Football stressed Terry Bradshaw for 14 years, but it paid him back over next 4 decades

Terez Paylor
·Senior NFL writer
·17 min read

On a chilly morning in December 1993, Terry Bradshaw was sleeping soundly in his hotel bed when he was awakened by the sound of the phone next to him.

It was Greg Gumbel, Bradshaw’s coworker on “NFL Today.” The time in New York was 4:30, and Bradshaw figured the messenger was delivering grim information.

“Did you hear the news?” Gumbel asked. “We lost football.”

Bradshaw was surprised. Since his often-turbulent Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers ended a decade earlier, he’d gotten very good at avoiding things in his life that weren’t fun, and worrying about the business side of his second career was hardly what he considered to be a good time.

“When CBS lost football, there was a certain amount of panic and shock like, ‘Oh my God, this is over,’” Bradshaw said. “That Sunday morning was chaotic, stressful and very, very scary.”

Terry Bradshaw (left), sitting next to Howie Long, has been a fixture on NFL pregame broadcasts for decades. (Photo courtesy of Fox Sports)
Terry Bradshaw (left), sitting next to Howie Long, has been a fixture on NFL pregame broadcasts for decades. (Photo courtesy of Fox Sports)

Especially since Bradshaw figured he wasn’t that good as a studio analyst. Bradshaw always had his hand in multiple business ventures, and that hasn’t changed. He even has an upcoming reality show on E! called “The Bradshaw Bunch,” set to debut Thursday.

But at that point in his life, he was 45 and still searching for a foothold in the television business following a football career that had left scars, even after four Super Bowl titles.

“I had no idea what I was going to do,” Bradshaw said. “It never even crossed my mind that Fox would want me.”

The network did, of course, and Bradshaw went on to become an irreplaceable piece of the nation’s most-watched NFL pregame show, a man whose self-effacing charm has made him relevant for over three decades.

Something else happened along the way, nearly a dozen of Bradshaw’s close friends and family who spoke to Yahoo Sports said, something that had been even more elusive for Bradshaw. Eventually, he came to realize the positive effect his tortured football career had on the rest of his life, paving the way for him to mend his complicated relationship with Pittsburgh and the Steelers.

“I think he’s as at peace with [his football days] as possible,” said Howie Long, one of Bradshaw’s longtime broadcast partners.

Pain and joy in life as a Pittsburgh Steeler

When the Steelers drafted Bradshaw first overall in 1970, they were one of the NFL’s worst franchises, a perennial loser. Seeking to turn around a team that went 1-13 in his first year at the helm, Steelers head coach Chuck Noll was intrigued by Bradshaw’s impressive size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), athleticism and arm strength.

“Terry would throw the ball, and you could actually hear the ball whistling through the air,” said Mel Blount, arguably the greatest cornerback in NFL history. “I’ve seen guys’ fingers get split trying to catch the ball from Terry. Bradshaw threw the best-looking ball I’ve ever seen. It was like a bullet.”

Yet, early in his career, Bradshaw’s incredible arm didn’t compensate for his loose play and difficulties reading defenses. He drew the ire of Steelers fans after throwing 73 interceptions and 41 TD passes over his first four seasons.

“In a particular ballgame we played in Pittsburgh, Terry got knocked out and they carried him off the field and the fans cheered,” said Joe Greene, another Steelers great. “That was very painful for me, and I would have probably responded in a much, much different way than he did. Terry just kept it in.”

By the middle of the 1974 season, Bradshaw was surrounded by a Super Bowl-caliber team but stuck on the bench, having been supplanted as the starter by Joe Gilliam.

“It was like the city of Pittsburgh put him on a pedestal, and he felt like he needed to do everything he could to stay on that pedestal,” said Steelers legend John Stallworth. “He got to the point where that burden was just too much to bear.”

Bradshaw’s rocky relationship with Noll didn’t help. A people pleaser by nature, Bradshaw had thrived on positive reinforcement all his life. Noll, while brilliant and a future Hall of Famer himself, was demanding and notoriously unemotional with players.

“I was the No. 1 pick in the NFL, I wasn’t supposed to fail,” Bradshaw said. “I was extremely confused by the whole thing. I even asked to be traded; I just wanted to get away from Chuck Noll, really. I was hurt, I was angry, I definitely pouted, no question. I sulked.”

Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll, pictured on the sideline together in 1978, had a complicated relationship during their 14 seasons together in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll, pictured on the sideline together in 1978, had a complicated relationship during their 14 seasons together in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Adding to Bradshaw’s struggles was a narrative he had to contend with due to his blond hair, country twang and missing tooth.

“He was a Southern boy coming in North and he didn't talk like the Pittsburghers, and he got off to a rough start being a quarterback, and so right off the bat, they started questioning his intelligence,” Blount said.

Bradshaw played into it, perhaps unintentionally.

“To think that he was not enjoying himself would be the last thing I would have thought, because Terry was always fun-loving,” Greene said. “He was the guy that would tell jokes about himself, and he would be the guy that would laugh the hardest.”

It was an early glimpse of the innate entertainer, the self-deprecator, traits that would help him be so popular in his second career. Back then that perception, which led to comparisons to comic book character Li’l Abner, hurt.

“I’ve always wanted to defend myself,” Bradshaw said, “but I’ve found in life, it sounds like if you defend yourself, you sound like you’re making excuses. That’s why humor has been so good for me.”

Bradshaw would shatter those perceptions and prove his resilience, too. Once Noll turned the team back over to him in Week 11 of the 1974 season, Bradshaw earned respect and eventually led the Steelers to a 16-6 win over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX.

Finally, with the “bust” label off his shoulders, Bradshaw came into his own. He proceeded to win three more Super Bowls, silencing anyone who doubted his talent or intelligence, including Dallas Cowboys linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson.

Before Super Bowl XIII, Henderson famously ridiculed Bradshaw, saying he “couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted him the ‘c’ and the ‘a.’” Bradshaw went on to be named MVP of a 35-31 Steelers victory, and years later, Bradshaw says, Henderson apologized when the two ran into each other at a Dallas airport.

“Thomas was young and trying to grab some headlines,” Bradshaw said.

How football set Bradshaw up for success

Despite capping off his 1978 season, his finest as a pro, with the ultimate walk-off championship, the drain of it all took a toll on Bradshaw. Even after a championship the following season, he considered retirement. Bradshaw ultimately held on until 1984, when a recurring elbow injury ended his career.

“I don’t miss it, and I’ve never missed it,” Bradshaw said. “Pro football was not fun for me — it was stressful.”

Free of football, Bradshaw jumped headfirst into the entertainment world and hasn’t stopped, making millions along the way. Over the past four decades, he has guest-starred in movies and TV shows, recorded country and gospel albums and even capitalized on his “dumb” perception by touring the country with his one-man Vegas show called “America’s Favorite Dumb Blonde … A Life in Four Quarters.”

Bradshaw’s post-playing resume also includes being a best-selling author, a corporate speaker for 35 years, a whiskey maker and horse breeder on his 700-acre ranch in Oklahoma.

“I pretty much don’t do anything that’s not fun,” Bradshaw said. “It’s not worth it.”

It’s not lost on Bradshaw that he owes this winning philosophy to his football experience, which he vowed never to repeat. Yet Bradshaw’s time as a football broadcaster, which started with CBS in 1984 as a game analyst, allowed him to extend his relevancy.

“When the opportunity came to him to be on air, I said, ‘Now, that fits Terry to the T,’” former teammate Franco Harris said. “Because now, he can really just be himself.”

It took Bradshaw a while to get comfortable, as he struggled to remember players’ names and numbers. He made his way up to the No. 2 analyst spot at CBS behind the great John Madden, but became discouraged when he was eventually demoted.

Bradshaw received a jolt in 1990 when CBS asked him to do its studio show, “NFL Today,” which allowed him to show his personality for 30 minutes every Sunday.

Bradshaw grew in his new role, and his next employer took note.

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid speaks alongside broadcaster Terry Bradshaw after the Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV in February. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid speaks alongside broadcaster Terry Bradshaw after the Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV in February. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

How football helped Bradshaw at Fox

Within days of learning that CBS had lost football, Bradshaw received a call from Fox Sports. He flew out to California to meet with executive David Hill about the network’s new NFL pregame show.

Hill won Bradshaw over immediately with a vision of a free-wheeling program that would eschew the buttoned-up approach that epitomized football coverage at the time.

“That’s what I needed in my life,” Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw built a quick kinship with new castmates James Brown, Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson, as the former quarterback always took it upon himself to help his new teammates look good, just like he did as a player.

“He keeps everybody loose, and even though he’ll tell you he’s normally the butt of most of the jokes, he enjoys all the attention,” Johnson said.

The friendship that exists on set — “When we turn off the cameras, nothing changes, they’re exactly the same way to each other,” FOX NFL Sunday producer Bill Richards said — ensures there’s never any hard feelings.

“I enjoy it when they bust me, I do,” Bradshaw said, cackling. “Now, my family sometimes says, ‘Those guys are always making fun of you.’ And I say, ‘But it’s funny!’ And it’s my fault. I set them up. I do it to myself.”

Long estimates that at least 70 percent of the time, when Bradshaw says something wild, like when he references a farm animal, he knows exactly what he’s doing.

“If I had to bring a guy for the home run derby to pitch to me, he’d be it,” Long said. “I’d say, ‘I want it belt-high, and outside, and that’s where he’d hit it. He’s a classic, old-time entertainer, in the same vein of Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Milton Berle. He’s the straw that stirs the drink.”

Bradshaw's wit has some bite. After Michael Strahan turned down a rich offer from the New York Giants to join Fox in 2008, he gave a heartfelt speech at a dinner with the cast about how this was his new family now, drawing applause from everyone except for Bradshaw.

“He said, ‘You're a f- - - - - - moron. We'll be here next year, take the money,” Richards said, roaring. “Everybody was just dying, and that’s the thing, when everybody zig, Terry zags.”

It makes for good TV, as Fox boasts the nation’s most-watched pregame show for the past 26 seasons. The entire crew was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2019.

Now, Bradshaw is hoping to break into another genre.

Meet the stars of "The Bradshaw Bunch" reality show. From left, back row: Rachel Bradshaw, Lacey Hester, Erin Bradshaw. From left, front row: Tammy Bradshaw, Terry Bradshaw. (Photo Courtesy E! Entertainment)
Meet the stars of "The Bradshaw Bunch" reality show. From left, back row: Rachel Bradshaw, Lacey Hester, Erin Bradshaw. From left, front row: Tammy Bradshaw, Terry Bradshaw. (Photo Courtesy E! Entertainment)

How football helped Bradshaw’s family life

At 72, Bradshaw hardly appears to be the ideal candidate for a reality show. But when the idea was pitched to him, he agreed to it because he thought it would help his daughters get exposure.

Rachel, 33, is a country music singer while Erin, 31, is a competitive horse shower. They’ll join his stepdaughter, Lacey Hester, 31, along with Hester’s mother and Bradshaw’s wife, Tammy, on the show, which promises to reveal a never-before-seen side of Bradshaw.

“He has a fantastic sense of style, like anything he’s ever bought, you’re like, ‘Oh my God,’” Erin said. “I mean, I would let him go pick out my outfits for the next year. He’s an amazing girl dad.”

After his divorce from their mother when they were younger, Bradshaw made them breakfast and took them to school when they stayed with him. He helped them with homework, was adept at braiding their hair and remains an incredible listener, his football memories ensuring he’d work hard to never hurt their feelings with words, much like he’d been.

“My dad is one of the most sensitive people I’ve ever met,” Rachel said. “Like, he’ll call me and be like ‘Hey, were you mad at me yesterday?’ And I’d be like, ‘No, why?’ And he’s like, ‘I don't know, you were a little bit quiet and I just wondered if I did something wrong.’ He’s just so sweet.”

To which Bradshaw cackles.

“I love being a girl dad,” he said. “They got me, and they know it.”

But Bradshaw has also branded a toughness in them thanks to football. Take one time several years ago when Erin called her dad after losing badly in a horse-showing competition and started complaining.

“He really instilled in me to be tough about it and to always hold my head up and move forward,” Erin said. “S---’s going to happen, you’re going to get knocked down. You keep on going.”

Bradshaw’s penchant for resilience is matched only by his unbridled energy, his tendency to start singing and dancing at a moment’s notice apparent during even the longest days of taping.

“He’s 72 years old and I’m 30 and I’m like, ‘Hey, we need to sit down somewhere,’ and he’s like, ‘Let’s go, let’s go,’” Lacey said.

The ‘saint’ behind the scenes

Once taping for the reality show restarted in June after several months off due to the pandemic, they went for several weeks straight, recording at Bradshaw’s Oklahoma ranch from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., six days a week.

The result: Tammy suspects people will laugh a lot, and see Bradshaw as the same generous, big-hearted, loving teddy bear who will do anything for a laugh.

“In Terry Bradshaw’s world, it’s a series of waves,” Tammy said with a laugh. “And you just jump on it and go with them, wherever they take you.”

Tammy, who met Bradshaw in 2002 and married him in 2014, knows this better than most, as she has helped him battle an array of ailments over the past few decades.

“She’s an amazing woman, and I’m really blessed to have her,” Bradshaw said.

In addition to battling depression and memory loss since his playing days — “He loses his cellphone about once a week,” Johnson said — Bradshaw also has ADHD.

“When COVID-19 hit, I was honestly just worried for him and not sure how the heck Dad was gonna deal with not going to 17 states a week and working like that,” Rachel said. “But my stepmom is a saint — she takes care of him so much … I don’t know if I could do it. She’s really good for him. She’s the key.”

Indeed, while Tammy serves as the straight man to Bradshaw’s comedic foil on the show, she’s also his best friend, the one who travels with him, keeps his schedule and runs his business and finances. She also makes sure he takes his medication, and knows him so well she can help him navigate the mental funks that come with his conditions.

“Sometimes I can see the wheels turning, and then I’m like, ‘OK, something’s going on in there,’” Tammy said. “But he won’t talk about it until he’s ready to talk about it; it usually happens whenever we do have downtime.”

Which explains, in part, why Bradshaw likes to stay busy. It also explains why forgiveness hasn’t always been easy for Bradshaw, especially as it relates to his football past.

Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw (12), along with other teammates, celebrate after scoring a touchdown in Super Bowl XIV against the Los Angeles Rams on Jan. 20, 1980 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images)
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw (12), along with other teammates, celebrate after scoring a touchdown in Super Bowl XIV against the Los Angeles Rams on Jan. 20, 1980 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images)

How Bradshaw made peace with the past

When Bradshaw left Pittsburgh in 1984, he was so done with football that he remained estranged from the Steelers for decades and rarely talked about it with loved ones.

Time, family and friends suspect, healed some old wounds and so did all his success in broadcasting and business.

“It made him appreciate what he had done,” Rachel said. “Because when he left Pittsburgh, I truly don’t think he thought he was a big deal at all.”

And when he returned to the organization for the first time in 2001 to be honored at halftime of a Monday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, he was ready for the thunderous cheers that rained down upon him.

“That was so neat,” Bradshaw said.

Yet, Bradshaw’s road to peace hasn’t been flat. He has been critical of current team icons like Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger, and his absence at his induction into the Steelers Hall of Honor in 2017 — not to mention the funerals of Noll and beloved team owners Art Rooney Sr. and Dan Rooney — rubbed some the wrong way over the years.

Bradshaw, however, has noted that while he respected Noll and Dan Rooney, he wasn’t close with them. Additionally, Rooney Sr.’s funeral happened in 1988, when memories were still raw.

“Had I been mature, I wouldn’t have put myself in the positions I put myself in,” Bradshaw said. “I know I was scarred from [my career] for a long time, and it didn’t hurt them — it hurt me.”

And remember, Bradshaw’s career contributed greatly to an innate devotion to avoiding anything that isn’t fun with few exceptions, like funerals for former teammate Mike Webster in 2002 and Joe Greene’s mother earlier this year.

“He went to those funerals because of the brotherhoods and the bonds we created over a lifetime,” Blount said.

And now, Bradshaw says that for all the drama of his football career, all the pain he endured, those relationships, which gave him some great memories and valuable lessons, have made it all worth it.

“You can’t ask for more than that,” Bradshaw said. “I’ve tolerated the good and the bad, I’ve endured and learned how to fight and overcome. I wouldn’t change a thing because I’ve never been so happy in all my life.”

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