's wife Laura turned on the radio to hear: "The bad news is that Cliff Stoudt got hit by a truck today." Stunned, she called the stadium, missing the commentator's punch line: "The good news for the Steelers is that he only broke his right arm."

The final indignation came when Noll refused to name his starting quarterback for the playoffs until the morning of the Raiders' game. Stoudt's competition was a still-injured Bradshaw and Malone, who hadn't started all year. "Cliff took it pretty hard," says Laura. "He didn't want to go out in public at all. He stopped joking and just stayed home watching Pat Benatar videos on MTV."

Enter Dotsch, the former Steeler offensive line coach. When he left Pittsburgh in '82 to take the Stallions' head job, he lured wide receiver Jim Smith from the Steelers. Stoudt, who had a year left on his contract, told Dotsch, "Hey, don't forget me." And he didn't. Dotsch saw in Stoudt the tactician he needed to run the ground-oriented offense that had led the USFL in rushing in 1983.

The offers made to Stoudt by the Steelers and the Stallions were pretty much the same. "It was time for Cliff to stop waiting for Terry to retire and make it on his own," says Laura.

So Stoudt went to Birmingham—and found boo-birds there, too. They were all over him in the team's opening-day loss to New Jersey on Feb. 26, when he played more like an old cart horse than a proud Stallion. Dotsch replaced Stoudt in the second half with Bobby Lane (no, not Bobby Layne). The next morning Dotsch called Stoudt into his office and told him how terrible he had looked. "The important thing for Cliff was that Rollie talked to him," says Laura. "That's more than Chuck ever did. Cliff left Rollie's office feeling good about himself."

By Game 2, a 21-14 victory over the Express in Los Angeles, Stoudt had regained his confidence. And his softly self-mocking sensibility. "Let's make sure you, me and Smitty spread out on the field," he told Dotsch before the Maulers game. "That way one hand grenade won't get us all."

Of course, there may be more Stallions where Stoudt came from. About a dozen Steelers are currently in their option years, including Bradshaw.

And if Bradshaw became a Stallion?

"If he does," says Stoudt, "I'm calling the Uzbeks."


You can call Stoudt's "fans" Cliff hangers.


As a Stallion, Stoudt is running the show; as a Steeler, he spent years just listening to it.