Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Mike Wagner: The Thinking Man's Player

By Doug Kennedy
For PittsburghLIVE
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Considered by many to be an overachiever, Mike Wagner patrolled the secondary from his safety position for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1971 through 1980. Twice he made the Pro Bowl (1975 and 1976) and ranks sixth on the Black and Gold’s all-time interception list with thirty-six picks.

After an injury in the first pre-season game to starting strong safety, Chuck Beatty, a teammate of Joe Greene at North Texas State, Wagner, as a rookie, moved into the starting lineup. “I learned under fire,” said Wagner who actually moved to free safety following the 1977 trade of Glen Edwards. Three games before the end of the ’71 season, Wagner was injured, and Beatty was reinserted into the lineup to replace Mike for the balance of the year.

An eleventh round pick out of Western Illinois, that is the equivalent of a free agent today, Wagner was known as the cerebral quarterback of that Steeler defensive backfield. “People hang tags on you,” he said. “There is a certain amount of thinking on the football field. Coaches love talent and I don’t think I was the most talented, but I tried not to make mental mistakes. I didn’t have the quickest step, but I put myself in the correct position, then I would be able to make plays and I accepted that challenge.”

Mike played high school football at Carmel High School, a Catholic school in the suburban Chicago area. “It was very comparable to Western Pennsylvania high school football,” he said. “I was a skinny kid and didn’t get any scholarship offers so I went to Western Illinois and just tried out for the team.”

By his junior year, a season in which Mike won little All-American honors, he was beginning to attract some professional scouts to the Division III campus. “I felt I had a shot at the pros,” said Wagner, who began his college career as a 6’2” 185 pound defensive end. “I felt I was fast enough, tough enough, and big enough,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what they (the Steelers) were thinking, but they drafted me at the right time when they were rebuilding.”

By his second season with the Steelers, Coach Noll had made enough changes to the secondary that all four of the previous starters were gone and the nucleus of the defensive backfield was being set with Mike, Edwards, Mel Blount, and J.T. Thomas.

“We had a mindset that we would not go into simple defenses,” said Wagner. “It was an attitude that we weren’t going to allow offenses to dictate our defense.”

Mike also had the honor of being part of all 4 Steeler Super Bowls in the ‘70’s. He played in three, having been injured in the last half of the 1979 regular season, that caused him to miss the game against the Rams.

Wagner says the first one was probably the best because it was the most rewarding to both the city and the team, considering the years of frustration that both the Steelers and the Rooneys had endured.

But the third win, the second one against the Cowboys (Super Bowl XIII) in 1978, was the most challenging. “It was the season when most of the media and the fans were saying that we were too old and not hungry enough,” remembers Wagner. “There were a lot of challenges to win that game at the time. I just thought it was the best thing all the way around.” This was also Mike’s first full season as the Steelers free safety. In the third game of the ’77 season, Wagner fractured three vertebrae in his neck, making a tackle.

Personally, the first Super Bowl win against the Cowboys (Super Bowl X), is perhaps the one that most people will remember Mike Wagner. That key 4th quarter interception was something that Cowboy quarterback, Roger Staubach, still accuses Wagner of guessing. According to Staubach, it was a play, that for the first time all season long, didn’t work.

“Because the Cowboys had so much shifting and motion,” said Mike, “we actually ended up changing our defense on that play a couple of times. That was always a concern for me- that everybody’s on the same page.”

Earlier in that game, Wagner had been burned for a touchdown because he wasn’t comfortable with the defense the Steeler secondary was playing. “My theory on being a defensive back is that there might be a breakdown in coverage. I would play soft, where most coaches would say take care of your business and do what you’re supposed to do.”

When the Cowboys came back with that same play later in the game, Wagner said that he had learned by trial and error. “I ran to the spot and there was the football,” he said. “My biggest concern was just don’t drop it.”

Even though he made the interception, Mike remembers the final play of the game. “Roger was still running around and threw the ball in the endzone for Drew Pearson. I got a fingertip on it and my biggest fear was what was going to happen, but Glen (Edwards) intercepted it.”

Wagner, who has made his home in the North Hills part of Pittsburgh for the last twenty-five years, currently works for GVAOxford, a company who serves as middle men between the buying or renting of buildings for tenants, owners, and landlords. His business, since he retired, has always been in corporate finance and investment banking.

Before moving to the Pittsburgh area permanently, Mike and his family used to travel to one of their two Colorado homes (Keystone and Vale) to enjoy some downhill skiing. “A week after the season ended, we would be out to our house in Colorado and then come back to Pittsburgh in June.” That process lasted from 1975 through 1980.

Wagner acknowledges that the bond, which exists between the players on those Super Bowl teams, is unmatched. He says that he has probably stayed closer to Jack Ham, who he began rooming with since his rookie season, than anyone else.

“One of the really great things about being a Pittsburgh Steeler from those championship teams is the gleam that people get in their eyes when they recognize us,” he proudly said. “There’s a great sense of pride in how the fans bonded with the team and vice-versa.”
When Mike travels back to his home state of Illinois, people will ask him how the fans back in Pittsburgh treated the players. Wagner simply responds with two words- “Like treasures.”

Doug Kennedy is a long-time sports producer and director.

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