Wagner took winding path to Super Bowl glory
No story summarizes the professional football career of Mike Wagner better than this one:
A few years ago, Wagner was looking for a complete video of the 1974 AFC championship game, when he and his Pittsburgh Steeler teammates beat Oakland to advance to their first Super Bowl. Wagner turned to a familiar frenemy, former Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, for help.
"He says, 'I've got a guy. He'll make you a copy and I'll send it to you,'" Wagner said from his home outside of Pittsburgh. "So I get this package in the mail and it's addressed: 'To Mike Wagner, (Bleep) the Pittsburgh Steelers.'
"That's all that was on the package, except for the postage. And the post office delivered that to me."
Most football fans will recognize Wagner as a starting safety for the famed Steel Curtain defense that dominated 1970s NFL. The Raiders weren't the only team that got run over a few times while those Steelers won four Super Bowls.
And the post office knowing where to find him? Well, imagine the current popularity of anyone who played for the '85 Bears in Chicago, and then multiply it times four. That's probably a good description of Wagner's status in the Steel City.
"People will say to me, 'How do those people treat you in Pittsburgh?' I say, 'They treat us like treasures.' When people come over and say hi to me, I see a sparkle in their eyes," Wagner said. "The sparkle is not them remembering me doing anything special on the football field. They're remembering how much fun they were having while we were winning football games. That was a great thing."
There's no doubt Wagner was in the perfect place at the perfect time. He was drafted in the 11th round out of Western Illinois in 1971, when third-year head coach Chuck Noll was looking to rebuild. Wagner started 116 games for the Steelers over the next 10 years. He led the NFL with 8 interceptions in '73.
Going new school
How he got to that point is an unlikely story. Wagner grew up in Lake Villa, on the eastern shore of Fox Lake. He was part of the second class to enter the new Carmel High School in Mundelein. In 2017, he attended his 50th anniversary reunion.
"My first year, there were only freshmen and sophomores," Wagner said. "So we were the second graduating class in '67."
Wagner was small at the time and says he got cut from the football team as both a freshman and sophomore. He played as a junior, was an all-area pick as a senior, but didn't get recruited. So he went to Western Illinois planning to major in business and started hanging around the football field.
"I would sit in the stands or walk around while the team was out practicing," he said. "I kind of said to myself, 'I can probably play with these guys.' So I went down to the head coach's office -- this was late September -- and said, 'I don't know if you usually do this, but would you allow me to practice with your team?' To my surprise, he said, 'Sure.' Within a week or so, I was starting on the freshman team."
Wagner started on varsity as a sophomore. After a coaching change, he convinced the new staff to give him a scholarship and kept climbing.
"I actually worked on the Lake Villa road crew all summer," Wagner said. "Most of the time I was shoveling pea gravel or something out of the back of a truck. So I got in pretty good shape and I ended up playing well my junior year and made honorable mention little college All-American."
Wagner said he limped through his senior season after injuring both ankles, thanks to a crackback block in a scrimmage. Otherwise, he might have been drafted long before the 11th round.
While Wagner was traveling this unlikely path, he was also fortunate to find strong coaching along the way, at both Carmel and WIU. Carmel's first football coach was former Notre Dame running back Angelo Dabiero, who was in his mid-20s at the time.
"He put together a staff of assistant coaches who were great college players," Wagner said. "They used to have semipro football in the area, so these guys would coach us and they'd practice at night and they'd play for the Lake County Rifles on Saturday night or something like that. So they were pretty good coaches.
"I tell people, even to this day, I received some coaching fundamentals and techniques that I never received in the pros. I learned how to read pulling guards when I was in high school. If you can have that skill, then you can really support the run."
He had a similar experience in his later years at Western Illinois when the head coach was Darrell Mudra and the defensive coordinator Howard Justice, an Iowa high school coaching legend.
"By the time I left Western Illinois, I understood the mental side of the game and I was big enough, strong enough and fast enough," Wagner said. "In the secondary, football is a lot of angles and other fundamentals and techniques. Somehow I survived 10 years in the NFL being a safety of average speed."
The Curtain rises
In 1971, Wagner showed up to Steelers training camp with fellow rookies like Jack Ham, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw was in his second season and defensive end "Mean" Joe Greene started his third year.
"I barely knew much about the city of Pittsburgh itself, let alone the football team," Wagner said. "When I first went there, the steel mills were still cranked up and these blast furnaces and stuff. It was eerie, smoggy."
The Steelers were starting to build the one of the great teams in NFL history, but no one knew it at the time. They finished 6-8 in 1971.
"The thing that was luck for me, our first game in preseason as rookies was up in Green Bay," Wagner said. "My clan is from the Oshkosh area, so I had lots of relatives, a bunch of my high school buddies. I had to get like 50 tickets for the game. I tease them that they went because they thought it would be the only time they'd ever see me in a Steelers uniform.
"Beginning of the second quarter, I'm sitting on the bench, twiddling my thumbs. I'm kind looking around at the lights, since it was an evening game at Lambeau Field. All of the sudden, I hear the coaches yelling for me to go in the game. What happened was the veteran safety blew his knee out. He was done for the year. That was my opportunity and quite honestly, once I was in there, unless I was hurt, I was in that position for the rest of my career."
Wagner's first regular-season game was against the Bears at Soldier Field. Those two teams quickly headed in opposite directions, with the Steelers going 117-46, including playoffs, during Wagner's 10 seasons. The only pothole was he missed the '79 playoffs and Super Bowl IV against the Rams due to a hip injury.
"The greatest experience would be when it was 10 degrees out and the field was frozen and there's a timeout and it's December and a championship game, you'd look up in the stands and the fans are all having fun," Wagner said. "It was just something that made their day or their week."
And created a lifetime of memories for both sides.
• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls