In the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the most dominating defenses in football.
The “Steel Curtain” did not suffer fools, although many opponents tried to test Pittsburgh’s mettle.
Amongst the many colorful characters on the defense was cornerback Mel Blount.
Blount arrived in the Steel City in 1970, just before the Steelers began their ascent to the height of pro football.
During his 14-year career, Blount became one of the best cover men in NFL history.
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) April 11, 2019
In fact, he was so good that the NFL changed the rules regarding how defenders could cover receivers.
The rule change did little to affect Blount’s game, and he continued to hound pass catchers for many more years.
Blount was part of a franchise that won four Super Bowls within a six-year span, and his talents eventually earned Blount induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This is his story.
Humble Roots Lead to a College Scholarship
Melvin Cornell Blount was born on April 10, 1948, in Vidalia, Georgia.
— Today In GA History (@2DayInGAHistory) April 10, 2020
He was the last of 11 children born to parents who were farmers in rural Georgia.
Blount’s family was poor, but they stuck together and encouraged one another.
The family home did not have electricity or plumbing, and the Blount kids helped pay the bills by working.
Each day began with Blount and his siblings helping to load tobacco on wagons and then heading to school.
As Blount got older, he gravitated to sports as his older brothers had done before him.
During his prep career at Lyons High School, Blount played football, basketball, baseball, and ran track.
His upbringing made Blount tough, and he took on all challengers as part of the “country football” ethic his brothers drilled into him.
Although Lyons was a small school, Blount’s accolades on the gridiron caught the attention of coaches at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
He was offered a scholarship to play for the Jaguars, and Blount accepted.
Blount Leads Southern
While playing at Southern, Blount grew into his eventual 6’3”, 205-pound frame.
He had a high football IQ, was extremely quick, could change directions on a dime, and could outleap most opponents.
By the time he was a junior, Blount was playing cornerback, safety, and returning kicks.
That year, he was named to the SWAC All-Conference team and was also the conference’s MVP.
Southern University, Baton Rouge Louisiana. pic.twitter.com/ACpf1YIWV8
— Tomlin Reactions 🆃 (@TomlinReactions) July 9, 2018
As a senior in 1969, Blount continued shutting down receivers and gained more attention, repeating as a SWAC All-Conference member and receiving an All-American designation from a number of organizations.
NFL scouts who watched film of Blount saw that he was versatile as a corner and safety, and he began moving up the board for the 1970 NFL Draft.
With the 53rd overall pick in the third round of the draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Blount.
It was a surreal moment for Blount given his upbringing.
“Growing up in the South, the youngest of 11 kids, growing up on a farm, my parents were farmers and that is how we made our living,” said Blount. “We worked the fields, went to school, and this little thing called a football we threw around. We started playing and the next thing you know I get a scholarship to Southern University and I get drafted in the National Football League and came to a great organization like the Steelers.”
Blount was headed to a Pittsburgh organization in 1970 that had been to the playoffs exactly once in its entire history.
However, the franchise hired Chuck Noll in 1969, and the former Baltimore Colts defensive coordinator began to assemble a talented roster.
By the time Blount arrived, “Mean” Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood had been drafted the year before.
Blount and new quarterback Terry Bradshaw were added in 1970.
— BlitzburghUSAVideos (@sdextrasmedia) March 18, 2021
The team went from one win in ‘69 to five in 1970.
In the midst of the season, Blount had to learn the pro game quickly, and he soon realized that he was ill-prepared for the NFL.
“As I had time to sort things out,” Blount later recalled, “I realized that the football I had played at Southern hadn’t given me the background I needed for pro football. In college, the game was so much less complex, but more physical. It was played on natural ability and very little else.”
As a cornerback playing on a proverbial island, Blount had to overcome his mistakes quickly or risk washing out of the league.
“I had to realize every mistake I made was a lesson,” he explained. “Instead of thinking about how many times I had been beaten, I decided to think of how many lessons I had learned.”
Blount started 10 games as a rookie, made one interception, and had a fumble recovery (the NFL did not keep track of tackles at the time).
In 1971, Jack Ham, Dwight White, and Mike Wagner were added through the draft and played alongside Blount.
Blount started 10 games again and had two picks and a forced fumble as the Steelers improved to six wins.
Breakthrough for Pittsburgh and Blount
As the Steelers were preparing for the 1972 season, Pittsburgh’s secondary coach, Bud Carson, told anyone who would listen that ‘72 was Blount’s year to shine.
“I know Mel is an outstanding prospect,” Carson said. “He has great ability and speed. He shows all the physical requisites to be as good as anyone in the league.”
Meanwhile, running back Franco Harris was drafted by the Steelers, and the team finally took off.
The Pittsburgh defense was ranked second in the NFL, and the offense was fifth on the way to a franchise-best 11 wins.
Carson proved prophetic in his assessment of Blount.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) March 28, 2021
During the ‘72 season, the corner did not allow a single touchdown.
Blount started 13 games and had three interceptions, a half-sack, and two fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Then, in just their second playoff game in team history, the Steelers won an improbable Divisional Playoff game against the Oakland Raiders.
With only 22 seconds remaining, Pittsburgh was losing the contest, 7-6, and had the ball on their half of the field facing fourth and ten.
After the snap, Bradshaw threw a desperation pass to running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua.
As the ball arrived so did Oakland safety Jack Tatum.
The collision between the two players caused the ball to ricochet into the air.
Legendary Steelers RB Franco Harris, author of the “Immaculate Reception” – one of the greatest plays in NFL history – has passed away at the age of 72.
A 4-time Super Bowl champion, Hall of Fame player and revered individual by so many.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 21, 2022
Just before it hit the ground, Harris came from nowhere to snatch the ball at his shoe tops.
He then proceeded to run for a touchdown, giving the Steelers their first-ever postseason win, 13-7.
Although Pittsburgh lost the following week to Miami, “The Immaculate Reception” is still remembered today and became the impetus for the Steelers dynasty.
Pittsburgh Is Super Bowl Bound
In 1973, Pittsburgh went 10-4 and lost in the Divisional round to Oakland while Blount had four picks and two fumble recoveries.
Realizing they were still a few players away, the Pittsburgh front office had a draft for the ages in 1974.
As a bonus, Donnie Shell was brought in as an undrafted free agent to play in the secondary with Blount.
“The Steel Curtain” defense became almost impenetrable, and Blount grabbed two interceptions (one was returned for a pick-six) and three fumble recoveries.
After Pittsburgh won 10 games, they demolished Buffalo and beat the Raiders in the postseason.
For the first time in history, the Steelers were headed to the Super Bowl.
° SUPER BOWL IX °#Steelers down Vikings at chilly Tulane Stadium for their first SB title, 16-6.
• Steel Curtain: SB records 119 total yards and 17 rush yards allowed; first safety in SB history; 5 takeaways
• MVP Franco Harris: then-SB record 158 rushing yds, 1 TD pic.twitter.com/t5MZxUU0G0
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 12, 2022
Their opponent was the Minnesota Vikings, owners of a defense called “The Purple People Eaters.”
Before the contest, Blount called out Minnesota quarterback Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings’ receivers.
“I hope to get a lot of action,” Mel said. “I went the whole season without much action because they didn’t throw to my side that much.”
Unfortunately, the Norse Men couldn’t withstand Blount or the Steelers’ defense, and Pittsburgh prevailed, 16-6 in Super Bowl IX.
Player of the Year
By 1975, Blount was one of the premier shut-down men in the NFL.
He was adept at both zone and man-to-man defense and played “bump-and-run” coverage with the best of them.
“A lot of cornerbacks want to be intimidators,” Steelers tackle Jon Kolb said. “They go through all kinds of things to be intimidating. Mel could just walk out there, look down on the guy and then run side by side with him. That would be intimidating.”
As the 1975 Steelers repeated as the second-ranked defense in the NFL, Blount was unstoppable.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) April 3, 2018
That season, he posted an NFL-best 11 interceptions (still a franchise-best) on the way to winning the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award, receiving a first-team All-Pro designation, and finally being voted to the Pro Bowl.
“I knew I was getting local publicity,” Blount said, “but this (DPOY) is a national award and it makes you feel good about being recognized all over the country. I feel I played just as well the past two or three seasons as I did this year. But to most people those years, I was just another ball player.”
Pittsburgh reached a new team record by winning 12 games and eliminated Baltimore and Oakland in the playoffs.
The Steelers then played a hard-fought Super Bowl X against the Dallas Cowboys and won their second straight title, 21-17.
The “Mel Blount Rule”
In 1976, the Steelers lost in the AFC Championship game to the Raiders.
However, Blount continued to sizzle as he had six interceptions, a caused fumble, and fumble recovery on the way to his second Pro Bowl (where he was named MVP) and the first of four consecutive second-team All-Pro nods.
Realizing that receivers were getting mauled by aggressive defenders such as Blount, the NFL instituted a new rule before the 1977 season.
Called the “Mel Blount Rule,” defensive backs could only harass a receiver within the first five yards of their route.
You know you're a badass when you make them change the rules. Google "Mel Blount Rule" and pay respect to this man. pic.twitter.com/itqslcry4R
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) June 6, 2022
Blount scoffed at the name of the new rule, believing that the league was slighting his coverage abilities.
“When that happened, I took it as an insult,” Blount said in 2021, “as if, okay, ‘so you’re putting this rule in because you think that’s the only way I could play, and that’s gonna slow me down.’”
The entire Pittsburgh defense took offense to the new rule and continued to dominate, although the Steelers lost in the ‘77 Divisional round to Denver.
Blount added six more picks to his career totals in 1977 along with a fumble recovery.
“When they changed the bump-and-run rule, we all had to adjust,” said Blount. “If you’re an athlete, a player, you make the adjustment. You know what the rules are. You play within the rules, and you let your ability take you to whatever it can take you to.”
More Super Bowls
Despite not playing for the world title in 1976 and 1977, the Steelers were not finished dominating the competition and neither was Blount.
“I didn’t want to be second to anyone,” Blount said years later. “I wanted to set the standards for my position.”
In 1978, he had four interceptions and returned to the Pro Bowl.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, set a new franchise record for wins when the team went 14-2.
They got a measure of revenge against Denver for the previous postseason by crushing the Broncos, 33-10, in the Divisional round.
The following week, the Steelers humiliated Houston 34-5.
During Super Bowl XIII, the Dallas Cowboys were giving Pittsburgh fits, just as they had a few years earlier in Super Bowl X.
OTD 1979 your Pittsburgh Steelers win Super Bowl XIII 35-31 over the Dallas Cowboys. The game featured 17 future Hall of Fame players (10 Steelers). Pittsburgh became the first team to win three Super Bowls and cemented themselves as Team of the Decade!!!! pic.twitter.com/ybAatlOlnH
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) January 21, 2022
However, a timely interception by Blount in the second quarter gave the ball back to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers scored a touchdown to lead 21-14 at halftime.
Pittsburgh’s lead eventually grew to 35-17 by the middle of the fourth quarter before Dallas closed the gap with two touchdowns before the final whistle.
The Steelers’ 35-31 win gave the team three Super Bowl victories in five years.
They returned to the game one year later after a 12-4 regular season and victories against Miami and Houston in the playoffs.
Blount had three picks and a fumble recovery in 1979 and went to his fourth Pro Bowl.
During the AFC Championship game against the Oilers, Blount recovered a fumble that led to a Pittsburgh touchdown.
OTD 1980 Pittsburgh defeated the LA Rams 30-19 to win Super Bowl XIV. That’s four in six years!!!! pic.twitter.com/kevyLDEHJ5
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) January 20, 2021
In Super Bowl XIV, the Steel Curtain was too much for the LA Rams as the once-hapless Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl, 31-19.
Blount Continues to Dominate
After 1979, the Steelers would not appear in another Super Bowl until the mid-1990s.
However, Blount continued to remain steady and harassed many a receiver.
In 1980, he collected four interceptions and a fumble recovery, and he added six interceptions (including his second career pick-six) in 1981.
Blount’s stats in ‘81 led to his second first-team All-Pro nod and a fifth Pro Bowl selection.
“Size, speed, quickness, toughness — that’s what Mel had,” former Steelers quarterback Terry Hanratty said. “If you gave Blount free rein to hit you, you were in trouble because, if he missed, he had the speed to catch up. A lot of receivers got short arms when they were in Mel’s territory.”
After a one-interception season in 1982, Blount had four in 1983 along with one fumble return for a score.
When the ‘83 season concluded, Blount retired from professional football.
In his career, Blount had 57 interceptions for 736 return yards and two touchdowns. He also had three forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries, including two returned for scores, and was credited with a half sack.
Mel Blount is one of the 7 cornerbacks selected to the #NFL100 All-Time Team!
🏈 2x All-Pro, 5x Pro Bowl selection
🏈 1975 Defensive Player of the Year
🏈 4x Super Bowl Champion
🏈 Career: 57 INT pic.twitter.com/nGCZ4c7Nqy
— NFL (@NFL) December 7, 2019
He was a four-time Super Bowl winner, NFL Defensive Player of the Year, league interception leader once, two-time first-team All-Pro, four-time second-team All-Pro, and a five-time Pro Bowler.
Additionally, Blount was named to the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team, 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, the Steelers’ All-Time Team and Hall of Honor, and the Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame.
After retiring, Blount worked for the NFL as Director of Player relations for seven years.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989 and was later elected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Black College Football Hall of Fame.
Before the HOF Induction Ceremony took our annual Steeler photo. I’m with Mel Blount, Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson, Lynn Swann, Joe Greene, and Kevin Greene. Quite a crew. pic.twitter.com/NWmRAQSGnd
— Tony Dungy (@TonyDungy) August 3, 2019
When Blount was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, several former Steelers teammates were already there to join him and sing Blount’s praises.
“When you create a cornerback, the mold is Mel Blount,” former Steelers linebacker Jack Ham marveled. “I played in a lot of Pro Bowls. I never saw a cornerback like him. He was the most incredible athlete I have ever seen. With Mel, you could take one wide receiver and just write him off. He could handle anybody in the league.”
Blount has spent the past several decades involved in charity work and running his Mel Blount Youth Homes.
The homes act as shelters for children in abusive environments. There are two located in Georgia and Pennsylvania.
Although the work at the youth centers can be difficult, Blount enjoys what he does.
“You wake up thinking your day is going to go one way, and it always turns out different,” he said. “But working just gives me purpose.”
Blount is married with seven children, and his legacy as one of the best corners in NFL history is secured.
“You know how people say, ‘I wonder if so-and-so could play in the NFL today,'” said Dwayne Woodruff, a former Steelers cornerback. “Mel could play in the NFL today. And he could play in the NFL tomorrow.”