No professional athlete ever knows which game will be his or her last, even the greats.
That was certainly the case for legendary Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who played his final game in the NFL on Dec. 10, 1983. The Steelers may have beaten the New York Jets 34-7 at Shea Stadium, but they lost the centerpiece of an offense that won four Super Bowls during Bradshaw’s 14 seasons in the NFL.
It was a right elbow injury that ultimately ended Bradshaw’s career, which also happens to be the reason the Steelers were recently forced to shut down Ben Roethlisberger for the 2019 season. The Steelers don’t believe his injury is career-threatening, but a disconcertingly similar ailment ended the career of one of his predecessors.
Bradshaw hurt his elbow during training camp in 1982 and played that entire season in a great deal of pain, only getting through it due to weekly cortisone shots. He played in his last playoff game on Jan. 9, 1983, throwing for 325 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 31-28 loss to the San Diego Chargers.
He had surgery on that right elbow during the 1983 offseason and clearly wasn’t feeling right as the Steelers prepared for another season.
The discomfort in that elbow forced him to sit out the first 13 games of the 1983 season. After suffering three straight losses and dropping to 9-5 in the standings, the Steelers decided to plug Bradshaw back in for a matchup against the Jets.
“You know, I have half a feeling I’m going to play well,” Bradshaw told the Post-Gazette’s Gary Tuma in the Dec. 10, 1983, edition.
He wasn’t necessarily wrong. Bradshaw went 5 for 8 for 77 yards and two touchdowns. His last throw as an NFL quarterback was a 10-yard touchdown strike to receiver Calvin Sweeney. That throw left him with immense pain in his throwing arm and he was promptly replaced by backup Cliff Stoudt.
It wasn’t immediately apparent that Bradshaw’s career was over following that game. In fact, he and the Steelers thought he may be able to play the next week against the Cleveland Browns.
“If I had to play today, I couldn’t,” Bradshaw told Tuma on Dec. 12. “The decision on whether or not I’ll be able to play Sunday in Cleveland may go right up ’til game time. I’m going to practice this week. I’ll do all the mental preparation and get myself ready.”
To his credit, Bradshaw really did seemingly try everything to get himself healthy enough to play in the next game, including soliciting the help of a bird that allegedly had “mystical healing powers.”
By Dec. 17, it was clear Bradshaw wasn’t ready to suit up.
“I can’t see myself playing under any circumstances,” he told The Pittsburgh Press’ Ron Cook. “All the swelling is out of my elbow, but it’s a really deep bruise. It’s going to take another five or six days before I’m ready to play.
“After this game, we have two weeks to get ready for the playoffs. That’s what I’m shooting for. I don’t know if I’ll play then or not, but I want to be ready if I’m needed. I don’t want to have any restrictions on my arm. It’s too tough playing with restrictions.”
Unfortunately, he would miss the rest of the Steelers’ season and postseason. His future as an NFL quarterback was beginning to come into question for the first time.
On July 24, 1984, Bradshaw announced his retirement from football and his plans to join CBS Sports as a broadcaster at a ceremony in New York City.
“His eyes were wet, whether with perspiration or tears, or both, was hard to tell,” wrote Paul Jayes in the July 25, 1984, edition of the Post-Gazette. “He talked easily — he always has — and the hard-boiled New York City media listened with due respect to the greatest quarterback of the 1970s, perhaps the greatest of them all.”
At the ceremony, Bradshaw talked about his “Steelers family” including “Mean” Joe Greene, Franco Harris and Art Rooney. He said he was especially proud of accomplishing “great and exciting things” on behalf of Pittsburgh, helping to “give the city back its self-respect” in the process.
“It was a long struggle, a lot of valleys,” Bradshaw said. “And, of course, when we got to the mountain top, it was great.”
Bradshaw also confirmed that it was a combination of his health and the promise of opportunities in sports media that made him believe it was time to call it quits.
“It wasn’t that tough,” he said of his decision to retire. “I didn’t have any choice. … When I came back June 4, I was hurt. I told the Steelers I was hurt. I kept trying to dodge it because I was negotiating with the networks, but I knew then.”
To recap: Bradshaw had surgery on his right elbow, played in one game the following season and then moved on from football the next summer.
Roethlisberger could view Bradshaw’s decline either as a cautionary tale or a roadmap to retiring with dignity. If he chooses the latter, it would be extremely eerie to know the careers of the two greatest quarterbacks in Steelers history ended on almost the same exact note.