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Obituary: Steve Furness

Backup lineman for Steel Curtain during '70s

Friday, February 11, 2000

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

What the Steelers remember about Steve Furness stands as a requiem of a role player: He toiled diligently, gave his all for the team, garnered so little of the spotlight while standing in the shadows of the Steel Curtain's front four.

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"When called upon," said Joe Greene, the former defensive tackle, "Steve delivered every time."

"He was very much into doing whatever you asked him to do," added Chuck Noll, the former coach. "And he did it very well -- hard. He was great for us."

Greatness doesn't always present itself in Hall of Fame enshrinements or careers draped in glory. Mr. Furness earned his place in Steelers history by playing in all four Super Bowl championships as a backup defensive lineman between 1972 and 1980, and by playing hard.

When he was pronounced dead Wednesday night at St. Clair Hospital, the victim of a heart attack at 49, he was the first to pass from the 22 Steelers players who won four Super Bowl rings.

Mr. Furness, who later coached Steelers defensive linemen in 1992 and 1993, probably achieved the most NFL celebrity by replacing an injured Greene during Super Bowls X and XIII against Dallas.

George Perles better remembered the versatile lineman's role in another championship adventure: Super Bowl IX against Minnesota in 1974.

"We pulled into the hotel the Sunday before the game, and [defensive end] Dwight White came down with pneumonia ... and was in the hospital the whole week. Of course, Steve was taking snaps for the whole week in practice," said Perles, the Steelers defensive coordinator then.

"We had a dilemma coming out to start the game -- I didn't know what to do. Steve came up to me and said, 'Coach, I'll be around for a lot of Super Bowls and Dwight's older than me. Why don't you let Dwight start?' Dwight played the whole game, played a great game, and after that had to go back to a hospital.

"That's the kind of guy Steve was."

Born Dec. 5, 1950, the native of Warwick, R.I., wound up playing all over the field for the University of Rhode Island, earning a bachelor's degree and meeting his wife, Debby. He considered attending dental school and the U.S. Olympic Trials as a hammer thrower before the Steelers came along. Tim Rooney, a University of Rhode Island assistant previously, scouted him. Noll joked that his son, Chris, a onetime tryout kicker at URI, also helped in the scouting.

Whatever the case, the Steelers drafted Mr. Furness as a defensive end in the fifth round in 1972, and he fell into place behind a line that already had White and L.C. Greenwood at ends, Greene and Ernie Holmes at tackles.

"Steve was a guy who, when he came here, was really not a polished player," recalled Steelers President Dan Rooney. "He really worked hard and became a guy you could count on."

The young lineman was particularly adept at going helmet to helmet, like a ram.

"That's probably what kept him here starting out," Greenwood said. "He gave good head-butt."

In fact, said Greene, the Arizona Cardinals defensive line coach, "He started the tradition with the defensive linemen ... the head-butt drill. If there were six veteran defensive linemen, he would take two hits from each one, and these weren't love taps. Steve would take them all. He was the only guy who could last through that. We called him 'Buckethead,' with that big head."

Greene said when he missed the AFC championship game after the 1975 season because of assorted ailments and was admittedly ineffective after the first couple of series in Super Bowl X, "Steve went in and did a great job. The defensive line got seven sacks, which is still a record."

Mr. Furness, who also started Super Bowl XIII in Greene's place, ranks 10th all-time among Steelers with 32 sacks.

His contributions were seemingly as sturdy off the field.

"Steve and Mike Webster and Jon Kolb and Larry Brown were probably the four guys most instrumental in promoting Chuck Noll's weightlifting program," Perles said. "When we won Super Bowls, so much was made about how these guys were built, and it caught on nationally. That's why so many teams got started on weights.

"I thought so much of him that when I got the job with the Philadelphia Stars in the United States Football League, he was the first guy I hired," Perles continued, referring to 1982, after Mr. Furness finished his NFL career with the Detroit Lions. "When I went to Michigan State [weeks later], I took him with me. And so he was, in some ways, like a son."

Mr. Furness, as the Michigan State defensive line coach from 1982 to 1990, taught his players the Steelers' stunt 4-3 alignment, with the defensive tackle tilted between a center and guard. He blindfolded his linemen during some practices, so they could acquire a feel for rushing the passer.

"He was a teacher, and the kids knew he cared about them," Perles said. "They followed him around like ducks."

He was inducted into the URI Sports Hall of Fame in 1987, the same year he received a master's degree in athletic administration from Michigan State.

In 1991, Mr. Furness joined the staff of the Indianapolis Colts, where he likewise coached the defensive line until Bill Cowher hired him to do the same with the Steelers a year later.

After two seasons with the Steelers -- seasons that ended with first-round playoff losses -- Mr. Furness was fired in January 1994. He was interviewed for other NFL and college positions but never landed another coaching job.

Mr. Furness, who resided in Bethel Park, went into the real estate business and recently represented a firm that installs football fields, Field Turf. He made appearances and was active with the Mel Blount Youth Home, United Way and Blue Cross/Blue Shield during and after his NFL career.

He is survived by his ex-wife, Debby, and son, Zaban, of Upper St. Clair; son, Zachary, of Oakland; brother, Peter of North Kingstown, R.I.; mother, Elsie Colburn of Warwick, R.I.; and fiancee, Peggy Bombich of Bethel Park.

Visitation will be from 2 to 9 p.m. today in the Beinhauers Mortuary, 2828 Washington Road, Peters.

A celebration of his life will be held at noon tomorrow in the funeral home.

The family requests that donations be made to the Mel Blount Youth Home, 6 Mel Blount Drive, Claysville 15323.

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